Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn-addicts: a defence of growth, technology, industry and stuff

Book Summary:

At base, the book is a defence of industrial civilisation, scientific and techno- logical progress, and economic growth. Each chapter counters one of a series of common arguments regarding limits to growth, carrying capacity, natural balance, anti-consumerism, local and organic food production, genetic modification, large- scale infrastructure, nuclear power and the notion of a ‘metabolic rift’ between urban and rural.

Title: Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn-addicts: a defence of growth, technology, industry and stuff
Author: Leigh Phillips

Preface

It is my hope that my arguments can assist in the revival of a pro-industrial, pro- growth left; that they might help galvanise those who are frustrated with the pre- dominance of hair-shirted, anti-development greenery. I am convinced that our greatest hope in combatting a scale of climate change that significantly inhibits human flourishing lies in a turn away from a neoliberal emphasis on market-based mechanisms; ecological austerity; privatisation; localism; and regressive consump- tion taxes—but above all, away from Malthusianism, misanthropy and anti- modernism; and a turn toward a renewed enthusiasm for public-sector-led large- scale infrastructure; expansion of access to abundant, cheap energy; and an open- ended, steady raising of everyone’s standard of living. Our best hope is for humans to keep getting happier, healthier, and yes, wealthier—but also more equal. A renewed, modernist left is best placed to deliver this.


The Apocalypse Is Bigger than Justin Bieber

The anti-consumerist, anti-growth argument has only extended itself since those heady street-fighting days. Great sections of the ‘horizontalist’ left have fallen under the sway of such deep- ecology thinkers as Derrick Jensen and Paul Kingsnorth who argue that industrial civilisation must be dismantled to varying degrees if we are to save the planet. The reality of climate change now requires that we overcome some of our most cherished ideas, says ‘degrowth’ guru Naomi Klein, writing in The Nation magazine: “These are profoundly challenging revelations for all of us raised on Enlightenment ideals of progress, unaccustomed to having our ambitions confined by natural boundaries.

Rather, what unites all these thinkers—and what I want to con- test—is the idea that we have gone too far, that there are natural limits to human flourishing beyond which we can never cross.


Austerity Ecology

The campaign against economic growth and overconsumption should have no place on the left. While its current austerity- ecology incarnation appears to many progressives as a fresh, new argument fit for the Anthropocene, it is in fact the descen- dent of a very old, dark and Malthusian set of ideas that the left historically did battle with. It is not that our species does not face profound environmental problems.

Indeed, it is precisely because human society confronts such genuine ecological threats that the focus must be on the real systemic gremlins responsible for our predicament, not growth, let alone progress, industry or even civilisation itself. Quite the opposite of all this misanthropy is what is imper- ative. There will need to be more growth, more progress, more industry and, above all, we will need to become more civilized, if we are to solve the global biocrisis.

Naomi Klein concludes then on the basis of these two premises—that the required emissions reductions are colossal and the existing strategies for reductions aren’t working—that the only remaining option with proven effectiveness is steep economic contraction.

The first point I really want to underscore here is that one cannot in one breath rage against the imposition of economic aus- terity—the series of radical cuts to social programmes and de- pression of wages imposed by most Western governments in the wake of the global economic crisis—while arguing against eco- nomic growth. Austerity and ‘degrowth’ are mathematically and socially identical. They are the same thing. What green degrowth partisans are actually calling for is eco-austerity.

From 1990 to 2009, labour’s share of national income declined in 26 out of 30 developed economies for which this data is available, according to the OECD. Overall across the advanced economies, labour’s share dropped from 66.1 percent to 61.7 percent. Meanwhile the depth of this decline in developing countries is even more pro- nounced, according to the ILO, with steep falls in Asia and North Africa and stable but still declining shares in Latin America. It’s even happening in China. So Klein’s call to roll back “our” standard of living to the 1970s is simply, egregiously, ahistorical. The truth is that for most peo- ple, we never really left the seventies.

It should be noted here that some radical green activists such as Derrick Jensen do however recognize this dissonance between calling for decreased consumption and opposing austerity. Going further than Klein is willing to, they do not shy away from actually embracing economic crisis and its accompanying social fall-out, or they complain that any time union members fight for higher wages, they are mounting a defence of their privilege and waging war against the planet because they will now be able to consume more. Openly favouring other organisms over humans, they argue that a reduction in living standards, contra the historic position of trade unions, is simply the price that must be paid by our one species for the sake of the rest of the biosphere.

This new paradigm of rejecting growth and embracing limits is also by definition a rejection of progress. It is to say: this much and no more. Or, more precisely, that we can expand but only in non-material forms. Klein, for example, emphasises that her prescription is “selective degrowth,” which she clarifies in a 2014 interview with the New York Indypendent newspaper: “There are parts of our economy that we want to expand that have a min- imal environmental impact, such as the care-giving professions, education, the arts. Expanding those sectors creates jobs, well- being and more equal societies.” But the material side of the economy—the “extractivist” side, in Klein’s words—has to shrink.

All this voluntary-simplicity, simple-living rhetoric sounds lovely, warm and fuzzy. I’m certainly feeling the feels when I read plaintive yearnings in popular environmentalist magazines like Orion or Grist about building community, or overhear the kale- wranglers and turnip-whisperers at my local farmers’ market pin- ing for a society where we are more neighbourly and devote more time to friends and family, art, poetry and music. But all this sort of “embracing other, less material ways of well-being” ignores that you can’t make music without instruments or write poetry without ink and paper, and instruments and paper can’t be made without raw materials that need to be chopped down or mined. A whistle is made of tin and a trumpet made of brass. This argu- ment (or mood, really; it’s less an argument than a sentiment) also forgets that it is increased productivity through techno- logical advance (combined with trade union organising) that gives us more free time that would allow us to be more neigh- bourly and community-oriented. So this immateriality of “other kinds of growth,” of “selective degrowth,” is a fantasy. While we can steadily dematerialise production via technological inno- vation, and though knowledge itself is certainly immaterial, knowledge will always be linked to the material, both in its ori- gins and its products. New knowledge depends on old tech- nologies, old stuff, and gives rise to new technologies, to new stuff.

Put another way, if we had the egalitarian system that these leftists (and I) want, and if population continued to grow but economic output did not, then there would be an ever- diminishing standard of living as the per capita output shrank. Economic growth must keep pace with population growth. So ei- ther the Malthusians are correct and overpopulation is a prob- lem, or overpopulation is not a problem, but then neither are overconsumption and growth.

