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The Growth Paradigm: Measuring Nothing

By Chad Frederick - Institute for Social Ecology, January 2018

The following essay is an excerpt from America’s Addiction to Automobiles, by Chad Frederick. The book argues that contrary to the ethos of much contemporary urban planning, simply increasing the multimodal infrastructure of our cities is not enough to free them from automobile dependency. This task requires that we change the underlying logic of city governance, away from the growth paradigm to the sustainable development paradigm, with equity at its center.

Chad Frederick is an instructor of public affairs at Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky and a senior research associate at the Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods at the University of Louisville. Visit his new blog, Cities are the Key or connect with him via Twitter @CitiesAreTheKey. The introduction and first chapter can be read for free following this link to book’s publisher. 

THE GROWTH PARADIGM: MEASURING NOTHING

Cities are currently developed, maintained, and most importantly, governed according to the standard of growth, particularly economic growth. Despite being shown insufficient for the task of producing stable, just, and sustainable cities, the resilience of the growth paradigm is that it has become a habit; it is “normal.” It has been around long enough, and has been correlated to progress and stability well enough, to pre-empt any discussion of evolving beyond it. As Stephen Purdey (2010) writes, “The paradigm is thoroughly implicit in all aspects of the socio-economic and political life of modern human society, and as such is so transparently normal that its presence, character and consequences rarely provoke critical scrutiny” (p. 8). In this way, it is quite powerful.

The growth paradigm is based on the deeply flawed and utopian assumption that growth creates all the other good things in life, such as quality of life, stability, and opportunity. For example, it is popularly—but uncritically—assumed that as the economy grows, more people can join the middle class. Certainly, the middle class has grown since the 18th century; the Industrial Age created the conditions for the growth paradigm to emerge. But correlation is not causation. The fact that the middle class grew as the national economy grew over the past 200 years has less to do with some “natural outcome” of a growing economy, and more to do with people actively and collectively advocating on their own behalf, particularly by demanding higher wages that otherwise would not have been given.

Still, whatever the case might have been from the founding of the United States until the end of World War II, there is no correlation between the size and strength of the middle class and growth in the U.S. economy since then. In fact, from 1980 to 2014, the correlation is negative. The Center for American Progress (Miller and Madland 2014) reported that “the share of working-age households falling into the middle-class range fell from 56.5% in 1979 to only 45.1% in 2012.” In contrast, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2016) (OECD), the national economy grew from $12,500 per capita to nearly $56,000 per capita in 2014.

Libertarian Municipalism: Networked Cities as Resilient Platforms for Post-Capitalist Transition

By - C4SS, January 20, 2018

We live in a time of terminal crisis for centralized institutions of all kinds, including the two most notable members of the genus: states and large corporations. Both a major cause and major symptom of this transition is the steady reduction in the amount of labor needed to produce a given level of output, and consequently in total aggregate demand for wage labor. This shows up in shrinking rates of workforce participation, and a shift of a growing part of the remaining workforce from full-time work to part-time and precarious employment (the latter including temporary and contract work). Another symptom is the retrenchment of the state in the face of fiscal crisis and a trend towards social austerity in most Western countries; this is paralleled by a disintegration of traditional employer-based safety nets, as part of the decline in full-time employment.

Peak Oil (and other fossil fuels) is creating pressure to shorten global supply and distribution chains. At the same time, the shift in advantage from military technologies for power projection to technologies for area denial means that the imperial costs of enforcing a globalized economic system of outsourced production under the legal control of Western capital are becoming prohibitive.

The same technological trends that are reducing the total need for labor also, in many cases, make direct production for use in the informal, social and household economies much more economically feasible. Cheap open-source CNC machine tools, networked information and digital platforms, Permaculture and community gardens, alternative currencies and mutual credit systems, all reduce the scale of feasible production for many goods to the household, multiple household and neighborhood levels, and similarly reduce the capital outlays required for directly producing consumption needs to a scale within the means of such groupings

Put all these trends together, and we see the old model of secure livelihood through wages collapsing at the same time new technology is destroying the material basis for dependence on corporations and the state.

