Postcapitalist Ecology: A Comment on Inventing the Future

The third post, and second guest, in the Disorder’s forum on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future. Joseph Kay writes on climate change and libertarian communism with the collaborative blog Out of the Woods.


Having drafted the following comment on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ (henceforth S&W) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, it reads more critically than I expected. In mitigation, I should say that I’m on-board with many of the key themes of the book. I am wholly sympathetic to anti-work politics, generally in favour of automating away toil (with qualifications which will become apparent), and agree that the replacement of global capitalism requires scalability, comfort with complexity, long-term strategy, utopian imagination, and a plurality of organisational forms and infrastructure.

The critical tenor of what follows arises less from disagreement as such, than from my focus on what appear to be the ecological silences in the text. In particular, I focus on the implied conception of nature imported through S&W’s adoption of an avowedly modern rhetoric of progress and control, and on the unmentioned premises of both the project of full automation, and their more general contention that “we are usually not better off taking the precautionary path” (p.177). My argument is not to reject a high-tech, low-work future, but to outline some of the problems to be addressed in rendering such a ‘hyperstitional’ image ecological.

Modernity and the Ideology of Nature

Early on in Inventing the Future, S&W summarise their thesis:

If complexity presently outstrips humanity’s capacities to think and control, there are two options: one is to reduce complexity down to a human scale; the other is to expand humanity’s capacities. We endorse the latter position.

Read in an ecological light, the conjunction of ‘think and control’ affords two readings. The first and obvious reading is that their argument is situated within what Neil Smith called the ideology of nature. Smith argued that the ideology of nature had two poles. The first, a modernising politico-theological argument which saw scientific progress as the means to conquer and subdue nature. Here, the imaginary is mechanical, and separation from – as dominion over – nature is understood as an emancipatory process.

The second pole was romanticism, which sought rather to tread lightly and revere nature as an arcadian wilderness. This emerged as a counter-movement to modernism. As Smith puts it, “the romanticization of nature was not even possible until nature had already been substantially subdued (…) One does not pet a rattlesnake until it has been de-fanged.” Here the imaginary is organic, and separation from nature is understood as the loss of an originary wholeness.

It is easy to read S&W’s ‘human scale folk politics’ as Smith’s ‘back-to-nature romanticism’, and to read S&W’s own position as a reassertion of modernist ideology against romantic backsliding. Their vocabulary of progress and modernity certainly draws its rhetorical force from this tradition. And when they lambast ‘folk politics’ for valorising “feeling over thinking” (p.11), insist that “as we acquire (…) scientific knowledge of the natural world (…) world, we gain greater powers to act” (p.81), and declare that there is “no organic wholeness to be achieved. Alienation is a mode of enablement” (p.82), they would appear firmly within this camp.

Yet through the lens of Smith, both of poles of the ideology of nature have problematic premises, and owe more to one another than either would like to admit: “hostile or friendly, nature was external; it was a world to be conquered or a place to go back to.” Both are premised on the contradictory dualism of an external nature (to be conquered or revered), and a universal nature including ‘human nature’ (with its ‘savage’ component to be civilised or reconnected with). Smith links this contradictory dualism to the historical development of capitalism, through colonialism and industrialisation, where nature, external and human, really appears as a frontier to be conquered and an input into the production process. This production process in turn reproduces the conditions of the ideology of nature. Hence the contradictory ideology of nature is the inverted reflection of capitalist modernity.

In Chapter 4 on Left Modernity, however; S&W are keen to differentiate their project from capitalist modernity and its colonialist ‘progress’. Hence a second reading is also possible. If environmentalists often throw the baby out with the bathwater, mistake instrumental goods (the local, hard work, ‘organic’ food) for intrinsic goods, and reify a pristine nature (anarcho-primitivism/anti-civilization being the reductio ad absurdum of this tendency), then modernists just as frequently fetishise technological fixes, disavow practical knowledges, and champion a hubristic image of modernising scientific progress at odds with the caveats and qualifications that permeate a typical scientific paper (one need only think of the Ecomodernist Manifesto here).

