“Modernity” is a tricky term to define. Some associate it with the growth of liberalism and greater political freedoms for many, an overall shift in the West toward secularism, urbanization, and a broadly defined “rationality.” From a more material perspective, one could also argue that Western modernity meant the construction of high-energy civilizations that far exceed previous epochs in terms of resource usage and environmental impact – in other words, unsustainable consumer societies.
With climate disaster intensifying and the likelihood of an ecologically just transition growing dimmer by the day, it does not seem hyperbolic to say that Western (or Global North) modernity has proved that its most enduring contribution to humanity may be the annihilation of civilization as we currently know it.
The pollutant ills of “modernity”
Modernity, as it reified in Northern consumer-capitalist societies, is reliant on high-energy technocratic industrialism. At the governance level, this is synonymous with the top-down imposition of the industrial capitalist mode of production in Northern societies and the Southern nations they target for resource exploitation. At its most basic physical level, it means higher energy use in nearly every aspect of existence, from domestic life to travel to food production, for those who manage the capitalist state as well as those who labour under it.
Such high energy use does not promise material wellbeing. As Vaclav Smil writes in Energy and Civilization: A History:
…higher energy use by itself does not guarantee anything except greater environmental burdens. The historical evidence is clear. Higher energy will not ensure a reliable food supply; it will not confer strategic security; it will not safely underpin political stability; it will not necessarily lead to a more enlightened governance; and it will not bring widely shared increases in a nation’s standard of living.
Modernity as it exists in the Global North, as a consumer-capitalist society built around extremely high energy usage, is not only unsustainable – it is in itself undesirable. It speeds up perception, alienates the individual subject, atomizes social life, and brutally exploits the masses of the Global South, the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and the materially unfortunate in the imperial core. And yet, we seem to be stuck with this system, to the extent that even many on the left seem incapable of radically critiquing our ways of being.
Imperialism and heteronomous production
It follows that “modernity” as we experience it in the North is a mixture of two important concepts: Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen’s “imperial mode of living” and Ivan Illich’s idea of “heteronomous” production. The former draws attention to the fact that Northern consumption patterns rely on out-of-sight and deeply exploitative production relationships in the “periphery” or Global South; the latter describes an economic mode in which consumption patterns are dictated from above and the world is readily defined for the consumer’s satisfaction.
The Northern consumer is, as Brand and Wissen write, embedded in a socioeconomic reality in which the most convenient mode of living is the one that depends most on cheap products manufactured in the Global South and highly pollutant energy resources – but at the same time, the consumer did not choose this mode of living. It was imposed externally, by the managers of the capitalist state, with no meaningful democratic input from below (as Illich argues).
The result is that, while billionaires and corporations pollute up to one million times more than most other people in the world, consumers in the Global North also far surpass ordinary people in the Global South in terms of both greenhouse gas emissions and gigajoules (units of energy consumption).
These facts, coupled with the miseducation of the public in Canada and the rest of the Western world (most people have no conception of how imperialism today functions or how their consumption patterns are embedded in it), make the possibility of realizing alternative ecological futures seem extremely remote.
Techno-fetishism on the Western left
It does not help that some writers on the left, such as Aaron Bastani and Leigh Philips, seem more concerned with appropriating the technologies of industrial consumer-capitalism for a kind of techno-utopian consumer-communism instead of asking what effect these technologies will have on their users. In the process, such writers tend to demean the idea of localization, agroecology, and degrowth, all defined as the antithesis of “progress,” while extoling the possibilities of digitization, automation, gene editing, synthetic food, and even asteroid mining.
In this view, degrowth becomes austerity, technocratic industrialism becomes progress, and unrestrained consumption habits remain unchallenged.
The main concern of theories like Philips’ and Bastani’s appears to be using the argot of communist theory and the requisite Marx citations to legitimize the consumption patterns of those immersed in Northern consumer-capitalism – in other words, redwashing the imperial mode of living.
The techno-utopian idea of industrial-communist luxury-for-all is not possible within the natural limits of the planet, nor does it take into account the dehumanizing effects of an increased reliance on technology, as explored by thinkers such as Marshall McLuhan, Douglas Rushkoff, and Karl Marx himself. There is no accounting for the social metabolism. And there is no consideration of the fact that most people may not find a fully automated future of unfettered consumption of luxury goods desirable in the least.
In brief, these “luxury for all” techno-utopian futures are diversions. They are not serious. As Jim Handy outlined in his recent book Tiny Engines of Abundance: A History of Peasant Productivity and Repression, the increased application of “innovative” technological methods of the type they endorse to farmland in both Northern and Southern countries, from Britain’s Agricultural Revolution of the 1700-1800s to the modern Green Revolution and GMO crops, always leads to greater dispossession and the overall shrinking of farming communities.
The justifications of the industrial capitalists who imposed these technologies globally and the techno-fetishist leftists who endorse industrialized farming are the same: both argue that peasant livelihoods are anathema to an amorphously defined idea of “progress,” the unstated conclusion of which is that for “progress” to continue, these livelihoods must be destroyed.
Toward an ecological civilization
It is fortunate that more substantive work is currently being done by eco-socialists such as John Bellamy Foster, Jason Hickel, and Kohei Saito. It is also a blessing that people’s movements and socialist states outside the imperial core have persevered through various setbacks in their paths to construct new and more ecologically sound modes of living. These should be our lodestars on the left.