But like all transitions, this is a transition not only from something, but to something. That something bears a more than passing resemblance to the libertarian communist future Pyotr Kropotkin described in The Conquest of Bread and Fields, Factories and Workshops: the relocalization of most economic functions into mixed agricultural/industrial villages, the control of production by those directly engaged in it, and a fading of the differences between town and country, work and leisure, and brain-work and muscle-work.

Climate Crisis and the State of Disarray

By William C. Anderson - ROARMag, December 2017

We are indebted to the Earth. Our gracious host has provided us with more than enough resources to live, grow and prosper over time. But throughout history, and especially in the modern capitalist era, some have let their desire for more become a perilous dedication to conquest. The urge to make other humans, wildlife and all parts of nature submit to the will of markets, nations and empires is the rule of the day. Today, anything associated with nature or a true respect for it is regarded as soft. That which is not vulturous like the destructive economics of the reigning system is steamrolled to pave the road to unhinged expansion.

This logic of expansion and conquest undoubtedly changes the relationship between humans and their environment. In this context, the “debate” over climate change actually becomes a matter of human survival. Those who entertain climate change as a question at all have already, maybe unknowingly, chosen a side. The fact is that climate change will create more refugees and forced human migrations; it will lead to the murder of environmental activists around the world and start new resource wars; it will spread disease and destabilize everything in its path — and more. Unless capitalism’s unquenchable thirst for natural resources and the fossil fuel combustion that powers it is abandoned, the Earth will be forced to do away with humans cancerously plundering the carbon energy it has stored over millions of years of natural history.

What is most unfortunate is that capitalism, which has multi-layered discriminations encoded within it — racism, sexism, classism, and so on — affects how thoroughly people are capable of bracing for the damages wrought by climate change. Though nature is indiscriminate in its wrath, the sustained ability to protect oneself from rising temperatures and natural disasters is a privilege not all can afford. Those who are already harmed under the pitiless whims of capital are doubly hurt by the lack of protection afforded to them for life in an increasingly turbulent environment. The Global South is much more likely to feel the brunt of climate change, despite contributing much less to causing it. But even in the world’s wealthiest nations, the poor and working classes are much more vulnerable to ecological devastation.

If the people who understand the gravity of the situation want this state of affairs to cease, then the system of capitalism and the egregious consumption of the so-called First World itself must cease. That which puts all of us at risk cannot be tolerated. The vast satisfactions in wealth hoarded by a few does not outweigh the needs of the many suffering the consequences every day, as the Earth deals with malignant human behavior. The systemic drive towards excess that is pushing the planet’s carrying capacity to the brink must be brought to a halt throughout the world, but especially in the empire that exemplifies excess best: the United States of America.

Organizing on a Sinking Ship: The Future of the Climate Justice Movement

By Kevin Buckland - ROARMag, December 2017

Climate change rarely comes up at the top of the list when people are asked about issues that concern them most. While this is not surprising, it is nonetheless disturbing considering the gravity of the climate crisis. Yet the key problem of our collective negligence of the climate crisis is reflected in the question itself, rather than the answer. Let us be clear: climate change is not an “issue.” Rather, it is now the entirety of the biophysical world of which we are part. It is the physical battleground in which every “issue” is played out — and it is crumbling.

The global justice movement is one of the many actors trying to maneuver on this battlefield, and the direction it is headed in is reshaping the narratives, tactics and structures that comprise it, hinting at the future of social movement organizing on a radically transformed planet. The rules of the game have changed: welcome to the Capitalocene — goodbye to “activism-as-usual.” As the climate changes, so must movements if they are to withstand, even thrive, inside the coming cataclysm of winds, waves and wars.

