Here is the interview with Alf Hornborg along with a couple of essays of his. To understand our predicament, you must understand that the flow of energy, fossil fuels, humans have tapped into for running our economy, machinery, and energy-intensive mode of living has some serious environmental drawbacks, namely climate change and ocean acidification, which will certainly lead to our own destruction with the business-as-usual path we are so determined to follow. Some of the other consequences of basing our way of life so heavily upon fossil fuels are resource wars, support of brutal dictatorships in resource-cursed countries, hypocritical foreign policies based on resource control rather than the publicly professed mantra of human rights and democracy, the fomentation of resentment and terrorism towards the West, etc. So if you couple fossil fuels with capitalism, then you have a truly planet-destroying system. Capitalism is coerced competition for finite wages and resources, pitting person against person, company against company, and nation against nation. What the State calls Terrorism is really defined as those who have grievances with the plunder of their homeland’s resources to support the unsustainable lifestyles of OECD countries. If China continues to follow the same arc of resource consumption as America, the ‘War on Terror’ will be theirs as well. My favorite quote from Horborg:
Is the war on terrorism and climate debate two sides of the same coin? Imports of cheap oil are just as crucial as exports of carbon dioxide for a high-energy future. Both are confined to the parts of the world that have amassed the most purchasing power.
14 July 2011, 12:54 PM
Alf Hornborg on How We Have Been Mystified by Technology
by Adam Robbert & JP Hayes
Alf Hornborg, professor in the department of Human Ecology at Lund University, Sweden has long been untangling the tightly fused networks that merge the material dimensions of the environment with the cultural processes of society. “Machine Fetishism” Hornborg’s term for the way in which we have been mystified by technology highlights the links between technology and asymmetries in global exchange and uncovers the relationship between ecology and power. As technological devices multiply exponentially in a vain attempt to make our lives “efficient,” “luxurious” and “productive,” Hornborg, restless in his critique of technocapitalism, reminds us that on planet earth everything is a zero-sum game – one person’s gain is always another’s loss. Last January we caught up with Professor Hornborg to see where his latest thinking on machines, money and climate change stand and how we, as the concerned and informed, can intervene to make a difference.
Q: You have suggested that the difficulties in understanding the relationship between the environment, the economy and technology arise partly out of the separation between the social and natural sciences within the university. Bringing the natural and social sciences together implies entangling material dimensions of the environment with the cultural processes of society. How has this split mystified our understanding of the relationships between ecology and economics, and how is this affecting our ability to respond to major events such as the mass extinction of species, climate change and global inequality?
It is becoming increasingly obvious that material processes in the biosphere are very much intertwined with cultural aspects such as our ways of thinking and our consumption patterns. The most obvious example is perhaps climate change, which we know is largely driven by our patterns of consumption. If ecologists look at the biosphere as if there were no human societies in it, and economists look at societies as if they didn’t depend on the biosphere, none of them will know how to handle things like climate change. As long as economists continue to think that the only relevant metric for measuring global trade is money, they will not see the asymmetric net transfers of real resources such as energy and matter that make technological expansion possible within some areas of the world.
Q: Your analysis of technology as a globally situated event that requires the establishment of multiple asymmetric economic linkages to be in place raises questions about the role of technology in current ecological problems. If technology, and in particular machine technology, requires inequalities in the terms of global trade, how are we to assess the appropriate use and level of technology employed in solving ecological problems?
I don’t think modern technology will be of much use in solving ecological problems, because modern technology is basically a way of shuffling around resources and problems between different social groups. For example, by shifting to ethanol European car drivers may think they are becoming sustainable, but Brazilians engaged in growing sugar cane may be growing less sustainable as a result. Solving ecological problems should not be about finding new technological solutions, which generally means shifting the problems onto someone else, but about developing new economies and lifestyles which reduce environmental degradation.
Q: You advocate a “zero-sum” approach to your analysis of the relationship between ecology and economics, with technology acting as a kind of basin within which material exchanges of the biosphere and economic or political policies churn. In this way, what you call “machine fetishism” produces the image of a machine that exists without its connections to culture, power and ecology. Could you elaborate on how the illusion of machine technology came to take hold and what relevance unmasking machine power for what is –a globally situated object- has for encouraging a more politically just and environmentally sound society?
Our faith in technology emerged most markedly in the early nineteenth century, as colonial Britain was accumulating resources from all over the world and investing its economic surpluses in new machinery. To British economists of the time, it seemed as if ecological (land) constraints had been overcome once and for all, and the magic wands of labor and capital would suffice for economic progress to continue. That is exactly the time when modern economic ideology was born. What these Europeans could not grasp was that their capital was built on the exploitation of land and labor elsewhere in the world. In other words, the factors of production were NOT substitutable in an absolute sense. We are all ultimately dependent on land.