Where both modernist and romantic (/‘folk’) positions take nature as a given, Smith’s critique of the ideology of nature takes aim at its premises, capitalist social relations and the inverted image of nature they produce. In its place is the notion of the production of nature, which crucially “implies a historical future that is still to be determined.” Here we seem close to what S&W want to argue, but to make this reading work their conflation of knowledge and control needs to be teased apart. Put simply, knowledge does not imply control, and sometimes – for instance in certain classes of complex systems – provides a negative proof of such a possibility.

Climate change is a case in point of the fact that the production of nature does not imply control. The greenhouse gas emissions driving global warming are uncontroversially produced, and yet their consequences are neither intended nor wholly predictable, let alone controlled. The production of nature includes everything from the most megalomaniacal global geoengineering scheme to the most low-tech localist permaculture. In shifting away from the dualist framing (think: ecological ‘footprints’), it moves away from the either/or framings that characterise much environmental debate – and indeed S&W’s approach quoted at the start of this section – towards more productive questions of how we produce nature, including ourselves, without presuming an answer in advance.

This seems like a necessary move if we are, as S&W urge, to treat the universal not as a given content but “an empty placeholder that is impossible to fill definitively” (p.77). However, it may pull the argument in directions too ‘folk’ for S&W’s tastes. One gets the impression that they would be enthusiastic to learn of a self-replicating, carbon-scrubbing machine with the potential to geoengineer the climate – but disappointed to learn this machine is called a forest (and no doubt ‘folk’ partisans bristle at life described as machine!). When S&W embrace ‘emancipatory alienation’ they do so to reject the existence of any originary wholeness to which it is possible to return. But this remains a dualist frame which suggests that because no such pristine moment exists, nature must be separated from and controlled. This rhetorical move forecloses many more generative possibilities.

S&W mention in passing Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, but miss that Haraway’s cyborgs “are wary of holism, but needy for connection”. This is not an embrace of emancipatory alienation or simple technological augmentation of the human, but an explicitly anti-dualist ontological claim that there is neither an originary wholeness nor clear boundaries (and hence separation/alienation) between the human, the natural and the technological. Indeed, Haraway identifies both original wholeness and alienation as two moments of the same dualistic “Western epistemological imperatives” she is seeking to subvert. The figure of the cyborg calls into question the binary distinction between the mechanical and the organic.

While the romantic (and folk?) critique of modernity is that it is a loss of a primordial Arcadia, a separation to be undone, there is another critique of modernity. Particularly evident in the postcolonial critique of modernisation theory, it argues that ‘modernity’ is defined through the disavowal and rejection of the ‘traditional’. In Inventing the Future, ‘folk politics’ often seems to play this role of disavowed other, against which progress, modernity, and the future can be defined. Yet in the introduction, S&W also insist that “folk politics is necessary but insufficient” (p.12). Taking this caveat seriously points more to project of connection than alienation, where “on-the-ground knowledge must be linked up with more abstract knowledge” (p.174).

This connective theme evokes James C. Scott’s famous – and in S&W’s terms, folk – critique of ‘authoritarian high modernism’, whose failures he diagnosed as arising from privileging simplified abstractions to the exclusion of practical, local knowledge. Indeed in approvingly commenting on the Chilean Project Cybersyn, S&W use a key term of Scott’s, bricolage: improvising something new from the materials at hand (p.149). Yet the bricoleur does not control and conquer nature, occupying instead a more cooperative, connective and pragmatic relation to their surroundings. In the words of Muscogee scholar Daniel R Wildcat:

Today, the problem is that the measure of technological progress is often thought of as the extent to which humankind can control and mitigate the so-called forces of nature. I find it hard to imagine a more problematic and potentially dangerous idea. We must figure out a way to live with nature.

Wildcat gives the example of disastrous attempts by the US Army Corps of Engineers to control the Missouri and Kansas rivers to protect cities built on flood plains, which resulted in two ‘five hundred year floods’ and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in a three year period in the 1990s. While warning against the rejection of modern science and technology, Wildcat insists we “face the challenge of identifying technologies that have value beyond the exploitative narrow economic measures of profit.” Against the mentality of control, he advocates a cooperative approach that makes use of place-based knowledge to construct cities and infrastructure out of danger in the first place, rather than relying on expensive and ultimately counterproductive engineering projects.

