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Dear Leigh

Hello, my name is Mr Puck. I heard about your new book, Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn-Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. Now, a title involving the word ‘porn’ that isn’t actually about, er, porn usually indicates something that’s well worth not reading (yes, reader, I know, I know – but you’ve come this far already). However, I’m interested in these issues so I decided I’d at least take a look at the blurb for your book and the puff-piece you wrote for it in The Guardian.

Your publisher, Zero Books, sets itself against what it calls the ‘cretinous anti-intellectualism’ of contemporary culture. That’s refreshing. And your book blurb promises a ‘combative and puckish’ style. Well, we greens do have a reputation for humour-free self-righteousness, and I’m all in favour of the mordant wit and trenchant analysis I associate with puckish writers. So, bracing myself, I settled down to read a little of your writing. Unfortunately, rather than the puck-wit I was expecting, another word soon came to mind that sounds very similar but means something different. I’ve spent a fair bit of time recently combatting the idiocies of so-called ‘ecomodernism’1 and I’ve tried to swear off further critique to focus instead on a more positive agenda of localist producerism, which is what I’ll be turning to in my next cycle of blog posts. But everybody needs to sound off once in a while, and after reading your epically fatuous thinking on this topic for me that time is now. The ‘progress-through-growth’ and ecomodernist tropes seem to acquire a spurious gravitas by simple repetition, so though I don’t have the luxury of a Guardian article to play with, I do feel obliged to do what I can to prevent the deluge and try to put my finger, however small, in the dyke. Besides, I can use your writing as a foil to make a few points about capitalist development and anti-Malthusianism that fit into my larger project. So below I offer some appropriately scattered responses to your scatter-brained thoughts.

Let’s begin with a quotation from your book blurb:

“the back-to-the-land ideology and aesthetic of locally-woven organic carrot-pants, pathogen-encrusted compost toilets and civilisational collapse is hegemonic”

I somehow get the sense that your publisher’s campaign against cretinous anti-intellectualism doesn’t run too deep. But anyway, back-to-the-land ideology is hegemonic? Are you serious? Could you give me your figures on the proportion of school-leavers or career-changers going into farming in developed countries? Or the proportion of government policies in said countries that promote the interests of small-scale local farming? What I think you really mean is that a handful of people are getting their voices heard about a new agrarianism, and you don’t like it. If only it were that easy to turn wishful thinking into hegemony…

Let’s talk some more about compost toilets, and let’s link it to your defence of growth. Because actually I want to defend growth too – childhood growth. Research suggests that more than half the people of India, and almost three-quarters of rural people, have no access to a toilet2. They defecate in the open, and the illnesses this causes stunts childhood growth and haunts the future of those it affects. The Democratic Republic of Congo, a country with a GDP per capita only about a quarter that of India, has more than four times the level of access to toilets for its population. So not much link between economic progress and human welfare there. There is no evidence to my knowledge that compost toilets are any more pathogen-encrusted than other designs. All you need to make one is a bit of wood, plastic or straw. Surely a champion of the poor such as yourself should be extolling their virtues?

Meanwhile, here in Britain the majority of sewage sludge is returned to agricultural soils. And a darned good thing, too, though few seem aware of it. Does that make all our toilets compost toilets? Maybe, but what a process! We purify water, then foul it, then mix it with heavy metals from road runoff, then purify it again, remove the metals as best we can and then truck it from sewage plant to field. And folks say that small-scale, off grid farming is inefficient…

You’re not alone among the progress-through-growth crowd in singling out compost toilets for particular disdain3. But, honestly, these analyses are such worthless crap that I wouldn’t bother adding them to my muck pile.

Let’s now turn to Malthus. In his Essay on the Principle of Population the old salt argued that there would be an exponential growth in human population but only a linear growth in food production, so that population would outstrip the food supply and result in famine. It turned out he was wrong about population growth, which was less than he predicted. He was also wrong about the growth in the food supply, which was also less than he predicted4. Hey ho. What Malthus’s error doesn’t mean is that humanity will face no resource squeezes in the future. This is important. Let’s look at it some more. You write,

“Unlike any other species, our per capita rate of material and energy throughput alters as a result of changes in technology and our political economy.”

That’s true. In 1983 our species consumed 59 million barrels of petroleum per day, whereas in 2013 we consumed 91 million barrels. So you’re right – our throughput of this dangerously polluting resource indeed has changed. In just thirty years our use of it has increased by over 50%.

You write: “Through technological advance, we can use less of something to produce the same amount…”

That’s also true. We can. But in fact we rarely do. Rebound effects and the economic logic of capitalist growth are such that we generally use even more of something to produce relatively more still (see the oil example above).

You add: “… or replace one raw material with another. We didn’t “run out” of whale blubber. We replaced it with kerosene.”