Q: Following David Harvey’s analysis of money, you have suggested that money is a social institution that generates “space-time” in such a way that is both an “objective, political ecological framework” and a “subjective experience.” In other words, money becomes the medium by which society, technology and even the whole biosphere are transformed within a particular set of cultural ideas. Given the latest financial crises, what do you foresee the role of currency to be in the transformation of the relationship between ecology and economics?
The financial crises illustrate the risks a society takes when it permits monetary assets and real, biophysical resources to become so thoroughly dissociated from each other. Our current problems with overconsumption would not have been possible if money had not become so completely disconnected from material resources. I am not saying that the gold standard that we abandoned in the seventies was a solution, but at least it limited the possibilities of printing ever more money to keep the treadmill of consumption (and production) spinning at a pace that satisfies the corporate demand for profits. But the real problem with money is not that it is fictitious, as all money must be, but that it embodies the idea that everything can be exchanged for everything else. What we need is an economy with at least two incommensurable currencies, to distinguish between values that should not be interchangeable, such as local subsistence and survival versus globalized entertainment.
Q: In your analysis of the industrial revolution you suggest that the “technomass” of industrial civilization is now competing with the “biomass” for living space on planet earth. How are we to approach the reality that we are already thoroughly enmeshed within a technosphere that now seems to require our continued maintenance (so as not to leak the wrong toxic substances into the wrong environments) and the fact the we need to be equally attentive to the livelihood of the biosphere which we depend upon for life?
The sooner we stop prioritizing the metabolic needs of our “technomass”, at the expense of human and other biomass, the better. Our technological fixes are no less absurd than the fetishism that brought earlier civilizations to collapse, whether through overinvestment in armies (Rome), temples (Maya), or megalithic statues (Easter Island).
Q: Given that you believe that an integration of the social and natural sciences would lead to better policy strategies, could you comment on the differences or similarities between these two spheres? Do the cultural, political and economic relations that social scientists study differ in nature from the ecological and material systems that a natural scientist study? Their conjunction seems necessary, and yet problems of integration seem numerous. What is our way forward here?
Yes, the social and natural sciences study different kinds of phenomena and need to respect the limitations of either approach. Societies have always implicated questions of power, unequal distribution, and collective processes of meaning-creation and ideology. Ecosystems can be studied and understood without insights about any of these things. On the other hand, as economists and others illustrate, social systems can be studied (if not understood) without any regard to the flows of matter and energy that preoccupy the ecologists. To understand the interface between social and ecological systems we need to understand POWER as partly material, partly symbolic. Social power is based on unequal access to material resources, but also on the ideological mystification of such inequalities.
Q: Uncertainties of measurement and misleading methodological approaches characterize current economic attempts to manage the world system. Such a measurement/theory mismatch creates uncertainty and error in understanding what is occurring in the present state of economic-ecological affairs. As a result of these poor methodologies, modern bureaucracies have created a routine of socioeconomic functioning that is notable for its lack of applicability to social & environmental reality. How can we characterize and develop change that ensures the development of a truly sustainable world system? How can we, as academics, activists, and concerned citizens, best intervene, as you say, “in the destructive logic of our current economic system?”
First of all by recognizing the dilemma as I have outlined it in my earlier responses. Second by using their political agency (ultimately as voters in democratic political systems) to choose representatives who are prepared to reorganize the economy for the long-term good of all people and ecosystems, rather than for the short-term benefits of corporate interests.
Q: Could you comment on the role of emergent popular discourses on the environment such as “green capitalism,” “sustainable development” and “ecological economics?” Though each is different in character and always subject to a variety of uses, do you think that these movements, in general, are adequate to the tasks they set out to solve?
I don’t believe in “green capitalism” or “sustainable development” the way they are currently conceived, as both are oxymorons. “Ecological economics” is a very important arena for discussion, but will lead to real changes in our thinking only if it is able to radically transcend the assumptions of conventional economics.
Q: What, in your opinion, are the most effective modes available with which to express a need for change within the current political and economic regimes? If traditional models of education, politics and economic theories are not serving the urgency of the crises at hand, what action do you advise concerned peoples to take?
The best we can do is to develop awareness of our global predicament and resort to it as opportunities for real change appear, not least as we confront crises of various kinds in the future. Crises, whether financial, environmental, or other (or a combination of them), can offer possibilities of change, and it is important for society not to be confused by such events, but to understand what is happening and be prepared to safeguard the health and security of citizens.