It may be that S&W are simultaneously making the general argument about the nature of the universal (an empty placeholder whose content we must contest), and a specific argument for their favoured content (a project of emancipatory alienation and control of complexity). But if so, failing to make this clear means the latter position tends to foreclose the opening intended by the former. Excluding in advance positions such as Wildcat’s “indigenous realism” from contributing to the collective project of inventing the future would seem like a mistake, and one which brings into focus modernity’s tangled relationship to colonialism.

Modernity and Colonialism

S&W are at pains to distinguish their advocacy of progress, modernisation and the future from the colonial history this rhetorical palette evokes. Indeed, having recounted their caveats against teleology, unilinearity, and eurocentrism (Chapter 4), it seems like this choice of rhetorical frame has as much to do with announcing a break with continental philosophy’s received postmodern wisdom as a wholesale embrace of the European Enlightenment – which after all ‘invented’ scientific racism and engaged in ‘high-risk adventures’ of colonial appropriation alongside its more defensible achievements.[1] Such a reading is supported by their call in the conclusion to “reappraise which parts of the post-Enlightenment matrix can be saved and which must be discarded” (p.181), an approach more bricoleur than revanchiste.

However, the relationship between modernity and colonialism is not a purely historical question, but one that thoroughly permeates the automated technologies required for a post-work future. This is not to raise a primitivist objection that machines are inherently at odds with nature (such a dualistic frame having been already rejected), but to stress that the colonial imbrication with modernity cannot simply be disavowed; it has to be undone.

To take one example, rare earth minerals are essential components of modern electronics, and hence any automation project. Yet mining these minerals produces radioactive slurry tailings, and refining them produces toxic acid byproducts. The environmental justice movement has long highlighted the environmental racism whereby exposure to toxic waste is unevenly distributed along lines of race and class. Writing of Silicon Valley, ground zero of high tech industry, Nick Dyer-Witheford observes:

…on the one hand, palatial billionaire mansions, and on the other, 23 ‘Super-Fund’ abandoned toxic waste sites scheduled for special clean up operations, the most of any county in the US.

Within the global division of labour this takes a distinctly neocolonial form. The DRC is one of the world’s main producers of rare earth minerals, continuing the violent history of extractive processes that runs from Leopold’s genocide through the assassination of Patrice Lumumba to the present day – often forced and slave – labour in the coltan mines. At the other end of the tech lifecycle is Agbogbloshie. On the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital Accra, it hosts a vast e-waste dump, where pollutants including lead, mercury, arsenic and dioxins are present in high concentrations. Thousands of people live amongst the toxic waste.

While automation could in principle minimise human exposure to toxic substances within the labour process, it is currently premised on the existence of less-than-human – i.e. racialised – populations and neocolonial patterns of waste-disposal outside the immediate process of production. The problem of toxic waste is not mentioned in Inventing the Future, yet without addressing head-on how this dependence could be undone, any project of full automation is complicit in and dependent upon the continuation of colonial, racialised social relations.[2]

Another example of the imbrication of modernity and coloniality is apparent in one of the proposed technological fixes to climate change, solar radiation management (SRM). This is not a technology advocated in the pages of Inventing the Future, however it is fully consistent with an approach which champions technologically-augmented human control of complexity while devalorising merely particularistic and local objections as an obstacle to progress. It therefore serves as a good illustration of what is at stake.

The principle behind SRM is simple. The warming aspect of climate change is proximally caused by outgoing longwave (infrared) radiation becoming trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, raising the surface temperature. To counter this, it is proposed to use atmospheric aerosols (or orbital reflectors) to intercept a portion of the sun’s incoming shortwave radiation (‘insolation’), thus reducing the total energy input to the Earth system and offsetting the surface warming caused by greenhouse gases. This seems like a textbook case of technologically-augmented human control over complex systems.

