the practical art of the future: toward post-capitalist environmental design (rewritten!)

Published online 25 September 2008.

Now that the “bailout bill” has been labeled a fait accompli, it should be time for us (at least those of us who live in “safe states,” where  none of our screaming and shouting will affect the electoral count) to consider the possible invention of the practical art of the future: post-capitalist environmental design.

The point of such a concept of design will be, among other things, to overcome the “merely reactive” nature of environmental/ Left alternatives to the status quo by suggesting that our efforts contribute to more than just efforts to mitigate the damage done by right-wing rule under capitalist conditions.  We do, indeed, have an alternative vision of the world: and this is a beginning discussion of its technics.

(crossposted to Docudharma)

First, a short note about the bailout.  I read DKos regularly, so I should be up to date here by the time you read this.  Check out the diaries of gjohnsit, and the one by yo yo yo, before putting this one to bed.  Are you sure any part of this bailout is necessary, outside of the assistance we would reserve for those whose economic subsistence has been lost?


All right then.  I think we can say for sure that the environmental danger we face is scarier than the one facing the markets.  After all, all that’s at stake in markets is individual money and property, whereas abrupt climate change risks the whole planet Earth.  No government will bail us out when climate disaster bakes the American West to a crisp, the forests of California burning down and being replaced by barren dirt while drought conditions shut down farms across the state.  No government bailout will undo the lives lost in tornadoes, hurricanes, and heat waves made more powerful by CO2-fueled global warming.  Government bailouts will not make food more plentiful in situations of climate-change-prompted crop failure.

No government bailout will restore extinct species to their pristine natural condition, or cool the oceans so that the dead coral reefs can spontaneously regenerate and the carbon dioxide can dissolve back into the oceans.  In the crisis future, we will find ourselves somewhat less capable of undoing the damage done to planet Earth than we think we are now, depending, of course, upon where and when.

So we need to think precisely about what freedom we do have to change things and, rather than just imagining utopias of peace, love, and ecological harmony, offer instead design suggestions that, if put into action, would make more peace, more love, and more ecological harmony possible.  This diary hopes to introduce that field, as such: “post-capitalist environmental design.”

First, where the imbalance lies in environmental design

All too often in this era one of the first things environmentalists want to do is start up businesses.  What will save the Earth, it is imagined, is a new product that people can buy, and so “strategic investment” will be necessary.  This is, of course, the flip side of the traditional environmentalist cult of preservationism: given that business as usual tends to grind up ecosystems as the “natural resources” for consumer products, which evolve into a trash problem, the preservationists want to identify what is truly beautiful about planet Earth, landmarks and such, and preserve it for all eternity.

Neither of these two environmentalist attitudes challenge the basic contradiction between an expanding (capitalist) economy and a limited planet.  The effort to expand capitalism into space, as imagined by the science fiction writers of the 1960s and 1970s, isn’t happening now, and the promised gains in efficiency necessary to make the current system last longer aren’t sufficient (and might not even help).  If environmentalism is to attain a more solid footing, then, capitalism must be challenged.

Now, technological innovation has its place in the environmentalist scheme of things.  But we become lost when we imagine that a problem (environmental crisis) which is fundamentally social (i.e. “economic”) can be resolved merely by technology.  This will require us to become social as well as technological designers — thus “post-capitalist environmental design.”

Second, capitalism as a system

Under capitalism, the innovations in environmental design tend to accept the capitalist system as a given, and so environmental thinking proves itself largely incapable of thinking outside of the capitalist box.  I am currently reading Thomas L. Friedman’s new book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, for review, and even though Friedman seems to have accepted most of the main points of the environmentalist critique of present-day world society, his thinking is habitually stunted by the acceptance of capitalism as a “natural” system, one not even examined in the process of repeated endorsement, and of capitalism as the primary fount of human creativity.  He is thus led into contradiction in Hot, Flat, and Crowded, selecting capitalism as the solution to problems caused by… capitalism.

Contra Friedman, there is only a contingent, and not a necessary, connection between capitalism and creativity.  Capitalism and creativity got married because they were stuck in the same room together, not because they were made for each other.

