Ecological Modernity versus Capitalist Modernity
In this provocative essay, Marco Rosaire Rossi challenges Murray Bookchin's fundamental claim that capitalism's lifeblood is unfettered growth. Contrary to radical wisdom, Rossi writes, if we are to build an ecological society we will need more growth, not less. De-growth in a time of austerity is morally reprehensible and material prosperity must be increased; the Industrial Revolution must be rapidly advanced. Without this progress, humanity will only remain at the threshold of an ecological society and no more.
It has become almost cliché to remark that human civilization is facing an existential crisis unparalleled in history. It is almost cliché, but not quite, because to refer to it as cliché does a disservice to the extensiveness of the problem; and yet, calling it a cliché somehow speaks to the banality of the apocalyptic cries. From across the political spectrum, there is a sense that “The End Is Nigh,” and after “Nigh” has lasted many years—for some, even decades—a sense of apathetic dread sinks in. The world is going to die, it has been dying for years, and apparently there is nothing anyone can do about it.
This acedia of apathetic dread is based both in reality and in ideology. The reality is that the planet is experiencing a major threat in the form of global warming. Our global economic system has put itself in violent opposition to any ecological parameters. The major disruptions of global warming still loom over the horizon; yet, their immanence means that we need to consider the consequences of increasing humanity’s material prosperity. Billions of people need to be pulled out of poverty, but if doing so ends up sending the planet off a cliff then it makes little sense to do just that. At the same time, billions of people are living in abject poverty. Chilling ourselves to their plight out of ecological concern requires a dimming of our sense of humanity. In halting material prosperity we may save the planet but in the process we kill our humanity.
Development or Sustainability?
The ideological source of this apathetic dread is the Morton’s Fork between material security and ecological sustainability to begin with. Ideologically, there appears to be an inability to imagine a society that is materially secure, even prosperous, and ecologically sustainable. Finding a loving marriage between technology and ecology is at the center of many of our ecological and social problems. New technologies must allow ecosystems to become more diverse and stable, and that environmental diversity and stability must be used in such a way that it allows humans the time and leisure to engage in even more sophisticated technological pursuits.
What environmentalists have failed to cultivate when it comes to nature is the same sense of progress that seems instinctual to a modernist understanding of technology, thus their opposition. Since the birth of the environmental movement the entire approach to the natural world has been one of conservation. A pristine, romantic, and often spiritual approach to the natural world has meant that environmentalists have adopted a savior psychology to their activism. Nature, in its innocence, cannot be polluted with civilization. It must be saved from the inherent capriciousness of humanity through prohibitions and austerity.
This one-sided approach to environmentalism not only ignores the vitality and resilience of the natural world, but also establishes an “otherness” between humanity and nature that reinforces humanity’s alienation to the natural world. In the hopes of bringing the “arrogance of man” down to the level of nature, environmentalists have duplicated the very dichotomy that they oppose but with one important twist: Nature is supposed to reign over society, and it should reign even if the supremacy of nature means that certain people in society must be made desolate.
Ecology should not, and cannot, be a synonym for misanthropy. Civilization does have the potential to destroy nature, but it also has the potential to restore and complement it. The modern world has endowed us with both unprecedented destructive capacities and liberating potentialities. Moreover, modern technology has shown us the means to not only liberate humans from the harsh conditions of the natural world, but also to liberate the natural world from a harsh and myopic civilization.
Before the use of coal fed the Industrial Revolution, the main source of energy in the world was wood. Wood is an extraordinarily inefficient source of energy that releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. If the European need for wood had not transferred to coal—and there was no reason to suspect that it would have slowed down—then all of Europe would have been deforested, and we would still be dealing with the problem of climate change. The fossil fuel economy saved humanity from this travesty. Fossil fuels, though problematic in our own time, are far denser forms of energy. They do not require a massive project of deforestation to extract. The movement beyond fossil fuels continues along the same lines as the movement beyond wood, that is, the search for denser and more efficient forms of energy. This project can only come about through the advancement of technological and scientific progress, a furthering of the Industrial Revolution, not its retraction.
Similarly, our economy is potentially going through a subtle process of dematerialization that is forcing a reassessment of the relationship between industrial and postindustrial societies. We are able to generate more wealth, with less stuff, more efficiently. In the developing world, many countries are still experiencing materializing economies, but—as the developed nations dematerializes—there appears to be a point when economic development reaches past material security and into intellectual and cultural achievements. Consumerism is to be feared when it becomes a substitute for social creativity. Consumption, in contrast, is not just metabolically necessary, but socially desirable. The sociability of a farmers’ market or craft fair indicates that there is an innate participatory aspect to consumption that goes beyond avaricious conceptions of humanity as automaton pigs with bottomless stomachs. People consume the most when they are in groups, and yet our consumption is the least material when it is the most communal.
The greatest ecological transformation that the modern world has brought is the migration of people from villages to cities and the bifurcation of rural and urban life. From an ecological perspective, cities, with their geographical density and tightly interwoven economies, create an ideal situation for harmonizing the social and the natural world. Cities enable rich cultural lives and they do so at a minimum of ecological consequences. Stacking homes in apartment buildings and concentrating human activity within a walkable distance requires an intense alteration of an ecological landscape, but that landscape is extremely small, and uses a fraction of the resources used by sprawling suburbs.