Relatedly, for all his deep misanthropy, the primitivist Jensen with his wish for us to return to hunter-gatherer society is at least consistent here compared to zero-growth advocates that pick some other era. If progress and growth are the problem, then we must return to a time when there was no growth or progress, not pick some random period due to aesthetic affinity. There was still progress and growth prior to the Industrial Revolution, and be- fore the Enlightenment, and before the Renaissance, and in the Middle Ages or Tang Dynasty China, and in Ancient Rome and in Mesopotamia. Of all the flavours of degrowthism, only Jensen and Zerzan come the closest to consistency when they look to primitive society, noting that for the bulk of our existence, we were pretty much a zero-growth society: the roughly 178,000 years between the emergence of anatomically modern homo sapi- ens in Africa some 200,000 years ago, and the rise of sedentary agriculture, also known as the Neolithic Revolution, that began an estimated 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent.

American Indian ethnohistorian David Rich Lewis gives a convincing history of the invention of the modern equivalent of the Noble Savage, the trope of ‘Ecological Indian’, tracing it through 60s counterculture, the Crying Indian of the 1970s’ ‘Keep America Beautiful’ advertising campaigns, a script writer’s creation of a fictional speech by Chief Seattle, right up to Disney’s Pocahontas cartoon and Kevin Costner’s white-saviour epic, Dances With Wolves.

Lewis goes on to recount the scholarly consensus that far from encountering a pristine wilderness when Columbus arrived in the New World, he and his fellow butchers that came after found extensively anthropogenic landscapes. Native peoples locally overhunted a number of extant species such as seal, sea lion, musk oxen and caribou; as aquaculturalists were “deadly effi- cient” in their construction of weirs and dams; and created vast trails and roads serving extensive trade networks. They built cities, terraced hillsides and irrigated fields, shaped the land with intentional fires, and cleared forests, all of which contributed di- rectly to deforestation, soil depletion and erosion. In forgetting all these works, the myth of the Ecological Indian infantilises and denies agency to native peoples, erases civilisations and replaces them with imaginary wildernesses. It too is an act of conquest.

Thus we will have to banish all innovation, imagination, intel- ligence and desire for slightly sweeter figs (or barley or flax or bitter vetch or whatever) if we’re going to be able to ban growth. In which case, progress begins tens of thousands of years earlier than agriculture, with the invention of spears, needles, string, nets, harpoons, snares and fishing tackle. It’s a remarkable thing, but canoes, sailing, knowledge of ocean currents, and even celestial navigation pre-date agriculture. We are marvellous crea- tures. We’ve been doing nothing but innovating for tens of thou- sands of years, perhaps much longer than that. The controlled use of fire pre-dates the existence of our species, likely a dis- covery of our ancestor, homo erectus, 400,000 years ago. So if Jensen and Zerzan and their army of money-wrenching minions were somehow successful in achieving their Glorious Primitivist Revolution, they would have to be ever on their guard against cavemen boffins getting any bright ideas about how to make life easier or more pleasurable.

But The Population Bomb by entomologist Paul Ehrlich, arguing like the Malthus that the Green Revolution had only en- couraged the damned rabbits to produce more of themselves, made a much bigger splash. He predicted in 1968, according to his extrapolations, that an acceleration in the world’s population was certain to produce global food shortages that would result in as many as four billion dead over the course of the 1980s.

What happened? All other things being equal, Ehrlich’s mod- els should have been right. But all other things didn’t stay equal. Firstly, the techniques of the Green Revolution were spread still further afield. But much more importantly, by the end of the 20th Century, almost all developed countries had seen a sharp drop in fertility rates as the result of the spread of effective birth control, but also as a result of economic development (growth!), education and the lower infant mortality that came with better healthcare. According to the predictions, lower infant mortality was supposed to add to the population burden. Instead, as fami- lies now could be pretty assured that all their offspring would survive childhood, there was no need to have as many children. Contra Malthus, who believed that an improved standard of liv- ing, greater means, would result in a larger number of offspring, the opposite is quite demonstrably the case.


To Infinity and Beyond! (Or: The Myth of Carrying Capacity) 

And what is the core erroneous assumption made not just by the Limits to Growth modellers, but all partisans of the politics of limits? Applying the concept of carrying capacity to humanity.

Unlike other organisms, who have instinct but no society, we can alter our social relations, indeed our whole political econ- omy, completely transforming how we use the planet’s re- sources. Our rate of consumption is malleable, dependent in part on something that is absolutely changeable: our relations of production. To treat humans as no different from hamsters or bacteria is to forget all of social science, all of history, politics and eco- nomics. To forget what makes humans different from the rest of nature. But we can also alter our consumption patterns radically in a second way that no other species can: we can invent new tech- nologies. We are constantly transforming the forces of production²⁰ as well. If through technological change, we can use half an ingot of steel to produce a widget instead of a whole ingot of steel, we can alter our rate of consumption of resources. Other organisms can only alter their consumption of resources by speciating—that is, becoming another organism.

Similarly, while the trend of diminishing resource use per unit of production over time—a phenomenon known as ‘decou- pling’—is very real (and more on this shortly), it is not true at all times for all commodities or always at sustainable rates, thus decisions inadvertently leading to polluting overproduction con- tinue to happen.

To put it another way:
• The capitalist says: There may or may not be resource lim- its, but don’t worry about them! Innovation will come along in time! Full steam ahead!
• The green lefty says: Innovation can’t save us! There’s an upper limit to what humans can have / an upper limit on the number of humans. Slam on the breaks!
• The socialist says: Through rational, democratic planning, let’s make sure that the innovation arrives so that we can move forward without inadvertently overproducing. And move forward we must, in order to continue to expand human flourishing. So long as we do that, there are in prin- ciple no limits. Let’s take over the machine, not turn it off!

Moving beyond the highly problematic Limits to Growth methodology, in 2009, a group of some two dozen earth system scientists proposed a new framework of hard ecological limits, this time termed “planetary boundaries,” in which the researchers attempted to comprehensively track every aspect of humanity’s transformation of the environment, from climate change to biodiversity loss, in an evidence-based man- ner. They wanted to establish an easily understandable guide to what was left of an optimum “safe operating space for human- ity.” Beyond these boundaries, the researchers said, there is a risk of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change” that would make the planet significantly less habitable for humans.

The researchers, led by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Re- silience Centre and Will Steffen of the Australian National Univ- ersity, and including former NASA climate scientist James Hansen and Paul Crutzen—the atmospheric chemist and origi- nator of the term ‘Anthropocene’—identified nine such bound- aries. Beyond climate change, these are ocean acidification, ozone depletion, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycle (the ‘bio- geochemical boundary’), freshwater use, land use, atmospheric aerosols and the ‘toxics’ boundary—meaning persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, plastics and radionuclides. “Transgressing one or more planetary boundaries may be deleterious or even catastrophic due to the risk of crossing thresholds that will trigger non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental- to planetary-scale systems,” the re- searchers warned.