Movement Cultures in the Capitalocene

As our planet rockets into a new geological epoch, we find ourselves on unfamiliar terrain. The only thing that is certain is that no one knows what will happen, and no one is in control. The rest of our lives will be defined by an exponential ecological entropy that will increasingly destabilize both the economic and political foundations upon which the modern world has been built. All bets are off. The collapse will be anything but boring.

The Capitalocene is defined partly by a disappearance of spaces of refuge: there is no escaping this problem, and nowhere to hide. We’re all in the same boat. But the boat has crashed into a drifting iceberg, and is sinking fast. Our response to the climate crisis has been to rearrange deckchairs on the Titanic, but whatever we are doing, it isn’t working. It’s time to try something new. On a sinking ship, one’s logic and frames of references must change, just as the traditional frames of the left must evolve in the emerging context of crisis. The struggle is no longer to organize the deck-chairs so that we can ensure equal access for all. Rather, the most critical question now becomes: “How can we best organize ourselves to turn as many of these deck-chairs into life rafts?”

Perhaps as obvious as the climate crisis itself has been the inability of social movements to properly organize around it. For years, the climate movement has been trapped between two discordant discourses: between changing light-bulbs and global revolution. On one hand, any action can seem minuscule and ineffective compared to a crisis as big as the entire world. On the other, deep systemic change can seem far too slow for the urgency of the crisis we face. Yet one cannot “fight climate change” in the absence of such structural transformations, for the climate crisis is itself the result of an extractivist logic based upon an exploitative relationship with the world around us. Long before the industrial revolution, the emerging capitalist world-system was fueled by the exploitation of women, people of color and entire ecosystems.

The climate crisis is the ultimate symptom of this extractivist dynamic, and is an entirely new species of crisis that requires our movements to enact an entirely different logic — including entirely different values, morals, assumptions and strategies — if we are to confront it. Confronting climate change means confronting the system and the culture that has caused it, and providing a scalable alternative. More than merely constructing a new politics to confront the “issue” of climate change, the task of the left in the Capitalocene is to cultivate new processes for engagement in politics. The culture of organizing itself becomes key.

If movements in the Capitalocene are to effectively confront this crisis, it means enacting an alternative set of values and organizational principles. The legacy may have less to do with solar panels and community gardens than with incubating scalable organizing cultures that can be shared with allies, volunteers and partners in ways that improve access to justice as we move together into an exponentially tumultuous future. It may just be these cultures, being incubated now inside globally connected movements, that will write the next chapter of human history.

Cultural revolution is not only desired; it is needed. If we fail to offer scalable discursive, tactical and structural alternatives to the extractivist logic that has created the climate crisis, capitalism may itself transform the coming wave of disruptions into its own benefit, exacerbating existent inequalities for every social and ecological “issue” as it strengthens its stranglehold of the future on a rapidly destabilizing battleground. History is speeding up. It’s time to play to win.

Time to Pull the Plugs

By Andreas Malm - ROARMag, December 2017

Our best hope now is an immediate return to the flow. CO2 emissions have to be brought close to zero: some sources of energy that do not produce any emissions bathe the Earth in an untapped glow. The sun strikes the planet with more energy in a single hour than humans consume in a year. Put differently, the rate at which the Earth intercepts sunlight is nearly 10,000 times greater than the entire energy flux humans currently muster — a purely theoretical potential, of course, but even if unsuitable locations are excluded, there remains a flow of solar energy a thousand times larger than the annual consumption of the stock of fossil fuels.

The flow of wind alone can also power the world. It has nothing like the overwhelming capacity of direct solar radiation, but estimates of the technically available supply range from one to twenty-four times total current energy demand. Other renewable sources — geothermal, tidal, wave, water — can make significant contributions, but fall short of the promises of solar and wind. If running water constituted the main stream of the flow before the fossil economy, light and air may do so after it.