However, the Earth’s atmosphere being the prototypical chaotic system – i.e. deterministic but with sensitive dependence on initial conditions – the localised consequences are not easily modelled (SRM alters the atmosphere’s temperature gradient, known as the lapse rate, which is critical to meteorology). Some models suggest that the main adverse consequence of SRM would be severe droughts in regions dependent on seasonal rains, principally sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia.[3] S&W’s critique of the precautionary principle could easily be invoked by SRM advocates here:

…the precautionary principle contains an almost inherent lacuna: it ignores the risks of its own application. In seeking to err always on the side of caution, and hence of eliminating risk, it contains a blindness to the dangers of inaction and omission. While risks need to be reasonably hedged, a fuller appreciation of the travails of contingency implies that we are usually not better off taking the precautionary path. The precautionary principle is designed to close off the future and eliminate contingency, when in fact the contingency of high-risk adventures is precisely what leads to a more open future… (p.177)

What the SRM example highlights is that the ‘we’ taking the risks and the ‘they’ shouldering the consequences need not necessarily coincide. It’s easy to wax lyrical about high risk adventures when someone else picks up the tab. This ‘someone else’ is determined through the extant relations of power, hence typically racialised and usually (post)colonial. It is clear from S&W’s caveats that they are keen to dissociate their left modernity from such implications, but they also provide arguments which, in the absence of delimitation on their part, could readily be appropriated to such ends.

Conclusion

Srnicek and Williams adopt wholesale the rhetoric of modernisation, but attempt to distance themselves from its darker side through both a series of caveats and qualifications, and by attempting to redefine the content of modernity. The conjunction of knowledge and control in their summary of their approach affords two readings. The obvious one operates within the ideology of nature and allies itself to the historical project of human separation from and control of nature, while disavowing the local and particular as a conservative, precautionary brake on progress, longing for a mythic originary wholeness.

However, their ‘necessary but not sufficient’ framing of ‘folk politics’ affords another reading that eludes this binary framework. Read through the Smith’s notion of the production of nature, and Haraway’s figure of the cyborg, S&W can be read as advocating a bricolage that brings together various practical and abstract knowledges in a cooperative production of nature. Yet this reading does go against S&W’s advocacy of emancipatory alienation.

While keen to distance themselves from modernity’s colonial origins, the ongoing imbrication of the project of full automation with racialised and neocolonial relations produced in and through high-tech production is not addressed. The default position is therefore one of complicity. One possible way to address this without rejecting technology or automation per se would be to generalise the deployment of industrial ecology/closed-loop production methods, whereby waste outputs are engineered to become inputs to other processes.[4]

This approach would constitute a bricolage of applied scientific and place-based knowledges aiming at a cooperative connection with, rather than control of, the material-energetic flows of wider ecological webs: a production of nature that is neither a frontier to conquer nor an idyll to return to. We could even speculate that necessarily local anti-extractive struggles – relatively immune to capital flight – may catalyse the global development of closed-loop methods in much the same way that S&W hope that wage struggles will catalyse automation.

However it is addressed, the racialised, colonial premises of full automation cannot simply be disavowed, they have to be undone; if that is, the emancipatory potential of automation is to be universal. This argument could be seen as an extension of the book’s emphasis on the quietly constraining and enabling role of infrastructure, a point made throughout (especially p.133). This is particularly important given the potential for anti-work politics to bridge the red-green divide that allows jobs-and-growth trade unionists and environmentalists to be divided and ruled:

…reductions in the working week would lead to significant reductions in energy consumption and our overall carbon footprint. Increased free time would also mean a reduction in all the convenience goods bought to fit into our hectic work schedules. More broadly, using productivity improvements for less work, rather than more output, would mean that energy efficiency improvements would go towards reducing environmental impacts. A reduction in working hours is therefore an essential plank in any response to climate change. (p.116)

However, in the context of climate change, S&W make several arguments which seem too easily appropriated to support technofixes rather than the needed social-ecological transformation. Ecology is frequently invoked as metaphor – as in organisational ecology (p.162) – but an ecological perspective doesn’t appear as more than a fringe benefit to the program of full automation. Climate change demands a utopian politics against default dystopian despair. Inventing an anti-work ecological politics is surely necessary and desirable, and indeed:

Doing so requires us to salvage the legacy of modernity and reappraise which parts of the post-Enlightenment matrix can be saved and which must be discarded. (p.181)

I contend that what is to be discarded includes the ideology of nature, and modernity’s blindspot to its own ongoing racialised/colonial imbrications.