The creative individual is not necessarily a product of capitalism, nor is the creative individual necessarily “capitalist” in any ideological way.  Creative personalities are typically inducted into capitalist business by the need to eat and to “make a living” in a capitalist context; creative personalities who lived outside of capitalist economy, e.g. the Soviet Union (strictly constructed: see Tony Cliff for a construction of the USSR as capitalist) were victims of authoritarian government drives to substitute brute force for the economic pressure which we may, following Aihwa Ong, call capitalist discipline.  Capitalist discipline is, of course, the uncreative side of capitalism, the side that has billions of workers around the world doing boring, repetitive tasks day in and day out.  The celebration of capitalist creativity, then, is a celebration which values creativity (available in all eras, all times and places) for its contribution to capitalism, and not vice versa.

At any rate, the standard capitalist version of environmental design, explored in depth in Friedman’s book (despite its nagging over-reliance upon business pundits), suggests “alternative energy,” innovation in the realm of consumer products, and “green jobs” as solutions to our environmental problems, with especial reference to abrupt climate change.  Here are some problems with that vision of environmental design:

1.  “Alternative energy” will merely supplement “fossil-fuel” energy unless the fossil-fuel mines are abandoned and the fossil-fuel wells are capped.  Oh, I suppose we could avoid this by discovering an energy source so cheap that the capitalists would voluntarily abandon fossil fuels for the new energy source.  So why hasn’t that happened already?  It’s not like people haven’t been trying to find it.  Yeah, that’s right, it’s not there; either we develop a moral backbone or we’re stuck with oil.

2. Capitalist business relies upon sales for effective demand, i.e. demand backed by money.  The rest of us just don’t have the money to make our demand effective.  Thus the economy of “green jobs” will always remain too small to “green the economy” as a whole, because “green” businesses will only be able to grow to the point of saturation of effective demand, i.e. when the entire privileged class has been marketed.  Oh, sure, try it: sell a few more solar panels.  You’ll reach a limit, probably sooner than later in light of the collapse of the world economy; and at that point you’ll become just another specialist in an economy of niches.

Now, under a GIFT economy, everyone (even that bottom 40% of humanity that makes less than $2/day) could participate in “green-ness.”  But that wouldn’t be capitalism — and, remember, that would entail “gift mining” of, for instance, the rare metallic elements necessary to create large numbers of photovoltaic panels.  Charity mining/ manufacturing of gallium arsenide?  Today we require people to live within a money economy, so such mining is the (unsavory) work they “do for a living.”  In a post-capitalist future, what sort of alternative motivation would make such mining activity motivating to miners?  It’s either a better future for the miners, or it’s nothing.

3.  Capitalist business is malignant.  Stan Cox’s Sick Planet brings this out in full color.  Because capitalist production must cadge effective demand, the world of capitalist advertising, in a role essential to the capitalist economy, must create desires in people to spend.  This, of course, becomes meaningful insofar as it affects those with the money to buy all of the environmentally-harmful junk they’ve been coerced into wanting.  How can you sell something, anything, to the people who have everything?  At any rate, malignant businesses become fruitful and multiply under capitalism, because once you’ve saturated the market of rich people with healthy stuff, they won’t buy any more healthy stuff from you.  So, if circulation is to continue, they must be coerced into buying something else, something NOT healthy.  Enlarging the population of “rich people” through government-directed economic stimulus will simply enlarge the problem of malignant economic activity, even though its original intent may be “green.”

4.  (Semi-)capitalist environmental design models such as that granted by Peter Barnes in “Capitalism 3.0” rely upon the creation of “trustees” for the “commons” without really giving them any real social power — when you have a world full of “entrepreneurs,” real power devolves upon those who design the social games the “entrepreneurs” are playing, i.e. government.  The hitch is that a real commons (rather than the “commons” suggested in Garrett Hardin’s writings) is something that is commonly defended, and not just exploited by enterprising individuals.  When the common defense disappears, so also does the commons.  Barnes is trying to get around the notion that social power has to be acquired rather than being re-imagined in fabulous schemes.  He might have better luck in promoting John Holloway’s political framework (“Change the World Without Taking Power”).

5. What planet Earth desperately needs, in light of all this, is for the global economy to shrink, so as to minimize resource shortage, biodiversity loss, abrupt climate change, and so on.  Of course, that’s not going to happen when the ruling class’s economists are all addicted to the growth hypothesis, and when the status of being “middle class” is advertised to the world’s people as the only way to live.

This, then, outlines the limitations upon capitalist environmental design.  Only when we explore the contours of the box we’re thinking within, can we really know when we’re “thinking outside the box.”