A Transition to the Flow

How fast could a transition to the flow — all those sources of energy originating in the sun and flowing through the biosphere — be implemented? In the most comprehensive study to date, American researchers Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi suggest that all new energy could come from wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and hydroelectric installations by 2030. Reorienting manufacturing capabilities towards their needs, the world would not have to build one more coal-fired — or even nuclear — power plant, gasworks, internal combustion engine or petrol station. After another two decades, all old equipment based on the stock could be taken off-line, so that by 2050 the entire world economy — manufacturing, transportation, heating: everything — would run on renewable electricity, roughly 90 percent of which the sun and the wind would provide. The job could be done by technologies already developed.

In the real world, the flow does seem to be undergoing something of a boom, output of wind and solar growing exponentially year after year. Despite the financial crisis, global wind-power capacity increased by 32 percent in 2009; for photovoltaics — also known as solar panels — the figure reached 53 percent. In the eighteen months ending in April 2014, more solar power was adopted in the US than in the previous thirty years; in 2013, 100 percent of the fresh electricity in Massachusetts and Vermont came from the sun, while China installed more photovoltaics than any country had ever done before in a single year.

Yet the flow remained a drop in the fossil bucket, evidently doing nothing to dampen the emissions explosion. Between 1990 and 2008 — from the first to the fourth IPCC report — 57 times more fossil than renewable energy came online in the world economy; by 2008, wind represented a trifling 1.1 percent and photovoltaics a microscopic 0.06 percent of primary energy supply; excluding hydropower, renewable sources generated a mere 3 percent of the electricity. In 2013, more energy entered the world economy from coal than from any other fuel. How can this be? Why is humanity not running for life out of the fossil economy towards one based on the flow? What impediments block its way?

A prime suspect is price: fossil fuels simply remain cheaper. And indeed, one decade into the millennium, renewable sources still cost more on average than the conventional incumbents. But the gap narrowed fast. In many parts of the US, onshore wind was already neck and neck with fossil energy, the price of turbines having fallen by 5 percent per annum for thirty years. Photovoltaics crashed at double that speed. In 2014, after a fall of 60 percent in only three years, solar panels cost one-hundredth of what they did in 1975. In nineteen regional and national markets, they had attained “grid parity,” meaning that they matched or undercut conventional sources without the support of subsidies.

Had it not been for state subsidies to fossil energy — six times larger than those to renewables in 2013 and showing no signs of decreasing — sun and wind might have had significantly lower relative prices. Had the costs of climate change, air pollution, lethal accidents and other “externalities” been included in the market price of fossil fuels, they would not have stood a chance.

The ongoing collapse in the prices of the flow is, at bottom, a function of its profile: the fuel is already there, free for the taking, a “gift of nature” or Gratisnaturkraft, to speak with Marx. The only thing that has exchange value is the technology for capturing, converting and storing the energy of the fuel, and like all technologies, it is subject to economies of scale: mass production slashes the costs of panels and turbines. Every time the cumulative volume of photovoltaic installations has doubled, their market prices have declined by roughly 20 percent.

Moreover, there are numerous potentials for increasing performance and further cutting costs. In what is perhaps the only subfield of the climate debate bristling with optimism and near-utopian zeal, experts predict that both solar and wind will be generally cheaper than fossil fuels sometime before 2025. There is talk of approaching “peak fossil fuels,” beyond which coal, oil and gas will be left in the ground simply because they cost so much more than their clean alternatives.

Defying Dystopia: Shaping the Climate Future We Want

By Nick Buxton - ROARMag, December 2017

We live in an age of dystopias on demand. Whether it’s Black Mirror, The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale, there is no limit to satiating our desires for dark, apocalyptic visions of the future. Unfortunately the scariest experience does not involve the world of the imaginary; it just requires reading the latest climate science.

In one such piece in July 2017, New York Magazine managed to pull together all the possible worst-case climate scenarios in a longread called “The Uninhabitable Earth.” Through interviews with climate scientists, it painted a world of bacterial plagues escaping from melting ice, devastating droughts and floods so frequent they are just called “weather,” and biblical-like tableaus of entire nations on the move. The piece is bleaker than the darkest of sci-fi, because there is no way of dismissing it as fiction.

