Radical Ecological Democracy

Searching for alternatives to unsustainable and inequitable model of ‘development’


The Airport project of Notre Dame des Landes is dead! Long live the ZAD!

Maxime Combes and Nicolas Haeringer

Last week, the French government officially withdrew its proposal to build an airport in the wetlands of Notre Dame des Landes (north of the city of Nantes). This huge success comes after more than 50 years of sustained opposition from one of France’s longest environmental mobilizations. It is, however, accompanied by a lesson which should change the way we conceive politics and build alliances: newts can be stronger than concrete. This success was built from and by the ZAD – Zone À Défendre (Zone to Defend), which had occupied the 4000 acres of wetland consigned to destruction for many years, turning it into Europe’s largest open-air utopia and a laboratory of alternative modes of existence.

The struggle isn’t over, though: the government is still considering the possibility of “evicting the most radical elements” of the “ZADist”, i.e. the activists who are occupying the fields, hedgerows, ponds and forests on which the airport was supposed to be built. This would require a police and military operation of an unprecedented scale: at least 350 of them live on the zone, in tree houses, farms, trucks, vans or cabins.

French protesters march on a highway in Le Temple-de-Bretagne during a demonstration against a controversial airport project near Nantes on February 27, 2016. Protesters have been engaged in a 15-year legal battle to block the construction of a major new airport on swampland outside the western city of Nantes. Approved in 2008, the 580-million-euro (747 million USD) project had been due to start in 2014 but has been repeatedly delayed due to fierce opposition by environmental protesters. / AFP / JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD

This decision has nothing to do with Emmanuel Macron’s and his government’s sudden conversion to the idea that climate and environmental factors should lead development decisions in every area. It is first and foremost the victory of the whole movement, which has driven the larger struggle against the airport project: without this long, determinate and creative resistance, the airport would’ve already been built decades ago. As such, it is a historic success, built during a mobilization spreading over half a century, which managed to last because it was expertly articulated and alternated well with associated legal fights, citizen-based counter-expertise, mass mobilizations, solidarity with peasants and trade-unions (including with workers from the aviation sector), legal as well as illegal occupations, sabotage, resistance, prefigurative politics, etc. The opposition against the project started at a time when few believed that growth should have limits and even fewer saw climate change as one of humanity’s biggest challenge to face. Throughout these decades of mobilization, opponents have however not only managed to renew the way they were framing their struggle: they’ve contributed to help us understand better the world we live in and the risks and challenges we face. The occupation of the ZAD by its historical inhabitants and, in the last phase of the struggle (especially after the government tried and failed to evict occupiers in late 2012), by many “external” supporters was a decisive element of the whole struggle: it contributed to a deep shift towards prefigurative politics.

For many years, now, the principle at stake for ZAD has largely exceeded the opposition to the airport project. Opponents to the airport have for long now managed to re-situate the project in “this world” with their slogan, “against the airport and its world” – a world in which the concrete had previously prevailed irretrievably on the lives and desires of newts. The ZAD was never based on a “not in my backyard” vision of politics. Pretty much the opposite: the ZAD is built on the desire to widen perspectives, to question the foundations of the decision to build a new airport, rather than to focus only on the choice of its potential location.

Inhabitants of the ZAD are involved in a long-term experiment on how politics faced with similar disasters in the future could look like. They do so by creating new articulations between the local and the global. By doing so, they open new perspectives on what politics should look like in the age of catastrophic climate change. Thinking about the causes, about the consequences and reflecting on the alternatives of global warming, of the extinction of species, of the harm that we have collectively and historically done to this world anchored in concrete territories, rooted in the mud, rather than from global and overhanging positions and theories: this could be the new frontier of politics.

The ZAD of Notre Dame des Landes then appears, in its fragile beauty, in its errors, its stuttering, in its beginnings as well as in its achievements, in its loose yet powerful architecture, in its permanent adjustments, as a splendid place. It has become a unique territory from which to think what it means to live together at the time of catastrophes; to imagine and create new forms of associations between human and nonhuman beings; to completely review the hierarchy of causes and consequences and to find ways to take into account the integrity of non-speech-bearing living beings.

Opponents of the Notre Dame des Landes airport project have constantly tried to provide answers to this challenge by listing all the species threatened by the project, highlighting the incredible power imbalance between concrete and newts and creating subtle arrangements between the different uses (and different users, human beings as well as nonhuman beings) of the ZAD. They managed to build alliances with all the inhabitants of this wetland – animals, mushrooms, birds, peasants, squatters. On the ZAD, nature no longer appears as a neutral space, which elected officials can decide to develop as they want – and which it would be possible to reconstruct a few kilometers further, through biodiversity compensation; nor is it an external element that activists can defend from an external standing position – a slip that so superbly reflects the slogan “we do not defend nature, we are the nature that defends itself”.

From the ZAD, people invent and experiment, trying to figure out answers to questions as essential for our common future as: how to live, how to think, how to love, how to confront, how to build, how to destroy, how to dream, how to try and fail, how to grope around in the dark, how to make society? In short: how to remain (or become) human (again) in a world that is getting closer and closer to chaos? Going for a walk on the ZAD, swimming in one of its ponds or lakes, sleeping there, loving, dreaming, cultivating a field, raising children, being a baker, milking cow, are a strong acts of prefiguration – of what a future free of the dystopian horizon we are approaching far too fast could look like. Spoiler alert: it looks beautiful and fun – and it works.

There are few examples of struggles that have managed to connect strategies of resistance, non-cooperation and prefiguration – and very few of them have lasted more than a couple of months. In Notre Dame des Landes, activists have boarded for the long haul. Now that the airport project has been stowed where it belongs – in the past –  it is now essential to defend the ZAD, more than ever.

Maxime Combes is an economist and a member of Attac France. He is also the author of Sortons de l’âge des fossiles, Manifeste pour la transition, éd. Seuil, coll. Anthropocène.

Nicolas Haeringer is a Climate activist, campaigner for 350.org, & author of “Zéro fossile: désinvestir du charbon, du gaz et du pétrole pour sauver le climat” (Les Petits Matins, 2015)

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