Could I submit a polite request for you progress-through-growthers to stop harping on about whales and come up with some other examples of resource substitution, preferably ones that are actually true? Oil didn’t ‘save the whales’. It nearly wiped them out. When you can show that the whole modernization package, with all its complex and often unforeseen interdependencies, is resource-sparing and resource-substituting in absolute terms compared to the past, only then can you extol the environmental benefits of modernization. I think the evidence runs against you.

Here’s where the Malthusian bogeyman derails rational thought. It’s possible that countries like Britain and the USA will never again enjoy such cheap, abundant and versatile energy as they did throughout the 20th century. Not inevitable, but possible. And there is nothing ‘Malthusian’ about that statement. A recent commenter on this site wrote that scientists will solve the problem of cheap clean energy in the future because they have to solve it. Here’s where our modern approach to science and technology becomes a kind of magical thinking. Fingering our talismans, we mutter incantations like ‘scientific progress’ to assure ourselves that our techno-priests can resolve all the contradictions of our civilisation. And we issue the gnarly curse of ‘Malthusian’ to any heretic who dares to wonder whether resource constraints might ever be a problem.

You’re right of course that such constraints aren’t just actual, but are mediated by societies. This doesn’t mean that growth is good, ‘stuff’ is good, or that humanity will not experience resource squeezes or environmental crises. Consider these thoughts from Marxist geographer David Harvey,

“natural resources are…technical, social and cultural appraisals and so any apparent natural scarcity can in principle be mitigated, if not totally circumvented, by technological, social and cultural changes. But…cultural forms are frequently just as fixed and problematic as anything else….While [construing the relation to nature as inherently dialectical] would appear to deny the possibility of any out-and-out or prolonged, let alone ‘final’, environmental crisis, it also carries within it the prospect for cascading unintended consequences with widespread disruptive effects….it would be false to argue that there are absolute limits in our metabolic relation to nature that cannot in principle be transcended or bypassed. But this does not mean that the barriers are not sometimes serious and that overcoming them can be achieved without going through some kind of general environmental crisis”5

That’s the kind of cautious progressive thinking that greens can usefully engage with. Your bombastic claim that resource constraints are never a problem isn’t. The unintended consequences are already starting to cascade, and you have nothing to say about them other than your “get thee behind me, Malthusian!” imprecations.

You write that the green de-growth movement is complicit with neoliberalism and austerity. It strikes me that your brand of vulgar anti-Malthusianism is more so. Capitalism, pretty much by definition, is an economic logic in which the search for the greatest fiscal return to capital input is paramount. In certain unusual circumstances, such as we had here in Britain through most of the second half of the twentieth century, this is compatible with situations of technical innovation, increased resource use efficiency and greater rewards to labour. But it’s also compatible with colonial domination, chattel slavery and the increased immiseration of labour. Any sensible account of the history of capitalism – and certainly any sensible self-proclaimed leftist one – would pay less attention than you to technological advance and more to the accumulation of capital through increased labour and resource exploitation6. Capital goes where it’s easiest to make the most money, and only in rare historical circumstances has that logic benefitted those you call ‘ordinary folks’.

In the rich countries these ‘ordinary folks’, you write, “are closer in wealth and have far more in common with third-world workers than we do with our own bosses….Almost everyone I know is just struggling to get by. We don’t need the “Buy Nothing Days” of the trendy anti-consumerist Adbusters magazine, but rather some “Finally-Able-to-Buy-Lots-More Days”.

Despite the philosophical poverty of this cargo-cult, comprador capitalism, a faint ray of light does here illuminate your tunnel-thinking. But just as you’re on the verge of going somewhere worthwhile, somewhere where you might talk about a political alliance of global labour, you scurry off into your comfort zone, that lightless sewer where it’s more entertaining to mock the greens than to think seriously about eco-socialism.

And, Leigh, are you really saying that someone earning the US median income of $74 a day is in the same boat as the billion or so people on $1 a day? I don’t dispute the genuine distress and poverty of many people in developed countries, not least because poverty is never just about the basic mathematics of one’s income. But you need to figure diminishing marginal utility of income into your thinking. Someone on $1 a day will in all likelihood be struggling to get enough nourishment into their body to stay healthy. To them, $10 a day would represent impossible security. And $74 a day might as well be $740 a day, for all the difference it makes. So let’s keep a sense of perspective on our struggles and those of ‘almost everyone we know’, which I suspect in your case (and mine too) doesn’t include too many of the world’s poorest few billion.

Despite your avowed anti-capitalism, what you really seem to be saying is that managed capitalism can deliver prosperity to the masses so long as we claw back a bit of wealth from the richest few. It’s the same fairy-tale that the ecomodernists peddle – with a light touch on the tiller, a judicious trimming of the sails, the rising tide of ‘growth, progress, industry and stuff’ will float all boats, if you’ll forgive me for mixing my maritime metaphors. But it never has and it never will. For all the surplus liquidity in the world, there isn’t the remotest chance that any more than a tiny fraction of the poorest will ever see money that even approaches the income earned by the ordinary folks of the rich countries. The inequality is systemic.