Facing our fears of climate crisis is one of the biggest challenges we face as activists. Not a week goes by without warnings of an “ice apocalypse” or a “point of no return.” We are bombarded with bleak visions of the future. And it’s a challenge that we continue to struggle with — one we have mainly filled with demands for action. For a long time, the answer was to provide easy actions that people could take so they could feel empowered. But it was soon evident that no amount of energy-saving lightbulbs was going to halt the capitalist juggernaut. Now the answer, from the left at least, is that we must confront capitalism to overcome climate change. Yet this can hardly be described as an easy win, or likely to allay our fears of a dangerous future.

In the anxious void, we have often not engaged or challenged the visions of the future described by climate scientists or environmentalists. And I don’t mean questioning the science, but assessing their expectations of humanity’s response to those climate impacts. Do they accurately describe how people behave in the face of disaster? Do they countenance the idea that people might respond in a way that doesn’t fit the model of the dystopian dog-eat-dog world? Is it possible that their expectations actually serve the purpose of those determined to repress alternative futures?

Finding Pathways to a Better Future: Part 1: Where Have We Been?

By John Foran - Resilience, December 14, 2017

Unlike other ecosocialists, I have long argued that the path to radical social transformation called for the formation of the most inventive social movement the world has ever seen.  But as a scholar of twentieth-century revolutions and twenty-first century movements for radical social change, I have started to come around to the idea that the urgency of the crisis in which we find ourselves, and the lack of adequate action on all sides (myself very much included) means that we need to consider the necessity of imagining something akin to a new kind of party.  What if we rejected the binary between movement and party, elections and direct action, acted upon the urgency of the mandate for thinking in new ways, and embraced a creative synthesis of the two?  This essay will explore our predicament and the prospects for ways out of it along these lines.

The world as we know it is crashing around us.  The signs are evident, and they are everywhere:  intense, extreme storms, floods, drought, heat, rain, fire, and winds – nothing is as it was.  Politicians don’t know what to do, and the actions of so many of them seem downright cruel, vacuous, or incompetent.  The devastation of war, military operations, policing, lethal drones, and physical attacks roll over populations entirely innocent of any crime.  The slow grind of debt, privation, and daily exploitation wears on more than half of Earth’s human inhabitants.  Non-human creatures are dying out in record numbers as Earth’s systems are polluted, contaminated, and wracked by the endless extraction of fossil fuels, minerals, and the loss of healthy soil and water.

We are called, therefore.  To what, we do not know exactly.  In the face of the Anthropocene and the climate crisis, militarism and inequality, and a widespread lack of political voice it is hard to know what to do.  Very hard.

Yet it is precisely this question, this existential challenge, to which we must bring our imaginations and love, in search of the greatest transformation we are capable of conjuring up – a Great Transition of all our systems – to something whole and nourishing for the planet and for the generations of Earthly creatures to come.

The good news is that millions – perhaps billions – of us know the score, and are ready to rise or already rising to the call.  Transition initiatives, intentional communities, networks of educators, activists, and ordinary people, social movements large and small, streets of neighbors, and here and there political groupings have all emerged in recent years, determined both to block the machinery of death and to create the means of life.

It is to these beginnings of hope that we should now turn our attention.  To continue with business as usual is to slowly sink into chaos.  The time is now and the agents are us, and those around us, in every corner of the Earth.  To turn away is to go extinct. We must rise.

Market Economy: Deep Roots Of Dysfunction

By Jane Roelofs - Global Justice Center, December 2, 2017

There is nothing new in the disaster anticipated from NAFTA. The market  economy hasn’t “broken down,” or suddenly reached environmental limits. Its inherent faults are simply more clearly manifest in an age of mass communication and heightened consciousness. Here I will focus on the conflict between the market—the backbone of capitalism—and Green values.

