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‘Degrowth is not a liberal agenda: Relocalisation and the limits to low energy cosmopolitanism’

Abstract:

Degrowth is identified as a prospective turning point in human development as significant as the domestication of fire or the process of agrarianisation. The Transition movement is identified as the most important attempt to develop a prefigurative, local politics of degrowth. Explicating the links between capitalist modernisation, metabolic throughput and psychological individuation, Transition embraces 'limits' but downplays the implications of scarcity for open, liberal societies, and for inter-personal and inter-group violence.

William Ophuls' trilogy on the politics of scarcity confronts precisely these issues, but it depends on an unconvincing sociology of individuation as a central process in modernity. A framework is advanced through which to explore the tensions, trade-offs and possibilities for a socially liberal, culturally cosmopolitan and science-based civilization under conditions of degrowth and metabolic contraction.

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[Excerpts from a to-be-published paper. Full pre-publication version is here.]
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2. Living without growth

Climate change scenarios suggest that if we burn remaining stocks of fossil fuel disastrous climate change may be sufficient to destroy global civilisation, and even the human species (Lynas, 2007; Lovelock 2009; Hansen 2010; Rockström J. et al. 2009). Peak oil pundits suggest that we are likely to experience an imminent, chronic energy short fall with the peaking of global oil production (Kunstler, 2006; Heinberg, 2005) Neither scenario provides much ground for optimism.

I don’t want here to debate whether or not either scenario is possible or even likely, but merely to note that , for much of the environmental movement, both catastrophic climate change and peak oil collapse have become routine expectations. Just how routine is made clear by the 'viral' growth of the ‘Transition Town’ movement (Hopkins, 2008).

2.1 Transition and 'resilience through relocalization'

Inspired by Rob Hopkins’s experiment in community resilience in Totnes, Devon, hundreds of Transition Initiatives are now springing up across the world. The Transition strategy is absolutely premised on both peak oil and catastrophic climate change. Transition politics is not anti-capitalist nor anti-globalisation precisely because the expectation is that an energy short fall will lead to a rapid relocalization and simplification of economic life within a few decades. Transition speaks the language of localism and sufficiency and taps a deep frustration with consumer society. The expectation is that in the post-carbon, post-capitalist order, citizens will live more familial, authentic and creative ‘hand made’ lives, recovering a range of artisanal ‘Transition skills' (Quilley, 2009) and more rewarding gemeinschaftlich forms of community (see Barry and Quilley 2008).

In addition to the plethora of books and blogs there is now a growing academic literature on relocalisation and Transition focusing on the political sociology of the movement (e.g. Seyfang, 2009), the political economy of localism (e.g Ryan-Collins 2011), the viability of more bioregional forms of economy and society (Quilley 2012), discourse and politics (Bailey et al 2010) and the ethical dilemmas associated with exclusively local engagements (Mason & Whitehead 2012). Writing with Ian Bailey and Geoff Wilson, Rob Hopkins presents Transition strategy as a clever discursive bricolage which, although drawing a long tradition of critique in relation to the social and biophysical limits to capitalist consumerism,foregrounds the conjunction of peak oil and climate change as a way of constructing relocalisation as 'inevitable.'

By de-emphasising the element of social conflict Transition is able to extend its appeal beyond 'hardcore environmentalists' (Bailey et al 2010: 595). Although generally welcomed as a positive development, the insistently inclusive emphasis on positivity and avoidance of conflictual political engagements in relation to the underlying structures of society has also been the focus of scepticism and vigorous critique (e.g. Trapeze Collective 2008). In what follows I extend this critique in a different direction, exploring the tension between the taken-for-granted liberal attitudes, values and cosmopolitan outlook of Transition activists on the one hand and the illiberal, less-open and possibly violent implications of the relocalized future they celebrate, embrace and attempt to pre-figure.

In the UK there is no ‘survivalist' movement pretty much because there are no hills to run to. Transition is very much a social, collective response geared towards communities and working along side, but not under, local authorities.Most environmentalists recognise an imperative for their own communities to face up to disruptive and possibly catastrophic climate change that is now perceived by many to be unavoidable. But at the same time, the movement is informed by the concept of peak oil.