Thus many who find the report useful overall argue that these ‘boundary’ points should not be written in stone, but viewed as a heuristic. “Ever since early humans discovered fire and the bene- fits of collaborative systems such as collective hunting and so- cial learning, human systems, not the classic biophysical limits that still constrain other species, have set the wider envelope for human population growth and prosperity,” argues ecologist Erle Ellis, who absolutely accepts the reality of climate change and other anthropogenic despoliation of ecosystems, but criticizes a Malthusian reading of Rockstrom’s report. “It was not planetary boundaries, but human system boundaries that constrained human development in the Holocene, the geological epoch that we have just left. We should expect no less in the Anthropocene.”

Both the Pollyannas and the Cassandras are wrong, and both stand in the way of social justice, the former by condemning us all to catastrophic climate change and the loss of other vital ecosystem services for the sake of profit; the latter by con- demning us all to a hair-shirted existence and refusal of further human development due to a romantic, unscientific belief in a static, unchanging balance of nature.


The Great Primordial Flatulence of Doom

One of the most important popular concepts that we do have to ditch is the idea that there is some natural balance that mankind is intruding upon as a result of our growth. Ecosystems aren’t static, only being pushed out of equilibrium by dastardly hu- mans. The reality is that they are in constant flux, punctuated by brief periods of equilibrium. What is evolution, but a process of constant and sometimes sweeping change? A fascinating demonstration of this is the little-known story of the Great Oxy- genation Event, one of the most monumental cataclysms life on Earth has ever known. Yet at the same time, if it weren’t for this holocaust some 2.3 billion years ago, which has been described as the most catastrophic event in the history of cellular life²⁹, hu- mans and most other complex life on the planet wouldn’t exist.

However, the disaster, which makes anthropogenic global warming appear as an amateur dramatic society production by comparison, also takes the name of the Oxygen Revolution be- cause it accelerated evolution, forcing tremendous changes in metabolism. Most of the organisms that survived were now en- dowed with a radically increased free energy supply. This energy- harvesting bounty led to an explosion in more complex organ- isms, including eventually multicellular life. Fossil evidence sug- gests that the emergence of mitochondria, the engine room of the cell, evolved around this time.

The extinction of almost all life at this point was the precondition of everything that came after. All life on Earth today can trace its family tree back to the handful of bacteria to survive the tribulations of the Great Oxygenation Event. Likewise, the most recent mass extinction, the Cretaceous– Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event (the artist formerly known as the KT Boundary Event), when a giant comet or asteroid some 10 km across hit the Earth, is famous for killing off Dino, Barney and the rest of the non-avian dinosaurs. But it also eradicated 75 percent of all plants and animals, opening up ecological niches for other species, and leading to an astounding diversification of mammals in particular. We would not be here if it were not for these and other previous ecological apocalypses.

If for a moment we try to be more objective, or ‘biocentric’, and forget about what was most optimal for our species, but rather try to think about what is optimal for life itself—to aban- don our ‘anthropocentrism’, as the deep ecologists would recommend—then can we genuinely say that aerobic life is supe- rior to anaerobic life? Are horses better than t-rexes? Clearly, the words ‘better’ or ‘superior’ are meaningless here. All we can say is that the different organisms are, well, different. More complex, certainly, but that is something we as humans care about. The rest of life is indifferent to its level of complexity.

Yet if life is so extremely robust (with us likely soon finding whether this is true even beyond the Earth), and if life itself cares not a jot which species live and which species die, then when we say that we are horrified by the idea of a Weed Revolution, then this is, counter-intuitively, in fact an anthropocentric assessment, not a biocentric or ecocentric one, which we are making solely on the basis of utility to humans. The biocentric viewpoint should not care about the weedification of life. The fossil record suggests that in the wake of any extinction event, weedy species proliferate, with life re-diversifying after about five to ten million years. So this has happened before, yet life keeps on keepin’ on, blithely aloof about the level of biodiversity.

Concerns about biodiversity are in fact anthropocentric con- cerns. We should care when species go extinct not because of their intrinsic worth, as Kingsnorth suggests, but because the loss of species means a decline in the effectiveness of the ser- vices that living systems provide to humans, such as filtering of air and water, fixing of nitrogen, cycling of carbon, prevention of floods, and pollination of crops. (As we learn more about how the advanced cognitive capabilities of some animals, such as the Great Apes, cetaceans [whales and dolphins] and elephants, are similar to those of young humans, we may decide to begin to see members of these species as having intrinsic worth.

As we saw with the cyanobacteria, even radical, catastrophic environmental alteration cannot be judged to be bad or good outside of its consequences for humans. As Mark Davis, a biol- ogist and leading critic of the current war on invasive species, says, “There isn’t such a thing as a healthy ecosystem or a sick ecosystem. Ecosystems are just out there. There’s no particular goal or purpose. They’re just the species and the physical and chemical processes taking place.”

It might seem strange to say this as a nature lover, but from all this, it follows ineluctably that it is only through appreciation of hu- mans that there can be an appreciation of the rest of nature. We care about nature because we care about ourselves and our de- sires. Prior to the advent of humans, nature was indifferent to the particular form that it took. So to wish for an end to humanity so that the rest of nature can thrive is not merely vile, but nonsensical.³³ Life does not care whether we are here or not. Only we do. Thus in any discussion of climate change, pollution and biodi- versity loss, the goal cannot be maintaining pristine nature or some mythical natural ecosystem balance, but instead main- taining an ecosystem that is optimal for humans.

Or, to put it even more bluntly, the goal can only be to max- imise human flourishing. Maintaining a certain average global temperature, i.e. the sort of temperature that permitted unprece- dented human flourishing in the Holocene—the warm geological epoch that has existed since the end of the last ice age—is thus simply instrumental toward the central goal (ever greater human flourishing), and not an end in itself.

In a similar vein, in an essay critiquing agro-ecological farming— an alternative agriculture movement that attempts to design farming systems that ‘mimic nature’—agronomist Andrew McGuire argues that if there is such a thing as nature’s wisdom at all, it occurs only as the result of evolution’s optimisation of species to their ecological niche, not the optimisation of ecosys- tems, and as a result, we should not be afraid of improving on nature. If what we see in natural ecosystems is not optimized, but ran- dom (stochastic, say the ecologists), we should be able to do just as well or better. We can, with ingenuity, wisdom, and a good dose of humility, purposefully assemble systems that outperform natural ecosystems in providing both products and ecosystem services… By taking advantage of individual species’ properties and processes, and by managing abiotic conditions (soil physical and chemical properties and water levels, etc.) we can create designer agro-ecosystems, successful by criteria that matter in agriculture; productivity, efficiency, and stability. I propose that this is, in fact, what we have been doing all along … and that the “balance of nature” has only been a distraction from our ef- forts to improve the sustainability of our agriculture, a distrac- tion that should be decisively cast aside.