In turn, the movement to the cities has been matched and encouraged by startling technological innovations in agriculture. The sustainable intensification that has happened through the creation of the modern city is also happening on the modern farm. Food production has reached heights undreamed of a hundred years ago, and it has done so with a fraction of the labor power and a slowing down of the need for more land. The ability to produce more with less has meant that a feral nature has been able to bounce back. The social and the natural world are cobbling together a lasting peace within a strategic division between urban, rural, and feral landscapes.
These important trends give hope to reconciling technology and ecology but they are not inevitable. Apathetic dread should not be replaced by euphoric naiveté. These trends have only developed through an effort to modernize civilization. This includes pursuing a secular and scientific worldview that values innovation and technological achievements, but it also includes expanding democratic governance, ensuring social and economic equality, and encouraging cosmopolitan perspectives. Dealing with our current ecological crisis means that we must recognize that our inability to move from fossil fuels to other sources of energy is rooted in stubborn institutional arrangements that do not respond more to the imperatives hierarchical management and market competition than human and ecological needs do.
Capitalism: No friend of growth
Global warming is a market failure of potentially catastrophic proportions. The carbon released into the earth’s atmosphere is externalized from the transactions within our economy, and this externalization means that the cost of this pollution is placed on future generations and the environment. The pursuit of developing nations to have a living standard on par with that of developed nations is thought to be at the heart of this market failure, but that is a misplaced analysis. Free market libertarians and Luddite eco-socialists alike have thought that economic development was a byproduct of capitalism. This assumption ignores the reality that the areas of the world that have been forced to deal with the fiercest free-market conditions are the areas of the world that have been the most chronically underdeveloped. Developing nations have only been able to shake off the yoke of imperialism through establishing planned economies, industrial policies, and social safety nets that prevent the self-destructive tendencies of markets.
For decades, pioneering social ecologists such as Murray Bookchin warned environmentalists and political radicals of a coming ecological collapse initiated by capitalist modes of production. For Bookchin it was capitalism’s “grow-or-die” ethos that inexorably linked the market economy to the simplification and eventual destruction of complex life, including humanity. Bookchin got the problem right, but the causal mechanism wrong. Indeed, capitalist modes of production are at the heart of much of our current ecological problems, but it is not because capitalism inherently promotes economic growth. If there is one major lesson that should be drawn from post-World War II economic history, especially from our own globalized neoliberal era, it is that the economic growth unleashed by unfettered free markets is quite limited.
Free market capitalism does not seem to operate along the lines of “grow-or-die,” but instead along the lines of “grow-then-die,” meaning that macroeconomic growth under capitalism is hindered by the same anarchic market forces that lead to its initial paroxysm. And it is the periods of economic destruction—where there are continual recessions and extreme social volatility—that pose the greatest threats to our ecology. It is in those periods when it is the most difficult for people to understand that the fate of humanity is intimately tied to the fate of the natural world, and when people are least inclined to use additional resources to explore newer, more environmentally sustainable technologies.
Capitalism is at the heart of our ecological crisis not because it develops economies, but for the very fact that it does the opposite. Joseph Schumpeter’s plucking of the term “creative destruction” from Marxists has both enlightened and obfuscated our conceptual understanding of economic development and its relation to technology. For Schumpeter, largely drawing on Marxist writings on capitalism, creative destruction referred to periods of economic development where an old world was destroyed to make way for the prosperity of a new one. His meaning is more akin to the Hegelian notion Aufhebung, a concept that is always underneath Marx’s work, than to the mechanistic repetition of collapse and regeneration of the business cycle that free-market apologists have emphasized.
The exogenous factor for these economic upheavals was the introduction of new technologies, ones that were able to internalize externalities, create efficiencies, and thus undermine all previous forms of competition, even monopolistic forms. Schumpeter was correct in recognizing the inherent developmental nature within economies and the important role of technological progress as in usurping a given economic order, but his willingness to attribute this progress to capitalists, specifically large corporations and monopolistic entities, clouds the actual nature of this economic development. The increasing complexity of economic transactions and technological innovation demand that those periods of creative destruction become less driven by lone inventors and more the result of collective institutions and mass social cooperation.
The belief that capitalism, as an ethical framework, can save itself by its own innovation ignores the stark reality that to produce such innovation in complex modern societies capitalist ethics must be violated, sometimes violently so. Marx and Engels were correct: there is a disjunction between modes of production that require increasingly cooperative institutions and an economic system that promotes an extreme individualistic ethos above all else. But, their focus on the birth of factory labor out of feudal artisanship was myopic. Capitalism’s inconsistencies arise not only within the factory, where the cooperation of workers to produce goods is at odds with the individual ownership of the factory by capitalists, but also in society at large, where the demands for modern technological innovation require huge economies of scale and cooperation between workers in entire industries. In this way, economies have developed despite private ownership and hierarchical forms of management, not because of them.
