17th World Congress of the IUAES, Capitalism, Climate Change, Consumerism, Ecological Overshoot, Economic Collapse, Environmental Collapse, Gross Inequality, Peak Oil, Poverty, Social Unrest, The Socio-Ecological Crisis
For my own records and for your curious minds, I’m posting some abstracts on papers that were written for an upcoming symposium called the 17th World Congress of the IUAES (Manchester, UK; 5th-10th August 2013). Many of these papers sound very interesting:
That Big Slow Curve: Fossil Fuel Based Growth meets A Prosperous Way Down
Author: Thomas Abel (Tzu Chi University) email
This century and the last may someday be called the Oil Years. Many who view our human economies in biophysical terms have come to conceive the peak of oil production as a turning point for peoples of the world. For the Odum’s, A Prosperous Way Down (2001) is in no part inevitable as oil production peaks and declines. Their book offers guidelines for a preferable future, a hopeful scenario, but with clear recognition that there are many less desirable and more likely directions that the world may take. In this paper I will reprise the Odum’s preferred scenario as it relates to undesirable alternatives. I will place these scenarios along the path of a big slow curve—the 80-year curve of world oil consumption. At human time scales, we might think that the big slow curve is difficult to detect or attend to. However, I will argue that the effects of asset growth and decline are indeed attended to, and have dramatically affected cultural trends in these oil years. This is because the detection of the growth (or its absence) of cultural assets is of central concern to all ‘consumers’ within ecosystems, but especially to human consumers who produce and manage their own food in various ways. These issues will be explored with mini-model simulations.
Accumulation by Displaced Emission: On Climate, Consumers, and the Rhetoric of Confidence
Author: Cindy Isenhour (Centre College ) email
Whether referred to as ecological modernization, bright green environmentalism, or the rationalization of lifestyles, technological improvement has long been presented as a “win-win” strategy resulting in both economic growth and improved environmental health. Yet significant and mounting research suggests that these strategies have not delivered on their promises. Efficiency gains are being rapidly outstripped by sustained net growth in consumption. Drawing on in-depth ethnographic research, this paper explores a series of reports published by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and their subsequent impact on other nations. The report authors advocate a zero-sum approach to understanding green house gas emissions – recognizing that while Sweden has reduced domestic emissions since 1990 — simultaneous growth in the consumption of imported goods and services has resulted in net increases elsewhere. The Swedish “consumption approach” to global GHG emissions accounting helps to elucidate the zero-sum reality of outsourcing emissions to nations where the need for economic development results in environmental injustice. While it is certainly more just to attribute all environmental costs to the consumers who benefit from the products associated with emissions, this perspective was contentious in Sweden where many saw it as anti-market. Its logical conclusion implied moving past economic and environmental de-coupling, toward de-growth. While these reports have had a substantial impact on several other nations, I argue that the approach they advocate is unlikely to gain much traction within UN climate talks until the pro-growth rhetoric surrounding consumer choice, responsibility, and freedom are challenged.
Cornucopianism and the image of limited good
Author: Richard Wilk (Indiana University) email
In this paper I argue that the metaphors that we use to think about global economic processes suffer from inherent limitations. The metaphors come from early moral and vitalistic thinking about the economy, and from modernist mechanical models which have now been enhanced with systems thinking, nationalism, and what I call “ecologism” which fetishizes nature. I propose that both cornucopian and zero-sum limited-good ideas about the future are fundamentally flawed, and are incapable of projecting a credible imagination of sustainability. I focus particularly on the language and metaphors of temporality and boundaries, both of which incorporate assumptions which we know to be false. I also discuss the prevailing dualism in discourse about the economy, and the way it limits our thinking and blinds us to what Latour calls “the proliferation of hybrids.” The economy is a cyborg, partially human and partially machine, and the sooner we recognize this, and stop fighting the pre-determined wars of modernism, the better we will be capable of thinking about a planet with 10 or 11 billion human beings on it.
Author: Stephen Gudeman (University of Minnesota/ Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology) email
Most economists see material life as consisting of markets surrounded by market-like behavior: everything else is a positive or negative externality on market exchange. The anthropological perspective is different. I see economies as fields of value defined by crosscutting coordinates. One axis locates economies on a scale from High Relationship to Low Relationship transactions; the other positions economies on a measure from High Markets to Low Markets. Set diagonally to this “graph view” are five, increasingly abstract and encompassing institutional spheres that shift from the House, to Community, to Commerce, to Finance, to Meta finance. This view offers a comparative way to understand economies, change, and the contemporary crises. It suggests that economy is built on a material base whose uses change and are differentially valued. The more abstract spheres, through cronyism, oligopolies, information control and other devices, extract “value” that is first achieved through production and innovation. Unless mollified by communal action, this power of abstraction heightens unequal distribution and leads to environmental degradation seen in terms of entropy and pollution. I contest the belief in growth that is generated by market competition and consumption desires, as well as the ideology that growth, with its increasing toll on the environment, is the remedy to unequal distribution. Placing limits on the growth of inequalities in wealth counters the entropic toll we are incurring, and the reverse.
Revisiting the Image of Limited Good: On Sustainability, Thermodynamics, and the Illusion of Creating Wealth
Author: Paul Trawick (Idaho State University) email
This paper focuses on worldview, examining two cultural models that are now contending for dominance on the world stage: the open-system model long promoted by economists, referred to as the ‘image of unlimited good’, and a closed-system model, the ‘image of limited good’ made famous by George Foster, who attributed it to members of peasant societies throughout the world. The former worldview is based on the idea that people ‘create’ wealth, an illusion arising from a fundamental confusion about the respective properties of real wealth and virtual wealth, or productive capital and finance capital. This perspective ignores the near-total reliance of the global economy on fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources, finite forms of real wealth whose exploitation is governed by the laws of thermodynamics. The alternative “zero-sum” worldview rests on the axiom that most of the ‘goods’ that people value in life are inherently scarce, being derived from those limited resources and raw materials, a scarcity that must somehow be shared. Based on an ethnographic and ethnological argument, a radical shift toward the closed-system view is said to be necessary if people are to act collectively to impose sustainable limits on their expanding consumption, a cultural change that may already be underway.