I’ll go further still, and accuse such vulgar environmentalism of making precisely the mistake that activists accuse industrial civilisation of doing: drawing a false distinction between man and nature, expressed concisely by pioneer environmentalist and social anarchist Murray Bookchin in 1974: “I am trying through ecology to heal the wound that was opened by humanity’s split with nature thousands of years ago.” In one respect, this distinction is obvious and absolutely cor- rect. Humans are radically different from all other organisms. No other animal has our level of cognition, our self-awareness, our capacity for language, technology, art, abstract reasoning, or, of course, fire. We alone can choose our destiny. We alone make history.

But simultaneously, for all our uniqueness within nature, we remain within nature. We are not separate from it. Our skyscrapers are not separate from nature; they are nature, as much as a termite colony’s cathedral mound or a chaffinch nest or a bee hive. As are our iPhones and washing machines and bathyscaphe research submarines that take us to the depths of the Mariana Trench.

When environmentalists remonstrate society for “forgetting where we came from,” for “losing touch with nature,” the re- sponse must be: “Why, in fact it is you who has forgotten what nature is.” It is true that humans are the most dramatic of ecosystem engineers, far more capable of environmental transformation than beavers or worms or corals. But every bit of that dramatic transformation has been done by nature to herself. If cyanobac- teria oxygen flatulence is natural, how less so are BP oil spills? Of course nature is now in the process of considering whether what she has done is very sensible, whether oil spills should be prevented by bring an end to the era of fossil fuels. Nature is publishing articles in academic climate-change journals and chaining herself to logging trucks and debating with herself whether to build nuclear power plants or offshore wind farms or both. We are nature, and all that we do to nature is natural.


In Defence of Stuff 

The anti-consumers—an army of tattooed-and-bearded, twelve- dollar-farmers’-market-marmalade-smearing, kale-bothering, lat- ter-day Lady Bracknells—just don’t like the sort of people who like McNuggets. Westwood, Oliver, Klein and the rest of the fin- ger-wag-ging brigade simply do not think these other, lesser con- sumers are making the right, sensible choices. Anti-consumption politics almost always seem to be about somebody else’s wrong, less spiritually rewarding purchases. It is perhaps the pinnacle of conspicuous consumption.

If we think about it, all this should be obvious. Being poor delim- its your life profoundly, cranks up stress and anxiety, induces sleeping disorders, and ultimately provokes a flood of diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, circum- scribing your degrees of freedom in every way. The partisans of degrowth and anti-consumerism will say that of course, we mean after basic needs are met, everything else is a luxury. But what are basic needs? Strictly speaking, if we just think of ourselves as animals, all in essence that humans need to maintain home- ostasis (the optimum, stable conditions for survival) is sufficient clothing and shelter to maintain an average core temperature of 37 degrees Celsius, around 2500 calories per day for men and 2000 calories for women, and about 1.6 litres of fluid per day for women and 2 litres for men. But even in most jails, prisoners re- ceive more than this.

While we are indeed animals, we are also so much more than that, and un- like the rest of nature, our ‘needs’ extend well beyond the mainte- nance of homeostasis; they extend outward indefinitely. We are always working to improve our condition, to increase the degrees of freedom available to each of us. To say that we are always working to increase our wealth seems to be crude or greedy, but upon inspection, it is precisely the same thing. We can see this easily by asking such questions as: Is electric lighting so all school pupils can study at night a basic need or ‘stuff’, a luxury? How about refrigerators that reduce the labour (usually women’s labour at that) previously spent having to pur- chase perishable food daily? Running water, central heating, elec- tric irons? What about the washing machine, the device left-wing economist Ha Joon Chang describes as a more important inven- tion than the internet?⁴⁴ Chang writes that: The washing machine, piped gas, running water and all these mundane household technologies enabled women to enter the labour market, which then meant that they had fewer chil- dren, had them later, invested more in each of them, espe- cially female children. That changed their bargaining positions within the household and in wider society, giving women votes and endless changes. It has transformed the way we live.⁴⁵


Locally-Woven Organic Carrot-Pants

Instead of the crude heuristic of ‘food miles’, if we are genuinely concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, we need to make sure we are actually doing good, not just feeling good. That means that we need to base such decisions on full life-cycle assessment (LCA) studies—a method of analysis that takes into account all aspects of the production and distribution of a product. And when we do look at LCAs, for some products, it turns out that yes, indeed, it does make sense to relocalise production, but for many, many other items, the economies of scale involved make the amount of energy employed and thus greenhouse-gas emissions per item far less than an item that is locally produced, despite the thousands of ‘food-miles’.

Geographer Pierre Desrochers and public policy analyst Hi- roko Shimizu describe how agriculture that is local, small-scale, less-technology-intensive—and crucially, by definition, low in productivity—is necessarily more extensive, that is, it uses up much more land for the same amount of food. There is a very simple reason for this. Not every plot of land, with its particular climate, soil type, geology, topography and so on—its terroir, if you will (and I use that term fully aware of the irony of its pres- ence in an essay arguing against localism)—is equally well suited to all types of plant and animal. Specialisation and a division of labour between different regions that are better at growing dif- ferent items is thus a more efficient use of land: you’ll get more calories produced per hectare.⁶⁷ The inverse of this process—disintensification, which local- ism requires—means turning more forest, wetlands and grass- lands into agricultural space, releasing vast quantities of carbon in the immediate term and, in the future, eliminating the carbon sinks that forests would have represented. This process of indi- rect land-use change is essentially why biofuels have proven to be no climate solution.

Interestingly, spatial scientist Jon Fisher recently explored⁷¹ how the latest global data⁷² from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization shows that it “is simply not correct” that agriculture is consuming ever more habitat. Over the past 15 years, the world has decreased the total amount of land used to produce food, even as the global food supply has increased. As a product of this intensification process, significant tracts of agricultural land have returned to forest, more than the reverse process, which of course is a rare bit of good news as far as cli- mate change is concerned. He is very careful to say that it is not all good news. This is the global state of affairs. There are many regions where the opposite process is happening, and not all agricultural intensification is sustainable. “Overall,” he says, “agriculture has a long way to go to become truly sustainable.”

But the important point is that dealing with the many complex problems within agriculture—from erosion to carbon emissions to marine dead zones, depletion of aquifers, and reduction of biodiversity—will require a combination of many complex solu- tions under the rubric of sustainable intensification. By contrast, oversimplified cross-the-board heuristics like ‘buy local’ can be actively harmful.