Now, despite the fact that some of the most significant contributions to the technical debate have come from the UK and Europe, the front-stage of peak oil politics has been dominated by American survivalism. Since the height of the cold war, thousands of Americans have been expecting ‘the system’ to collapse. There is a whole infrastructure of militaristic training, homesteading and community networking geared to this eventuality – informed variously by fundamentalist Christianity, primitivist anarchism and other strains of environmentalism. Peak oil has now taken over from nuclear war as the primary scenario of collapse (see, for example, Rawls 2009). But what is significant about the last decade has been the proliferation of a more respectable popular and academic literature advancing fundamentally similar scenarios (Tainter 1990; Heinberg 2005; Diamond, 2006; Kunstler, 2006; Rees, 2004; Homer-Dixon, 2006; Hansen, 2010; Lynas, 2006; Lovelock, 2009; Martin, 2007).

But despite its roots in the peak oil movement, and although premised fairly overtly on the implosion of the global economy and the failure of nation-state institutions, the Transition Network remains obdurately disinclined to focus on the problem of violence. This is surprising. The re-emergence of famine in Western countries combined with a failure of state institutions would certainly result in appalling violence between individuals and communities. This problem would be especially acute in a densely populated country like the UK, which is so dependent on imported food. In any collapse scenario, it is difficult to see how the denizens of Totnes might protect their newly planted nut trees. But at the same time it is impossible to imagine that resource shortages on the scale anticipated by the peak oil and Transition movements would not result in geo-political violence and regional and even global wars.

The medium and longer term the prospect of collapse and relocalization also raises the question of what kind of society will emerge in place of the globally-connected, hyper-mobile society of flows that we created on the back of cheap oil (Lash and Urry, 1993). What seems certain is that the spirit of cosmopolitanism is likely to give way to more communitarian forms of political life. In the language of Tönnies, the open and mobile gesellschaftlich forms of social life which we take so much for granted, societal forms underpinned ultimately by relatively disembedded markets, are likely to give way as traditional, socially embedded, highly conventional gemeinschaftlich social forms re-emerge.

Those who survive the prospective ‘long emergency’ (Kunstler 2006) might well be healthier, enjoy better and more authentic food and perhaps even benefit from more rounded social relationships and a less strained relationship between domestic life and work. Under these circumstances, many would perhaps find fulfilment in the re-invented artisanal roles and functions that once again service a relocalised and more self-sufficient division of labour. But there can be no doubt that, with regard to the long march of political and social enfranchisement, such a neo-traditionalism would be politically and socially regressive.

Traditional agrarian society with more and possibly most people working on the land implies a world of landowners and serfs, ascriptive social identities and lives determined by the circumstances of one’s birth – class, gender, religion, ethnicity and caste. In this brave new world there would be plenty of work (although no jobs) for sociologists. In his novel, A World Made by Hand, Kunstler (2009) is surprisingly honest. He doesn’t shy away from what the politics of such a newly agrarian society might look like.

Without fossil fuel energy slaves most of the population become peasants and old social hierarchies, including gender inequalities, reassert themselves. But most anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation and environmentalist prognoses of relocalization flatly refuse to engage with the implications of this neo-traditionalist, post-liberal society. Politics and social life will be pretty much like it is now, just more local.

2.2 Neo-Malthusian versus Cosmopolitan Visions of the Twenty-First Century

During the 1990s, Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy (1994) challenged both the liberal triumphalism of Francis Fukuyama and Huntington's 'clash of civilizations' with a vision of crippling resource constraints, failed states, ecological catastrophe and geo-political disorder. A touchstone for a resurgence of neo-Malthusian thinking, Kaplan's book was informed by the expanding field of environmental security (Levy 1995; Ullman 1983; Matthews 1989; Homer-Dixon 1991).

But, whilst the end of the Cold War created an ideological space for environmental Malthusians, the significance of resource scarcity for progressive liberal politics had been already been elaborated at great length during the 1970s. And it has been William Ophuls who has been most persistent and systematic in exploring the political implications of scarcity for liberal modernity. Ophuls work provides a useful lens through which to examine the liberal credentials of degrowth precisely because he foregrounds and makes explicit the tensions between values and aspirations on the one hand, and metabolic and social-institutional preconditions on the other.

2.3 Plato's Revenge: Small as Bio-regional, Communitarian and Jeffersonian

With the recent publication of Plato's Revenge. Politics in the Age of Ecology (2011), Ophuls completed a trilogy on the politics of scarcity. In 1977 he had achieved a certain notoriety among environmentalists by questioning whether ecological integrity could ever be compatible with modern liberal democracy. He pointed out that the entire set of ideas, institutions and practices predicated on abundance would inevitably be replaced by new social and political forms based on scarcity.