[1] Beate Jahn’s The Cultural Construction of International Relations: The Invention of the State of Nature (Palgrave, 2000) offers a persuasive account of the role of the colonial encounter in generating central categories of specifically modern political thought.

[2] See the recent episode of Novara FM discussing post-colonial ecologies for an extended discussion of this issue.

[3] See Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, (pp. 256-290) for a critique of SRM, and David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action (pp. 257-266) for a measured advocacy of temporary SRM as an emergency measure.

[4] These techniques already exist within capitalism, but deployment is constrained to those cases where minimising waste helps maximise profits. See the film Waste = Food on for examples of extant closed-loop production.

7 thoughts on “Postcapitalist Ecology: A Comment on Inventing the Future

  1. On “Modernity and the Ideology of Nature” – there’s a lot of words here but not much clarity. I really can’t see what is involved in abandoning a “dualistic frame” of the human-nature relation. You call for “a more cooperative, connective and pragmatic relation” to nature. What does that mean? That it is hard to control nature, with lots of mistakes made in the past (like the dam example) so we should adapt to it instead of mastering it? That is surely just to fall back onto the romantic end of the pole. S&W seem to argue for increasing humankind’s capacities to regulate nature – that is a recognition that controlling nature is hard, and a call for greater capacities to surmount the challenge. So simply invoking difficulty is no counter to their argument (the same is true for the later point about disposing of toxic waste or using SRM). There is no need to be “pragmatic” if our capacities increase. Similarly, there is no reason why these “capacities” cannot draw on what you call “traditional” knowledge. But if “traditional knowledge” indicates that a river floods every 10 years, so a human settlement has to move, then what does “cooperation” mean? Either we move every 10 years, which is a submission to nature, not cooperation, or we find a way to stop the flooding, e.g. redirecting the river or building infrastructure to insulate homes and streets from flood water, which is conquering nature, not cooperation.

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  2. Pingback: (Why We Can’t) Let the Machines Do It: A Response to Inventing the Future | lasophielle

  3. Great piece! I just want to add a quick observation.

    It might be interesting to think-through the points in which cutting-edge technology validates the ‘folk political’, particularly those found in indigenous practices relating to the land. Among these would be Elinor Ostrom’s work on common pool resources (and forgive me if this is given treatment in S+W, as their book isn’t available in the states yet), which illustrates clearly that relying on the market’s price signals as well out outmoded central planning systems cannot measure up to indigenous knowledge and governance over finite resources. What I found particularly interesting about Ostrom’s methodology is that it draws heavily on the agent-based modelizations of self-organizing systems developed at the Santa Fe Institute – and by John Holland in particular. This place, of course, is more commonly associated with developing the theories of the “new economy” that became prevalent in the rise of the finance and tech sectors across the 1990s, so I find this sort of critical re-purposing immensely fascinating.

    A second example would the case of the Green Revolution’s efforts in Bali, which despite all attempts to ‘modernize’ the agricultural systems of the country, continually generated problems that often veered into the catastrophic. It wasn’t until anthropologist J. Stephen Lansing and systems ecologist James Kremer developed a series of modelizations of the activities surrounding Balinese water temples (the focal point of sociality in that culture) that it became apparent that indigenous knowledge had built up a complex system that optimized water usage and governed irrigation schedules in order to produce maximum crop yields. Using these agent-based modelizations,Lansing and Kremer were able to show how the Green Revolution (which, despite its successes elsewhere, was consistently in line with white, patriarchal, capitalist notions surrounding progress and development) had actually disrupted the superior ‘folk knowledge’ that was intimately tied to the land. This is fairly consistent with a long lineage of ‘progressive disruption’, going all the way back to European colonizer’s disrupting polycropping systems with monocropping techniques and before.

    I’m sure these two incidences are not necessarily isolated occurrences, and it seems to me that think in terms of futurity requires steps backward – or, more properly, sideways – from where we stand now.

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  4. Pingback: The Future | communists in situ

  5. strange to read an article about ecology that doesn’t mention recycling … the problem that in the long run we need to recycle everything is a challenge for the the modernist view as the whole idea of engineering and control is based, whether necessarily or not, on producing rubbish … whether modernity is compatible with sustainability is still something we need to work out

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