Yet small businesses are not exempted from the unremitting drive to outcompete rivals. Indeed, again due to economies of scale, large businesses can sometimes be more able to pay high- er wages and offer more substantial benefits than mom-and-pop operations. Sharzer notes how US companies with more than 500 employees pay a third higher wages than smaller firms, and are more likely to provide healthcare coverage. The most vitriolic opposition to efforts to boost the minimum wage in Canada for instance always comes from the Canadian Federation of Inde- pendent Businesses, the small-business lobby group.

Naomi Klein, writing in The Nation⁷⁴, again offers an exemplar: “Another bonus: this type of farming is much more labour inten- sive than industrial agriculture, which means that farming can once again be a substantial source of employment.” Of course intensification of production by making employees work harder and faster for the same pay is obviously not some- thing that progressives would celebrate. This is also an intensi- fication of the rate of exploitation, an extraction of additional sur- plus value. But why would the performance of dull, repetitive tasks by ma- chines be something that we oppose? When new technology makes workers redundant, it is true, they are laid off. And if we wanted to, I suppose we could increase the number of jobs by getting humans to do once again what machines do. We could go back to hand-weaving cloth, milling grain with a mortar and pestle, and printing books by hand-cranked presses. We would see an enormous growth in employment if we went back to the rickshaw. (Urban theorist Mike Davis actually noted in his magisterial 2006 text on urbanisation, Planet of Slums, how while revolutionaries in the early 20th Century denounced the rick- shaw, pulled by a “human animal,” as the ultimate emblem of the degradation of labour and promised its elimination “come the glorious day,” it remains a great employer in much of Asia, with rickshaw pullers numbering 3 million across the continent. The rickshaw sector is the second-largest provider of employ- ment in Dhaka.)

Yet beyond a lamentably vast increase in drudgery, this ig- nores the real reasons why unemployment is a problem. In a just world, the reduction in the amount of human labour required for any task due to technological advance would be a reduction shared equally amongst us all, giving every one of us ever greater free time. The replacement of humans by automatic check-outs at the supermarket is a tragedy for the now unwanted workers who are thrown on the scrap heap, but in an egalitarian world, would we really want more people performing this boring task if can be performed by a machine instead? One of the great argu- ments for socialism has always been that the benefits from in- creased productivity would accrue to everyone, instead of being stored as profits enjoyed solely by the owners of businesses.


Escape from the Innovation Desert

In 2012, US econ- omist Robert Gordon produced a provocative paper suggesting that the last 250-odd years of strong growth and rapid techno- logical advance may have puttered to a halt, that in fact for some three or four decades now, the west has been trapped in an unusually prolonged period of weak rates of investment in new technology and equipment, where the animal spirits of capitalism no longer seem to be pushing the productive forces forward. We forget that the enabling technology of the internet was actually developed in the late 60s to early 70s, and the case is the same for the mobile phone, and even genetic recombi- nation was a Disco-era breakthrough. There has been very little that’s genuinely new since, as opposed to the much more banal repeated iterations of gadget improvement. Economist Tyler Cowen makes a similar argument about this generation-long innovation desert in his influential 2011 essay “The Great Stag- nation.” Cowen argues that there’s a simple reason for this: we’ve picked all the low-hanging technological fruit.

What is interesting here is that for the right and centre, this mysterious slow-down in innovation is a source of great con- cern. And so the solutions presented usually revolve around tax incentives or subsidies, tweaking the patent system and strength- ening intellectual property protection, deregulation, or yet an- other excuse to ‘liberalise the labour market’. Meanwhile, the left seems hardly to have noticed this at all. In her superb 2013 book, The Entrepreneurial State, Amer- ican neo-Keynesian economist Mariana Mazzucato carefully and empirically shows how the private sector is in fact a timid, conservative economic actor in comparison to the state. The public sector, she demonstrates, does not just provide the bulk of research, development and commercialisation funding, but has always been the leading force behind the ‘mission-oriented’ introduction of the most radically innovative new technologies, from the mass production system, through aviation and compu- tation, to biotechnology, satellites and space exploration, and now low-carbon energy and dematerialisation. Microchips, the internet, GPS, mobile communication, even touchscreen tech- nology and Siri? All government funded. Almost 75 percent of all genuinely innovative new drugs, as opposed to ‘me too’ drugs

The crucial change that occurred during the Gold- en Quarter (1945-71) was the decommodification that happened over the postwar period. That is, public-sector products, services, re- search, were not developed for their exchange value (for the most part), but for their utility to society, their use value. Today, even public services must embrace an entrepreneurial spirit, show a profit, show a healthy return on investment and so on. There has been a recommodification of what had been decom- modified.

But neoliberalism has also seen a steady financialisation of the economy as well. GM and Ford don’t make cars anymore; they’re financial institutions. This means it is a safer bet to make money from financial inno- vation than from actually taking the risk of building stuff. All this means that both sides of the economy—public and private sec- tors—are structurally inhibited from engaging in radical inno- vation as a result of neoliberalism.

Once upon a time, the left promised that socialism could pro- vide a better future than capitalism, not merely due to the elimi- nation of inequality and crisis, but also because a planned econ- omy could materially outperform an unplanned one. The set of products and services that are profitable is much smaller than the set of products and services that are useful to humanity. That is, we promised more innovation, faster progress, greater abun- dance. One of the reasons I believe that the historically fringe ide- ology of libertarianism is today so surprisingly popular in Silicon Valley and with tech-savvy young people more broadly; with bil- lionaire tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Jimmy Wales; with hackers, whistleblowers and civil liberties campaigners like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Glenn Greenwald; and with members of digital rights NGOs like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Eu- rope’s La Quadrature du Net, is that libertarianism is the only ex- tant ideology that so substantially promises a significantly mate- rially better future.

Let’s remember that the first genuine ‘Keynesian turn’—in form if not by name—initially occurred not after World War Two, but under Mussolini and Hitler. Both fascist governments were able to overcome economic crisis by stimulating aggregate demand through massive invest- ment directed by state agencies and the establishment of exten- sive and generous social programmes. Italy saw the estab- lishment of work creation programmes involving house con- struction, marsh draining and highway, canal, railroad infra- structure roll-out. When private capital was frightened of investing, the state be- came the investor of last resort. The regime also oversaw bank- ing reform and nationalised the Bank of Italy. It also introduced the 40-hour work week, health insurance, paid national holidays, disability and old-age pensions, maternity benefits, and leisure- activity subsidies. State expenditure doubled between 1922 and 1933.