As the Solow-Swan growth model has shown, the main engine for economic growth in developed nations, at least since World War II, has been the introduction of technological innovation. In this same period, the primer for this engine has been public sector spending. It is the public sector that has played the most critical role in economic development through planning economies and allocating resources toward research and development. Unfortunately, the public, disengaged from their political institutions by a sprawling hierarchical class of bureaucrats and professional politicians, have allowed a parasitic private sector to profit from this innovation and to direct this allocation in a manner that best serves them. Regardless though, modern capitalist prosperity has only been able to occur through shadow socialism. The irony of all modern entrepreneurs is that none of them would have been able to innovate without the aid of the state.
Socialism, democracy and equality
The question then beckons: why should socialism remain in the shadows? What is needed to deal with the crisis of global warming is not policies of planned economic de-growth that mimic rightwing austerity under a socialists facade, but rapid and sustainable economic growth through embracing technological innovations that reconcile the tension between society and nature. A great confusion has overcome both the acolytes and adversaries of capitalism.“Capitalism” as a particular mode of production has become so synonymous with economics in general that any economic growth is seen as capitalist economic growth, regardless of its context or results.
In actuality, capitalism is an example of an alienated economy where the vast majority of its participants—that is to say, workers and consumers—are unaware of their true economic potential. The ultimate form of “creative destruction” regarding capitalism is the technological and economic development out of capitalism itself. The humanist desire for continuous and sustainable economic development, the constant pursuit for ecologically sound and cooperative forms of production and consumption is a threat to capitalism, not the apex of its expression. Polemical calls for economic de-growth in a world where the majority of people still live in abject poverty are worse than strategically inept; they are morally reprehensible and politically asphyxiating.
Democracy, especially sophisticated forms of direct democracy, cannot advance without increasing material prosperity. Since the time of Aristotle, it has been recognized that for democracy to function there must be a degree of leisure time spent among the population. No robust public life can be established in a society where material scarcity causes people to devote the majority of their time to securing the fundamental means of subsistence. Further, a society where technologies have reduced, and in some cases eliminated, odious tasks liberates people to engage in higher cultural functions, including their own self-management and governance. This is especially the case for those who have been traditionally denied access to the public sphere. Despite its necessity for its time, the eighteenth-century cry that “we are all born equal” has become an ossified platitude. The reality is that we are not all born equal. Nature produces grave inequalities between us in ability. Morality demands that we rectify these inequalities by creating new opportunities, both socially and materially, for all.
There is a dialectical relation between social equality and technological innovation. Modern feminism would have an entirely different meaning if breakthroughs in contraceptive technologies were not established by the mid-twentieth century. The case is similar for the elderly, for transgender individuals, for people with disabilities, children, and nations established in areas of the world with a dearth of natural resources. In each situation, the interaction between social struggles and technological innovations has led to greater social inclusion. People are not born equal, rather, they are perpetually made and remade equal by continuous efforts at social uplift and prosperity.
There is no reason to doubt that such “equalizing” efforts could not only continue but be advanced into the ecological realm. Modern technologies and the growth of material prosperity have within them the potential to “uplift” the environment. Far from being a matter of mere conservation, environmental sustainability in the modern world is a twin-cousin to development economics. Influenced by the work of soft deep ecologists such as Bill McKibben, many environmentalists have lamented the “end of nature” and arrival of the Anthropocene, fearing that it signifies the beginning of the end for biodiversity. No doubt, the Anthropocene has this potential, but it also has another potential. Through modeling its environment to ensure human prosperity while at the same time organizing its social institutions to guarantee environmental stewardship, humanity has a historical opportunity that is unprecedented among any species on that planet. Humanity can escape its Malthusian traps through continually enriching, rather than simplifying, it surrounding environment. Its flourishing as a species could be a boon for biodiversity rather than its dwindling.
There needs to be a conscious social reconfiguration that utilizes denser forms of energy, dematerializes economies, and geographically decouples humanity from nature within a triad of urban, rural, and feral development. If such a reconfiguration where to occur it would mean a massive expansion of economic growth through the unleashing of humanity’s technological and scientific potential. The complexity of such a project can only happen through the type of large participatory planned economy that socialists have always advocated for. All capitalists have a vested interest in protecting their business model, even if such a model is based on an obsolete technology that is destroying the planet. The only way societal development can avoid getting bogged down in the obstinateinterests of capitalists is if economic interests become the general interest of all. That is only possible in a democratic economic system that values the participation and perspective of each individual, in community, instead of the will of one class over another.
The biggest problem with modern civilization is that it has not occurred. What is often referred to as modernity is actually a stunted version of modernity’s potential. At best, it is a twilight period in-between a barbarous civilization rooted in superstitious, hierarchy, and unbridled competition, and a more harmonious world. The question is will humanity cross the Rubicon and move beyond the twilight into a better tomorrow? That is dependent on how much it can embrace the modernist project today and find a renewed appreciation for reason, science and technology, along with an expanding circle of compassion that encompasses all of humanity and the natural world.