Q: If you are correct in asserting that “mainstream” thinking about the environment is fundamentally flawed and will not lead to positive change (as advocated by the sustainable development movement, for example) where do we start? Must we begin from scratch so as to completely re-interpret the ingredients and causes of our crises, or do we in fact have something like a base or foothold from which we can begin a renewed attempt to make a difference in the world? Who are the primary thinkers involved that provide us with tools that the 21st century can believe in?
The Internet has provided humanity with a unique chance to globally communicate about crises and how to handle them. I will not mention any specific thinkers, only note that the social and natural sciences both have rich traditions of thought that attempt to show how social power and inequalities are interconnected with natural circumstances such as land constraints, soil fertility, and thermodynamics. We need more current researchers working on how these different kinds of knowledge can be stitched together. Unfortunately, a very small minority of researchers is dedicated to such challenges.
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|Published January 6, 2010 – 10:00
Updated January 7, 2010 – 09:31
What will future historians say about the early 2,000’s? That it was the turning point. In the course of that decade were visualized the unsustainable contradictions within global fossil fuel-driven industrial capitalism.
First came 9/11. We sat glued in front of the television screen and saw the towers fall, again and again. We were just as shocked as the European upper classes two hundred years ago when the mob guillotined the royals in Paris. How could such a hit happen to us? Where did all this hate come from? Are there really such contradictions in the global community? Could it have to do with oil, this stored solar energy from the ancient landscape that drives most of our lives, that we can afford to continue paying for it? And to whom then is this resource so critical that some countries are prepared to go to war for it.
Then came the Peace Prize of Al Gore, a person who appeared to have become the world’s most powerful man able to say that we were destroying the planet, and be rewarded for it. If a U.S. Vice President, Nobel Committee and the UN climate panel agree on the reality of global warming, may we take it seriously? Should we stop using fossil fuels?
Then came the financial crisis – the worst stock market collapse since 1929. Is the world economy really so vulnerable? And how is it that economists could not predict it? Are there contexts in the world that economists have not understood?
The early 2,000’s was the decade when we passed the peak of conventional oil production, that which in English is called peak oil. We now, therefore, use the remaining oil faster than we can find new deposits. We realize that oil prices will rise in the future, making our current lifestyle increasingly untenable… a two hundred year old bubble approaching the breaking point.
In two centuries we have been able to forget that the earth’s land surface is the resource that limits us. We have become used to deriving our energy from drilled holes in the earth’s crust instead of from our landscape. We have lived in the former solar energy of epochs instead of the annual insolation stored in living plants.
What should we do when we can no longer afford oil? How will the land be sufficient when it once again will have to support both people and vehicles? It used to be horse feed we had to compete with, now it is the cane for ethanol.
Not only do biofuels take up land space needed for food for a growing world population, but they also can not be nearly enough to sustain the consumption levels that the rich world has become accustomed to.
The early 2,000’s was also the decade when we definitely realized that the balance of power in the world would not be forever. China became an economic power by cashing in on cheap labor and lax environmental laws. We buy Chinese goods like never before. But is continuing to wallow in their products the best thing we can do for the Chinese, their environment and our common atmosphere?
The early 2,000’s was also the decade when a new kind of president moved into the White House. A whole world had understood that the American people could no longer hope to solve global conflicts by taking up arms. But what options are there really for Obama?
During the past decade, two of America’s most powerful politicians received the Nobel Peace Prize, the one for his warning us of what can happen to the climate if we continue to burn oil, the other in hopes that he will refrain from war… always for oil.
And just before the decade is over, we will experience COP 15. Fifteen thousand delegates and a hundred heads of state will gather in Copenhagen to discuss whether there is any hope. We know that carbon dioxide emissions are only continuing to increase despite all the warnings and promises. We recognize that emissions are as unevenly distributed in the world as money. An average American emits 18.7 tons of carbon dioxide per year; an average of 1.3 tons for Indians.
Perhaps we can imagine a connection between these various trends and events? Is the war on terrorism and climate debate two sides of the same coin? Imports of cheap oil are just as crucial as exports of carbon dioxide for a high-energy future. Both are confined to the parts of the world that have amassed the most purchasing power.
Economic growth is basically about earning money to expend resources. And the more money we earn today, the more resources we can afford to consume tomorrow. No wonder it is difficult to reduce carbon emissions.
But this is a logic that economists are not trained in. Can we hope that the next decade offers more insight – and more power shifts?
Professor of Human Ecology, Lund University