But the point is that Europe had to pass through decades of war, violent class-conflict, revolution and holocaust, for there to be cross-party consensus that mass unemployment, what they believed to be the catalyst of all this strife, was a treacherous menace that had to be avoided despite the not insubstantial cost of the welfare state and high wages. This is where the welfare state came from: Not from enlight- ened social democrats on high, but from grubby conservative elites petrified that if they didn’t do something pretty radical, they would lose everything.

The true revolutionary today is one who speaks of optimism, big, bold ideas, universal values and ambitious, globe-straddling, liberatory projects both technological and political. To stand in opposition to the inadvertent ecological calamity of capitalist unreason is to be, unapologetically, a heavens-storming mod- ernist!


Frankenpolitics 

There is perhaps no greater symbol of contemporary green-left progressives’ retreat from reason, evidence and modernity than the global movement against genetic modification.

The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement tech- niques.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, far from being a case where farmers were coerced into the use of GM, widespread smuggling of corn, wheat, cotton and vegetable seeds forced the government to give up on a completely ineffective ban on the technology. As of 2012, some 90% of the cotton grown in the country came from genet- ically modified seeds, while few farmers pay any royalties. Similar piracy occurs in Brazil. Why? Because of the generous savings accrued from the reduced inputs that are required.

Golden Rice, a variety of rice genetically engineered to be en- riched with beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, was created with the aim of improving the nutrient-density of meals in those areas of the world where rice is all people can afford. After its development by publicly funded researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Freiburg, biotech firm Syngenta subsequently developed a variety that produced 23 times more beta-carotene than the original Golden Rice. It is to be offered to poor farmers royalty-free and farmers may keep the seeds for replanting. Greenpeace opposes its release as it could open the door to wider deployment of GM technology, and the venerable anti-GM campaigner Vandana Shiva argues that in focussing on vitamin A deficiency, the promoters of Golden Rice will prevent the wider, necessary discussion about the causes of malnutrition. Globally, some 10 million children under the age of five die every year—a large number of them from diseases that could be prevented by better nutrition. Arguing that they need to die so that people will wake up to the barbarities of capitalism is itself barbaric.


Who’s Afraid of ‘Big Kit’? 

This development in Antarctica is just one of many possible examples that shows how withdrawing from civilisation would not stop the disaster from arriving. It will require significant ingenuity to engineer a reverse of the processes we have inadvertently set in motion, likely even involving some way to produce a carbon- negative economy for a period. This will involve developing some technologies and processes that we do not really have yet. As yet unimagined new materials to replace steel and concrete are only two innovations amongst the hundreds that we will need. Better battery and energy storage technologies are high on the list as well, not least reducing the heavy carbon footprint of lithium batteries the production of which represents almost half the lifetime carbon emissions of electric cars. All of this will only come from the most advanced research laboratories and facto- ries. By turning its back on the possibility of such technologies, on the very idea of progress, green anti-modernism actually com- mits us to catastrophic climate change.

Sadly, instead of the large-scale, democratically driven, public- sector electrification works that will deliver cheap, reliable, abun- dant power to all communities, development NGOs these days favour micro-energy projects featuring off-grid water-wheels and wooden wind turbines that can produce just enough electricity to light a school house, or do-it-yourself biogas generators and solar food-dehydrators made from beer cans.

But if localist micro-energy projects are not a step- ping stone to the public-sector-orchestrated electrification of the country, and instead an end in themselves, then they are more likely to serve than to challenge elite interests, as they are a re- treat from the historic goal of capturing the state. To deliver on the promise of social justice, we need a high-energy planet, not modesty, humility and simple living. This small-is-beautiful attitude also dove-tails so perfectly with neo-liberal hatred for the public sector. While some micro-energy projects co-operatively developed, elsewhere they are established by micro-enterprises and funded by micro-credit schemes that drive borrowers into debt traps or by remittances home from immigrants in developed nations.

Batteries or storage (both referred to as ‘buffering’ in the trade) significantly reduce the EROEI. But it’s not good enough to just break even. At this point, you just end up back where you started. There has to be a pretty decent return, an EROEI threshold to be able to do the sort of things a society wants to do. A simple agricultural society would need a return of five to one. An advanced society involving healthcare, education and arts and scientific enterprise needs an EROEI of 14 to one. Disconcertingly, a series of EROEI studies appearing in reputable journals in 2013 and 2014 suggests that once all this is taken into account, even with the least energy-intensive form of buffering (pumped hydroelectric), photovoltaic solar clocks in well below this threshold, as do both onshore and offshore wind. In one such EROEI assessment by physicist Daniel Weissbach of Berlin’s Institute for Solid-State Nuclear Physics and his col- leagues, desert solar thermal power just about passes the test, and gas and coal pass it with flying colours (28:1 and 30:1¹²⁶), but it’s hydro and nuclear that come top of the class, with re- spective buffered EROEI scores of 35 to one and 75 to one.

Some 300,000 households a year now are having their power cut off, according to aid organisations, and electricity termi- nation warning notices were issued to 5.7 million households in 2013. Particularly risk-prone are those households with multiple children, the elderly, or those in need of care.¹³⁰ Indeed, the En- ergiewende is in effect a method of transferring wealth from the poor to the better off; renewable energy subsidies redistribute money from the poor to the more affluent, as happens when someone renting an apartment subsidises the landlord’s mount- ing of solar panels on his roof via his electricity bill; and to large multinationals like Siemens, ThyssenKrupp and Volkswagon when they are freed from paying the extra bills in order to keep them internationally competitive. The situation is utterly per- verse.


The Dictatorship of the Expert-Ariat

In a clarifying recent paper on the growing preference in some quarters for what he terms “environmental authoritarianism,” science and technology policy researcher Andy Stirling writes that “democracy is increasingly seen as a ‘failure,’ a ‘luxury,’ or even ‘an enemy of nature’ … So, knowledge itself is increasingly imprinted by the age-old preoccupations of incumbent power with rhetorics of control. It seems there is no alternative but compliance — or irrational denial and existential doom.

But it is long past time that we set aside the idea that global government is a utopian—or dystopian—fantasy. Or critique it from a small-is-beautiful standpoint little different to the anti- globalisation perspective of nationalists and New World Order conspiracists. It’s already happening, and we do need it desper- ately to deal with the global scale of problems we now face. Global government is here. We need to make it democratic.


There Is No ‘Metabolic Rift’ 

The most immediate bifurcation, paralleling the debate of whether we need to dial back to pre-war, pre-industrial or pre- agricultural times, is between the advocates of a downscaling of developed economies while letting developing countries to ad- vance to a ‘Western standard of living’¹⁵⁷; and those that say that even developing countries need to scale back.