In 1997 he extended the critique of modern liberalism, arguing that the paradigm of mass politics inherited from Hobbes and Locke, even without ecological crisis, was bound for self-destruction because it abandons the premise that a successful polity must be rooted in an unspoken but pervasive framework of virtue, itself reproduced in the context of a binding we-identity and community (or what Tönnies [1887]called 'gemeinschaft'). In Plato's Revenge, Ophuls completes the argument by sketching a possible replacement – a new communitarian philosophy and political framework rooted in the ideas of Jefferson and Rousseau, but grounded in evolutionary psychology, anthropology and Jungian psychology.

...

3. Degrowth and societal choices: Constraints and trade-offs in the shape of the Improbable Valley

The degrowth movement which has emerged in France over the last fifteen years (Latouche, 2004; Fabrice, 2008; Fournier 2008)) clearly draws upon well-established green and left critiques of growth (Scot Cato 2006; Douthwaite, 1992; Trainer 2002) which are rooted ,in turn, in the ‘limits to growth’ tradition of the 1970s and its codification in ecological economics. Like the original Meadows report, ‘decroissance’ coincides with a geo-political conjuncture of economic and ecological crisis which has shaken taken-for-granted assumptions about economic growth and progress. Unlike in the 1970s, degrowth has also coincided with a popular movement for relocalisation/Transition with which it has a natural affinity.

Because the ‘solutions’ of both the social-democratic left and the neo-liberal right have been found wanting, there seems to be a real space for thinking the unthinkable. As Fournier argues the degrowth movement’s real contribution has been to link ‘escaping from the economy’ to ‘the foregrounding and articulation of citizenship and democracy’ (2008: 529). However despite the fact that the term ‘decroissance’ was formulated in the translation of Georgescu-Roegen’s seminal book on the entropic basis for economics (1971 – Fabrice, 2008: 24), the degrowth literature avoids the very difficult problem of the extent to which this articulation is intrinsically dependent on energy throughput.

Similarly with Transition, much of the language and the strategic discourse of relocalisation as ‘energy descent’ derives pretty directly from Howard and Elizabeth Odum’s A Prosperous Way Down. But it ignores a truth that emerges clearly from Odum’s ‘energy hierarchy’ which is that every social form, process or artefact is associated with an energy signature or ‘transformity.’ It cannot be assumed that liberal-democratic and cosmopolitan institutions, attitudes and values can be transposed from into a societal energy regime ‘lower down’ the energy hierarchy. Here, I want to consider degrowth and biophysical limits not as political ideas but as features of a broader, long-term social-developmental process.

... Beyond a certain threshold, a steady state economy will lose cascades of technological and manufacturing capability. Knowing in theory how to build a silicon chip is a long way short of real manufacturing capability which tends to reside as much in the organisational memories, routines and tacit knowledge of corporations as in books. If the Valley stops building certain classes of artefacts, eventually (perhaps quickly) knowledge of how to produce them will also disappear.

On this basis , it would be a good idea for ecological economists, peak oil commentators and collapse theorists to try and work out if there is any room for manoeuvre between the maximum scale of economic flows compatible with the long term integrity and resilience of the biosphere, and the minimum scale for a moderately liberal, science based civilisation retaining a capacity for continuing technical innovation (albeit at a slower rate) and a broad based manufacturing capability.

A prepublication version of the paper can be accessed from http://www.whpress.co.uk/EV/papers/Quilley.pdf

Other papers in the special issue can be downloaded from http://www.whpress.co.uk/EV/EVpapers.html

This article is part of a special issue of the journal 'Environmental Values' on the implications of degrowth. Degrowth is identified as a prospective turning point in human development as significant as the domestication of fire or the process of agrarianisation. The Transition movement is identified as the most important attempt to develop a prefigurative, local politics of degrowth. Explicating the links between capitalist modernisation, metabolic throughput and psychological individuation, Transition embraces 'limits' but downplays the implications of scarcity for open, liberal societies, and for inter-personal and inter-group violence. William Ophuls' trilogy on the politics of scarcity confronts precisely these issues, but it depends on an unconvincing sociology of individuation as a central process in modernity. A framework is advanced through which to explore the tensions, trade-offs and possibilities for a socially liberal, culturally cosmopolitan and science-based civilization under conditions of degrowth and metabolic contraction.

Stephen Quilley is Associate Professor of Social and Environmental Innovation at the University of Waterloo and Director of Research at the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation [wici.ca]

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