As John Bellamy Foster recently explained in Monthly Review, there is a long tradition of socialist thinkers arguing that the issue of ecology under socialism is not simply about more technocratic management structures – it is about actively reforming how individuals view, engage with, and respect the natural world, of which we are only a miniscule element, in order to create a new “ecological civilization.”
Foster notes that Xi Jinping used the phrase “ecological civilization” in October 2017 to describe China’s approach to the global environmental crisis, one which seeks to “step up efforts to establish a legal and policy framework…that facilitates green, low-carbon, and circular development,” “promote[s] afforestation,” “strengthen[s] wetland conservation and restoration” and “take[s] tough steps to stop and punish all activities that damage the environment.”
Foster explains that this is both a top-down and bottom-up program:
“The object is to mobilize the whole society for environmental protection…Environmental organizing at the grassroots level, based on the self-mobilization of the population, is a powerful force in today’s China, pointing to the development of a new ecological communism.”
As opposed to an ecological civilization in which subjecthood itself is reshaped, Leigh Philips and Michael Rozworski, authors of The People’s Republic of Walmart, call for what they dub an “ecologically rational civilization” in which supply chains and consumption habits remain essentially intact, but the corporations themselves are nationalized. Anthony Galluzzo explains:
Leigh Philips and Michael Rozworski advocate the construction of a global, ‘ecologically rational civilization’ organized along the lines of a socialist Walmart and its global, just-in-time supply chains. Walmart provides a technical model for socialist planning in an ecologically sustainable manner, at least according to the authors, as if meeting consumer demand outside a market system represents the solution to our ecocatastrophe rather than the problem.
Vaclav Smil can offer a clear and articulate counterpoint to such notions. In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, he stated the idea that Global North consumers can maintain their current consumption habits without hindering an ecologically just transition is nonsense. “Growth must end,” he asserted, continuing:
The options are quite clear from the historical evidence. If you don’t manage decline, then you succumb to it and you are gone. The best hope is that you find some way to manage it. We are in a better position to do that now than we were 50 or 100 years ago, because our knowledge is much vaster. If we sit down, we can come up with something. It won’t be painless, but we can come up with ways to minimise that pain.
He added: “it’s important not to talk in global terms. There will be many approaches which have to be tailored and targeted to each different audience…In some places we have to foster what economists call de-growth. In other places, we have to foster growth.”
The obvious targets for degrowth should be industrial farming, military spending, and fossil fuel and other extractive industries in Global North nations. The obvious targets for growth should be agroecological food production in urban and rural spaces, housing, public transportation infrastructure to ensure mobility while curbing emissions, and whole-of-government initiatives for managing environmental fallout à la Cuba’s Life Task project. The North can assist Southern nations with the lattermost objective, without dictating their methods, through an ecological debt agreement of the kind endorsed in the Havana Programme of Action and the Cochabamba People’s Agreement.
Ecosocialist degrowth over redwashed consumerism
Ecosocialist degrowth can sow the seeds of an ecological civilization and condemn the “ecologically rational civilization” endorsed by some Northern leftists to the dustbin. Michael Löwy, Bengi Akbulut, Sabrina Fernandes, and Giorgos Kallis explain:
Ecosocialist degrowth also involves transformation, through a process of democratic deliberation, of existing consumption models—for instance, an end to planned obsolescence and nonrepairable goods; of transport patterns, for instance, by greatly reducing the hauling of goods by ships and trucks (thanks to the relocalization of production), as well as airplane traffic. In short, it is much more than a change of property forms, it is a civilizational transformation, a new “way of life” based on values of solidarity, democracy, equaliberty, and respect for Earth.
Chris Smaje, author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity and a Shared Earth, offers a compelling vision in which a future of localized and sustainable farming practices lays the foundation for a larger ecological civilization. This is a vision which fits with the examples of grassroots reforestation and land reclamation efforts in modern China offered by Foster.
Smaje’s vision of a small farm future is one in which “local, labour-intensive, small-scale farming economies [serve] as an adaptive response” to ecological crisis and “a path to energetic deintensification and greater resource efficiency.” One of the benefits of smaller farms, he argues, is that they tend to “adjust their activities to sustain the ecological base in their locality that underpins their productivity…and they tend to operate in a de-commodifying (but not necessarily un-commodified) way compared to large farms.”
This is a practical and edifying alternative to the redwashed consumerism that some on the left posit. It is also a model for carving out a space in which to build new ecological consciousness outside the logic of global capitalism.
In reference to the kind of autonomous living advocated by Ivan Illich, Smaje writes:
…we now also need to build autonomies from the global capitalist political economy orchestrated by those governments that continue to generate climate change – autonomies that will enable us to adapt to climate change as best we can and work towards a better future than those governments can deliver. The actionable agenda for a better future I propose is a small farm future, which is not a nihilistic one.
Agroecological adaptation to climate change, and against the global capitalist system that generates it, is one way that we on the left can envision new ways of inching toward a sustainable future. Ecologically minded people with practical knowledge in other fields can and should envision how their disciplines may serve the same goal. Overall, however, the plan of action should be the same: empowering localized economies and grassroots organizations as a way to mitigate resource overuse and move toward an ecological civilization. Any model that begins from the proposition that consumption patterns can remain unchanged is a nonstarter.
Teaser photo credit: A cheesemaking workshop with goats at Maker Faire 2011. The sign declares, “Eat your Zipcode!” By Steven Walling – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15270026