Latouche is unapologetic. Guatemala, Somalia and Congo- Brazzaville in his mind are also too advanced. “Degrowth must apply to the South as much as to the North if there is to be any chance to stop Southern societies from rushing up the blind alley of growth economics. Where there is still time, they should aim not for development but for disentanglement … If the South is to attempt to create non-growth societies, it must rethink and relocalise.”

“Insisting on growth in the South, as though it were the only way out of the misery that growth created, can only lead to fur- ther westernisation,” he continues, playing the anti-colonialist card. “Development proposals are often born of genuine good- will – we want to build schools and health clinics, set up water distribution systems, restore self-sufficiency in food – but they all share the ethnocentrism bound up with the idea of development.”¹⁵⁸ Clearly, there is a great deal to criticise about neoliberal devel- opment models and the resurrection of the White Man’s Burden in NGO drag, but really, do visit Sierra Leone or Liberia or Guinea and ask locals whether the construction of public health infrastructure and development of domestic human resources sufficient to be able to identify, track and isolate those suspected of being infected with Ebola—the bare minimum necessary to begin to contain the 2014 outbreak—would be neo-colonial or a miracle.

The global economic crisis of 2008 has presented something of an awkward problem for some degrowthists, as what they were calling for actually began to happen, and it doesn’t look pretty, particularly in the US and EU. Both Tim Jackson and Joan Martinez-Alier, of the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, both leading degrowth theorists, have pulled back and said that, at least for now, for a short period a Green New Deal-style stim- ulus package would be welcome. But they recognise the contra- diction with this moderation and their fundamental critique of growth.

What leaps out immediately, regardless of which degree of de- growthist asceticism is preferred, is that all positions seem to be pulled out of thin air, without any empirical grounding. Why a third rather than a half? What is the ‘appropriate’ level of devel- opment? If developing countries can grow to ‘our’ level, what is so special about the Western level of development [sic] in 2014? Why not, say, a Norwegian standard of living circa 1983? Or if even Ethiopia is over-developed, is Vanuatu over-developed too?

Other debates include whether degrowthists need to actively work toward winning society to a degrowth perspective or, as the Worldwatch Institute’s Erik Assadourian, suggests, as a result of what he believes to be the finitude of the Earth’s resources, they just have to sit back and wait for Peak Oil or Peak Water or Peak Phosphorus or just Peak Everything to do all the heavy lifting for us, with degrowth the inevitable result of hitting such walls. Degrowth is inevitable, whether we want it or not, he says. A more interesting discussion, at least for leftists, is over whether degrowth is achievable under capitalism, or whether de- growth requires capitalism’s overthrow. Given the popularity of the critique of economic growth even at the top of society by such figures as Prince Charles and the Club of Rome, clearly there are many who believe we can indeed keep the free market and a steady-state economy. We can have this much capitalism, but no more. A great many environ- mentalists critique economic growth but only a tiny number are anti-capitalist, preferring instead a sort of small-scale steady- state capitalism, a non-growing, Proudhonian, localist paradise of shopkeepers and farmers. Latouche, for his part, argues that eco-compatible capitalism is conceivable with high levels of regulation to bring down the ‘ecological footprint’.

To be fair, there are many mainstream Green groups whose leaderships do not accept the degrowth thesis, saying that with the right regulation and incentives, the global can achieve green growth via a dematerialisation of production, using fewer and fewer resources per unit produced—a process known as ‘decou- pling’.

But Jackson stresses the importance of distinguishing between relative and absolute decoupling. And it is crucial here to under- stand what comes next: even as material throughput has de- clined per unit of production—that is, we use steadily less raw material and energy per widget produced—overall, production has increased to such an extent that in absolute terms, more raw materials and energy are consumed. This is the phenomenon of the Jevons Paradox, or rebound ef- fect, first discovered by English economist William Stanley Jevons in 1865: that with technological advance, resource effi- ciency gains tend overall to increase rather than decrease con- sumption of that resource. So, as Jackson notes, while global carbon intensity has fallen over the last three decades from roughly one kilogram per dollar of economic activity to around 770 grams per dollar, overall, global CO2 emissions due to en- ergy use have climbed by 40 percent since 1990.

A corollary to this is that while efficiency should still be force- fully pursued, any emissions reduction schemes that depend in large part for their success upon assumptions of massive im- provements in energy efficiency simply won’t work. Instead, the policy emphasis should be on technological innovation, enabling a wholesale shift to carbon-neutral, or relatively carbon neutral electricity production. Once that is achieved, any expansion in absolute energy consumption—the Jevons Paradox—ceases to be a problem as far as global warming is concerned. Some pro-growth advocates, like Roger Pielke Jr., make precisely this argument: that because growing economies tend to become more resource efficient and efficiency allows us to decouple emissions from growth, the best way to reduce carbon emissions is actually to grow the economy. Alongside this, richer economies can better afford the clean technologies that reduce emissions. Indeed, the longer our governments delay appro- priate action on emissions reductions, the more expensive the infrastructural transition to a low-carbon economy will be. Simi- larly on the adaptation front, the wealthier an economy is— particularly in the developing world where some of the most se- vere and earliest climate effects are being felt—the more able it will be to afford the cost of adaptive measures such as building flood defences or commissioning new buildings with a climate resilient design. It has been noted many times how droughts in east Africa threaten the lives of millions while those in Australia kill no one. The difference of course is a mystery to no one: the level of development.

But outside of a ‘zero-waste’ production system—which, like a perpetual motion machine, is physically impossible—this doesn’t work for mate- rial inputs—the second aspect of the anthropogenic biocrisis. The Jevons Paradox shows that efficiency gains in manufacturing (or other material production processes) only mean an inex- orably greater use of material resources. More investigation into the nature and dynamics of such rebound, and whether it changes from industry to industry would be helpful. Never- theless, Jevons appears to be an insurmountable problem under capitalism. However, we can hypothesise that the Jevons Paradox should disappear under the economic planning and absence of the prof- it motive that would exist under some form of socialism. Instead of production and consumption decisions being led by the blind forces of price in the marketplace, they are consciously, democratically decided. One of the fundamental axioms of the socialist worldview is that humans can come up with a superior distribution of goods and services than the market can. This axiom—of which pseudo-anti-capitalists like Naomi Klein, just like neoliberal ideologues, are deeply suspicious—is born of a deeply humanist confidence in the capacity of our species to im- prove upon ‘natural’ processes, to repeatedly breach the barriers placed in our way by the rest of nature.