Still, you’re right that ordinary people in rich countries are struggling in their own way. In 1957, Harold Macmillan could say ‘you’ve never had it so good’. Today, not even George Osborne would have the temerity to make such a claim, and he wisely prefers to demonise benefit claimants instead. There’ve been an accelerating number of local or global economic crises since the 1970s, and a burgeoning environmental crisis too. Here’s your opportunity to address how the ordinary people of the world might exploit systemic crisis and work together to replace the capitalism you claim to oppose with something better.

But you don’t take it. Instead the last part of your article is an extended panegyric for nuclear power. I’m not going to engage with it, except to say that whatever the rights and wrongs of nuclear power, it currently provides only 2% of the world’s primary energy production with little prospect of major expansion any time soon. France, your poster child for a sustainable decarbonised nuclear future, still has more than double the per capita carbon dioxide emissions than the global median, and how much more when you figure in its ghost emissions from China and the world’s other workshop nations? “The truth is”, you write, “that we can stop climate change and deliver expanding wealth for all.” If so, it’s not a truth you even begin to substantiate in your article.

You rightly point out that economic growth isn’t restricted to capitalist societies alone. But you don’t examine the scale and consequences of growth under other economic logics, and its vast amplification under conditions of global capitalism. For me, ‘de-growth’ doesn’t imply that any kind of economic growth must always be prevented. It just implies that the vast, systemic, inequality-promoting and biosphere-damaging levels of growth that the world has now achieved as a result of global capitalism need reining in. I can’t see how anyone who claims to be pro-labour and anti-capitalist should take such umbrage at the notion.

Truth is, we in the wealthier countries of the world are probably in for a dose of de-growth whether we like the idea or not. As Giovanni Arrighi pointed out, there’s been a succession of dominant geographical economic cores in modern world history from the Italian city states, to the Netherlands, to Britain, to the USA and now towards China and East Asia7. Each one moved from production to financialisation as it entered its decline, which is what’s happening at the moment in Europe and North America. Financial services now offer better returns to capital than industry in the declining core, but they don’t provide a stable basis for enduring global economic power. So perhaps we ‘ordinary folks’ in countries like Britain need to hope that the rising workers in countries like China will look to us with more generosity than we looked to them when the shoe was on the other foot. Progress-through-growthers like to claim that the workers of the world are united around their desire for cheap consumer goods and a western lifestyle. Undoubtedly there’s some truth in that, but perhaps we in the declining core need to jettison the quaint notion that these rising workers are going to join us in our consumerist penthouse, rather than briefly waving at us on their way up there as our respective elevators pass in different directions. Capitalism thrives on inequality. So given your enthusiasm for its ‘buy-lots-more’ approach, might I suggest you start work – urgently – on squaring industrial growth with socialist internationalism rather than just affecting an empty and complacent solidarity with the world’s striving masses? Or maybe you could curb your enthusiasm for going shopping and think about what a world beyond consumer sovereignty could look like. I think you might find it’s not such a bad place if we put our minds to it. And it’s the place we’re probably headed anyway. You’ve noticed that workers in the currently rich countries are beginning to struggle. There may be ups and downs to come, but their struggles are likely to become enduring and systemic. Wake up, man, and smell the coffee! Ditch your nostalgia for how things used to be and get with a de-growth programme to cushion the landing.

You call for a rediscovery of Promethean ambition. Perhaps you forget that Zeus sent us Pandora with her boxful of troubles as payback for Prometheus’s gift of fire. My own Promethean ambition is for us to embrace our techne, our human skills, and use them to live with humility and wisdom alongside others on our planet. For me, Prometheanism doesn’t mean going cap in hand to the gods with our ritual incantations – Science! Progress! Industry! Cargo! – and asking them for more miracles to get us out of the hole we’ve made for ourselves. Here and now, and with these words, I count myself out of the future-nostalgia mashups of ecomodernism and all manner of progress-through-growth tomfoolery with their cargo cult delusions. So now I really must get to work…

Yours

Mr Puck

References

  1. See http://dark-mountain.net/blog/dark-thoughts-on-ecomodernism-2/; https://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-09-10/ecomodernism-a-response-to-my-critics; https://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-10-09/the-persistence-of-the-peasantry-further-notes-on-the-inverse-productivity-relationship
  1. https://d3gxp3iknbs7bs.cloudfront.net/attachments/902b86b5-eb72-4f97-9a72-ea4f758be1aa.pdf
  1. See also Pascal Bruckner (2013) The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Polity, for another fanatically anti-fanatical work encompassing compost toilets and much other crap besides.
  1. See Denison F. (2012) Darwinian Agriculture, Princeton.
  1. Harvey, D. (2010) The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, Profile, pp.73-6.
  1. See, for example, Heller, H. (2011) The Birth of Capitalism, Pluto.
  1. Arrighi, G. (2009) Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.