The moral economy and moral ecology of organic food in Western Sicily: from growth to degrowth?
Author: Giovanni Orlando (Independent Scholar) email
For almost a century now the dominant socio-ecological regime of the world agri-food system has rested on the two pillars of productivism and mass consumption. An idea of limitless growth is thus intrinsic to it. Such growth has resulted in the degradation of ecosystems and the exploitation of farmers and consumers. The organic food movement has sought to counter this situation by developing agri-food systems that renew, rather than deplete, natural resources, and that do justice to farmers and consumers. Potentially, then, organic food can be grounded in non-accumulative paradigms such as agroecology and degrowth. From a cultural point of view, what values and symbols would underpin these ‘sustainable’ paradigms? This paper tries to answer this question in Western Sicily, Italy. By looking at the practices and discourses of people who grow, sell and eat organic foods, it explores the degree to which subjects hold values about nature and people that speak to notions of degrowth and agroecology. The paper uncovers a common thread in people’s emphasis on what might be termed ‘excess’. From the fear of the dietary abominations created by an excessive use of technology in food manufacturing and processing, to the outrage for the abuses caused by a desire for excessive profits in food retailing, the paper shows how the ideal of sufficiency, documented by anthropologists in a variety of non-Western societies, creates a moral economy-ecology of organic food.
The Revival of Survival: Pioneering a Post-Financial America
Author: Eliza Jane Darling email
The financial crash of 2008 precipitated the renaissance of a primordial American tradition: survivalism. Often stigmatized as an eccentricity, the survivalist ethos is in fact deeply ingrained in American cultural production, from post-apocalyptic film to millenarian religious movements, as well as in American capitalism, generating millions of dollars in annual profits through the production of demand for palliative commodities. In recent years survivalism has indeed infiltrated mainstream American politics at multiple scales, from New York City’s “go-bag” scheme to Wyoming state’s “doomsday bill” to the CDC’s “zombie-preparedness” initiative. Like its historical predecessors, Great Recession survivalism is predicated upon a zero-sum logic simultaneously economic and environmental, entailing fears of an imminent collapse of finite financial and ecological resources as well as alternative visions for post-crisis continuity. This paper examines the history of survivalist ideology as a heterodox response to capitalistic crisis that is cyclically subsumed by its alleged antithesis: a cultural manifestation of deep-seated doubts about the propensity for endless growth which has itself been absorbed into the warp and weft of capitalist expansion through commoditisation.
Why Solar Panels Don’t Grow on Trees: Technological Utopianism and the Uneasy Relation between Ecomarxism and Ecological Economics
Author: Alf Hornborg (Lund University) email
Ever since the Industrial Revolution saved Britain from ecological crisis in the early nineteenth century, visions of miraculous new technologies have alleviated Euro-American anxieties about the impending doom of the fossil-fuelled capitalism that it inaugurated. Although Malthus’s worries about land shortages were transcended by world-historical events as well as by Ricardo’s and Marx’s different versions of technological optimism, they were soon reincarnated in Jevons’s warnings about the depletion of coal. Today economists generally dismiss the pessimism not only of Malthus and Jevons, but also of current concerns over peak oil, by expressing faith in human ingenuity. To retrospectively ridicule pessimists by referring to technological progress that they did not anticipate has become an established pattern of mainstream thought. Almost regardless of ideological persuasion, the seemingly self-evident concept of “technological progress” inherited from early industrialism has been resorted to as an article of faith serving to dispel the specter of truncated growth. The increasingly acknowledged threats of peak oil and global warming are thus generally countered with visions of a future civilization based on solar power. In this paper I discuss this technological scenario as a utopia that raises serious doubts about mainstream understandings of what “technology” really is, and what it means to say that something is “technologically” feasible. The technological utopianism professed, for instance, by ecomarxists raises difficult but fundamental analytical questions about the relation between thermodynamics and theories of economic value.
Decoupling waste from growth
Author: Catherine Alexander (Durham University) email
The correlation between increased waste production and increased wealth
headlines the EU’s environmental strategy. On the basis of trends so far,
the OECD projects a 45% increase in waste from 1995. The need for
continual economic expansion is taken as an unproblematic given. The
question that therefore seems to present itself is how to continue to
increase wealth without environmental despoilation. The EU’s Sixth
Environment Action Programme identifies waste prevention and management
as one of its top priorities. Its primary objective is to decouple waste
generation from economic activity, so that EU growth will no longer lead
to more and more rubbish. In the paper I make three points in response.
The first is that the desirability of growth remains unquestioned,
alternatives unexplored. The second is that environmental justice or
equity seems now to be foregrounded, often at the expense of other
inequalities produced by capitalist relations. The answer to waste
production, however, appears to be shifted away from economic rationales
of constant expansion to technocratic solutions or campaigns to change
consumers’ ‘attitudes and behaviour’ or the sleight of hand involved in
reclassifying wastes as energy (with the potentially bizarre prospect of
an economy that demands more waste in order to feed energy demands). I
suggest that the production of wastes is intimately tied to every aspect
of mass economic activity from extraction, through production,
distribution and consumption to disposal, and crucially, capitalist growth
depends on things breaking down, the inability to repair things, fashion.
One of the first steps forward might be to recognize that this kind of
growth is inseparable from social and environmental degradation.