Anything is possible when the multitude assembles

By Ben Trott - Red Pepper, October 25, 2017

From the Arab Spring and Occupy to the mass protests in Hong Kong in 2014, we have seen numerous recent movements and uprisings addressing people’s needs and desires, variously for democracy, for freedom, unshackling the people from the forces of reaction. And yet, they have failed to deliver on these radical desires; failed to create lasting change or a more democratic form of society. It is with this observation that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri open their compelling and provocative new book, Assembly. It confronts a history of failure that has dogged leftwing movements, often framed as a problem of ‘effectiveness’, and particularly the much-debated ‘problem of leadership’. Hardt and Negri root their analysis in contemporary social reality, asking the question – given these historic disappointments, what should a new left do if it is not altogether to abandon faith in social movements?

Hardt and Negri’s best-known book, Empire, was published at the turn of the century, just after the alter-globalisation movement had taken to the streets of Seattle, disrupting the World Trade Organisation’s ministerial meeting. It argued that nation-states had become unable to guarantee and regulate capitalist production and accumulation, which were becoming truly global following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Chinese economy. According to the authors, sovereignty itself was shifting to the global level of Empire itself: a network of supranational organisations (including the WTO), transnational corporations, state and non-state actors.

One of the book’s distinctive characteristics was its break with what Walter Benjamin, and more recently the political theorist Wendy Brown, have described as ‘left melancholia’. This is the tendency for some on the left to attach themselves to particular political ideas – and even to the failure of these ideas – rather than seizing the present possibilities for transformation. By offering a radical re-thinking of democracy, and indeed of communism, Empire served as an antidote to left melancholia at the supposed ‘end of history’ – the moment when all thought of political alternatives have been rendered useless or meaningless by the overwhelming power of the contention that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to capitalism.

It cast the emerging Empire as destructive, but resisted nostalgia for earlier forms of domination. Moreover, it argued that ‘the multitude’, or the labour that animated the ‘postmodern’ global economy, worked in increasingly creative and collaborative ways, and that the multitude itself could potentially become capable of creating a ‘counter-Empire’, inventing new democratic forms and ‘an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges.’

Assembly follows their books Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009) in developing some of Empire’s arguments and conceptual categories, although it dedicates comparatively little space to geopolitics and global order. It offers instead the authors’ most detailed discussion of the present prospects for transformation, and in light of the movements that have emerged since the global crisis of 2007/8. Its chapters are punctuated by ‘calls’ and ‘responses’ that present an approach to thinking how the multitude can assemble more effectively. And indeed, how it can ‘take power’, not by winning elections but through the invention of new institutional forms, and through cooperation in social production.

Raj Patel on How to Break Away from Capitalism

By Chris Winters - Yes! Magazine, October 23, 2017

Capitalism has been the world’s dominant economic system for more than 700 years. And as it brings the planet to new crises, author Raj Patel believes it’s important to imagine what might replace it.

But reform won’t happen unless we understand capitalism’s appeal and historical rise, says Patel, a food justice activist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s remarkably resilient and can be traced to a process he calls “cheapness.”

Together with Binghamton University professor Jason W. Moore, he has written The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things (University of California Press, 2017), which aims to put it all together for us. The seven “things” of the title aren’t physical objects as much as they are a hidden social, ecological and economic infrastructure: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. The point being that cheapness is a process of responding to economic crises by devaluing each of those forces so that capitalism can continue to concentrate wealth in the hands of the already-wealthy. In that sense, “cheap nature” refers to the way in which land and its resources are systematically given away to businesses for exploitation, “cheap work” refers to slavery and other anti-worker tactics that keep wages low, and so on.

Capitalism values cheapness above all else. And through this lens, Patel and Moore explore the evolution of capitalism from its roots in the late medieval period with the collapse of feudalism in Western Europe caused by climate change and the Black Death to—now.

Raj Patel spoke with YES! Magazine senior editor Chris Winters in Seattle. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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