Third: opportunities for post-capitalist environmental design

When we explore “post-capitalist environmental design,” then, we need to be advertising something other than the capitalist way of life.  Green jobs?  How about living off of the land?  Yes, I know, this is another meaningless individual choice; within the framework of “post-capitalist environmental design,” however, it is a small part of the picture: it simply spells out the individual’s role in the “utopia” of harmonious survival and environmental triage that can be foreseen after capitalism’s collapse.

Abrupt climate change is typically described in its sociological context as presenting a “collective action dilemma” — individuals feel “hopeless” in light of the “what can one person do?” excuses they constantly present and re-present which this discussion comes up.

It’s interesting, though, how this sort of thinking, and this sort of despairing rhetoric, never comes up in mass movements.  When the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 was in full swing, nobody was asking “what can one person do?” because it wasn’t merely one person that was doing it.

Thus with post-capitalist environmental design we will want to consider the psychology and sociology of mass movements, in order to invent one of our own: the Mass Movement for a Livable Future.  Ideals such as world peace, oneness with nature, survival, and democracy (especially economic democracy) can be drafted toward such a movement.  Most of the basic human rights that the Zapatistas cite in their movement will serve as motivators.  Such a mass movement may also wish to draw upon principles of spiritual discipline which have, historically, guided humanity to great changes in its way of behaving toward each other.

Mass movements will serve two important purposes: they will form the “historic bloc” that the philosopher Antonio Gramsci argues is the prerequisite to the solidification of a political power structure, and they will change what social philosophers call the “social imaginary,” the given set of presuppositions about life in a society.  The existing state of environmental design, design intended to facilitate the production for “effective demand” that motivates capitalist sales, will constitute a barrier that must be carefully removed by our mass movement and replaced by what Joel Kovel calls “ecocentric production,” production incorporated into a design of ecosystem management.  A mass movement will do this clearing — probably first by shutting down the coalmines and coal-burning plants.

From within our mass movement, then, we will want to be creating physical spaces for re-connection between human beings and the ecosystems of planet Earth.  Places such as the Pomona College Natural Farm will prove valuable if they are sites for the spread of common knowledge of sciences such as agroecology.  We need eco-education like nothing else.

Capitalist environmental design worries about how to duplicate the existing, overextended, society while expressing concerns about abrupt climate change, biodiversity, and so on in the loudest possible voice.  Post-capitalist environmental design will regard the problem as one of how to educate people, both individually and as social groups, to play roles of direct practical stewardship of the Earth.

These roles, then, will define the difference between capitalist discipline, which coerces people into roles of external allegiance for the sake of production for “effective demand,” and ecological discipline, which will have to rely upon individual “free choice” (albeit in a social environment suffused with contributing values) to grant “subject” status to its adherents.  Whereas capitalist discipline contributed to a class division (between owners with ownership duties and workers with labor obligations), ecological discipline will make of everyone a steward of the natural environment.  Being an environmental steward will be the new definition of adulthood.

Organizational principles, forming now to encourage a transitional society from within a capitalist society, may in a post-capitalist sense wish to take on the form of political organizations, but also of 501 (c) 3 charities.  Common Vision may be one such example of post-capitalist environmental design; planting fruit trees for local food production and as carbon and water sinks, its members travel from one end of California to the other in biodiesel-fueled busses.

Regular capitalist businesses are unlikely to present the same transitional opportunities.  They are going to run up against market pressures in a way which is exemplified in the difference between a loan and a charitable donation.  Lenders expect money to be returned, plus interest: charitable donors expect good deeds to be done with the donated money.  In each case, production must cater to the expectations of material supporters, but with charities there is more room to adjust the expectations of material supporters to the goals of post-capitalist environmental design.

Lastly: in conclusion, our primary goals

The material goal of stewardship that will make the most sense today can be seen from within the perspective of Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” in which long periods of stability are marked by periods of rapid change in the biosphere.  We are, then, undergoing a period of rapid change right now (as the climate adjusts itself to current levels of carbon dioxide) and, given the possibility of disaster as a result of the human instigation of ecological instability, we should be seeking ecosystem stability for now.

Given such a macro perspective, we can expect society to be organized in a way which will harmonize individual wills with the movement of society.  “Democracy,” “dialog,” and “consensus” are names we give to processes that will make this harmony possible.  There is, indeed, an evolving art of democracy and of democratic dialog which will contribute to social design as it moves toward the goal stated in the last paragraph.

Such a basic statement of principle will have to serve as a conclusion.  I will get to a more specific discussion of a) organization and b) arcitecture in a future diary.  This one is long enough.


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