Instead of next investment or production decision being driv- en blindly by profit seeking, or consumer purchase made con- strained by the need to reduce expenditure, all economic actions occur as the result of rational decision-making on the basis of maximum utility to society. Because this all this is a conscious, planned process and we are no longer beholden to the drive for profit, we would now have the possibility to wait, to hold off for a while until we have sufficient technological innovation to move for- ward in a way that does not damage the environment in a way that delimits the optimum living conditions for humans. We can collectively say: Well, now that we have this new effi- ciency in the production of this commodity, what shall we do with the savings? Shall we increase production? Shall we reduce material use? Shall we increase the overall amount of leisure time available to the labour force? Capitalism is a problem because in the face of environmental spoilage, it must proceed regardless (not because of growth per se!). Any new innovation permitting efficiency gains will be in- vested in the optimum way to produce still more capital, even at the expense of environmental despoilment.

What Foster and friends call the metabolic rift regarding soil fertility¹⁷³, elsewhere is referred to as ‘peak phosphorus’.¹⁷⁴ This Town Mouse/Country Mouse problem is indeed a serious issue that has been investigated by researchers. Phosphorus, like nitro- gen and potassium, is an essential element for living organisms. Without it, life is not possible. It cannot be substituted. It is a component of DNA and RNA, cell membranes and permits cel- lular energy transport. While historically, much human and ani- mal waste was recycled back into agricultural production, less and less is today, with most phosphorus applied back to soil via processed fertilisers, to the point that the joint Australian- Swedish Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI) reckons that the world has around 30 to 40 years left of readily available phosphorus supplies.

Realistically, we are talking about international farm-to-fork-to-faeces governance of phosphorus throughout the entire food production and consumption system, coordinating the agricultural, fertiliser, sanitation and waste sec- tors. Such ‘phosphorus security’ will likely require brand new and society-wide composting infrastructure—far beyond little green boxes in the kitchen and backyard that we have gotten used to in the last few years—that simultaneously prevents the dispersion of bioaerosols that contain fungal spores and bacteria that present a hazard to human health.¹⁷⁷ This is no small en- deavour. But neither is it an impossible feat, even within capi- talism (albeit plainly with a major role, once again, for the public sector and for regulation).


Small Is Not Beautiful 

McKibben, like Klein and the rest, is of course hardly the first to declare bigness to be the root of all evil. They all consciously or unconsciously draw upon the seminal 1973 collection of essays by British economist E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered, assessed by the Times Literary Supplement as the 17th most influential book published since World War Two¹⁷⁹. After a career with the British Coal Board, in 1955, Schumacher visited Burma, working as an advisor to the government. While in the country, he had an epiphany that that he described as ‘Buddhist economics’—a vision of an economy designed placing harmony, community and ecological values at its centre. Core to the philosophy was small-scale, localist, labour-intensive production, self-reliance; and ‘people-centred’, community-scale appropriate technology (originally termed ‘inter- mediate technology’). What does and doesn’t count as appro- priate in the latter concept isn’t always clear, ranging from pico- hydro electricity generation to bike-powered water pumps to herbalist tinctures, animal-powered transport and cob houses— but also LED flashlights and photovoltaic solar panels—but advocates know it when they see it.

It’s often forgotten, but Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto express great admiration for the best of what capitalist dynamism had wrought by the time of their writing in 1848, argu- ing that capitalism, in comparison to all the “slothful indolence” that went before, is a progressive force in the world. No greater paean to capitalism has yet been written by a capitalist: It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyra- mids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has con- ducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unal- tered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of exis- tence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social condi- tions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all which is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his rela- tions with his kind. …The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal produc- tive forces than have all preceding generations together. Sub- jection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, rail- ways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presen- timent that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?

But however admiring, Marx and Engels do not blindly celebrate capitalism. The rest of their oeuvre is devoted to exposing its horrors. Philosopher Steven Shaviro outlines the distinction be- tween the attitude of anti-socialist economist Joseph Schum- peter, who popularised the concept of ‘creative destruction’ so embraced by contemporary captains of finance, and Marx’s posi- tion on capitalist dynamism. Schumpeter and the right say that because our grandchildren will be better off, we should just “suck it up.” Given how dependent the construction of capitalist society has been upon the primitive accumulation of enclosure and clearances of the commons, upon slavery in the United States, upon the genocide of first nations peoples across the America and Australia, upon colonialism in Africa and India, upon the millions ripped apart on assembly lines or suffocated down mineshafts, and upon the hundreds of millions massacred by the bullets, bombs and gas of imperialist war, the gentle phrase ‘creative destruction’ is rather so formidable a eu- phemism as to make Orwell’s Ministry of Love appear ama- teurish. Meanwhile, Shaviro notes, Marx is compassionate to the victims of history, the victims of what French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe as ‘deterritorialization’—the constant radical uprooting of fixity under capitalism—while being “relentlesslessly non-nostalgic.” For Marx, and most socialists after him, there is no going back to the modes of production that went before the current one, which had their own peculiar brutalities of injustice and diabolical scar- city. Instead, the aim must be to “construct a process of ad- vance, but with a managed deterritorialization.”¹⁹⁹ In other words, the point is to take command of this dynamic yet barbaric machine. To retain the vitality of modernity, indeed to unleash its heretofore stifled energies, while doing away with its villainy.

Shouting back to that passage in the Grundrisse, Berman re- minds us that “Marx wants a truly infinite pursuit of wealth for everyone: not wealth in money—the limited bourgeois form— but wealth of desires, of experiences, capacities, sensitivities, of transformations and developments.”²⁰⁰ Socialism, for Berman, will bring forth so much more of modernity’s upheaval: more skyscrapers, more technology, more radical triumphs in art and science and thought, but, crucially, now consciously controlled and democratically organised in the interest of all humanity, in- stead of unleashed blindly and in the service of the rich minority as occurs under the rule of the market.

Today, we can extend such lofty but specific goals to a more generalised principle of audacity: that our species must continue to achieve ever more impressive feats, that we must never stop reach- ing, never stop progressing. We, uniquely in nature, have an infi- nite capacity for ingenuity, what Julian Simon, the libertarian economist and arch-enemy of over-population Cassandra Paul Ehrlich, called the ultimate resource. Theoretical physicist David Deutsch explains how we share this phenomenal, open-ended at- tribute with no other species on Earth: Using knowledge to cause automated physical transfor- mations is, in itself, not unique to humans. It is the basic method by which all organisms keep themselves alive: every cell is a chemical factory. The difference between humans and other species is in what kind of knowledge they can use (ex- planatory instead of rule-of-thumb) and in how they create it (conjecture and criticism of ideas, rather than variation and selection of genes). It is precisely those two differences that explain why every other organism can function only in a cer- tain range of environments that are hospitable to it, while hu- mans transform inhospitable environments like the biosphere into support systems for themselves. And while every other organism is a factory for converting resources of a fixed type into more such organisms, human bodies (including their brains) are factories for transforming anything into anything. They are ‘universal constructors’.²⁰²


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