Energy and the Green New Deal

Image: Fiona Paton CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by Tim Crownshaw

Nothing happens without energy. Literally. Lacking energy, there can be no heat, food, motion, information, or life. Commonly defined as ‘the capacity to do work’, energy has always been central to human societies, whether derived mechanically from moving wind or water, chemically from wood, oil, coal or other combustible fuels, or thermally from the sun. This is more than an abstract footnote—there are deep links between available energy and the very structure of civilizations, including their types of social organization and levels of complexity, as noted by anthropologist Leslie White [1]. While this relationship is obviously not deterministic, there are social, technological, and economic arrangements, such those we enjoy in privileged parts of the global North today, which are likely unattainable at significantly lower levels of energy consumption.

Much discussion and research in recent years has focused on the prospects for a global transition to renewable energy, motivated by growing awareness of the existential threat posed by global climate change as well as localized environmental issues attributable to the production and consumption of fossil and nuclear energy. The Green New Deal (GND), the subject of this essay, is the latest in a long line of ambitious plans aimed at accelerating this process, in addition to its social and economic goals. However, many of these energy transition plans are conceived teleologically: they start with the outcomes they seek to achieve, then fill in the gaps with implied (but uncertain) socio-technological capabilities. In the process, they typically sidestep irreducible uncertainties and fail to properly engage with the considerable challenges involved in fundamentally transforming our energy system. It must be asked whether the GND commits these same errors. Avoiding them requires recognition that the transition to renewable energy is not simply the eventual outcome of the right set of policy settings, but what systems scientists would call a complex, path-dependent, socio-metabolic process. In other words, the transition will be far more constrained in terms of what we can achieve than we often like to think and will necessarily transform the basic configuration of our societies [2, 3].

Many of these energy transition plans are conceived teleologically: they start with the outcomes they seek to achieve, then fill in the gaps with implied (but uncertain) socio-technological capabilities.

That we must one day rely solely on renewable energy is true by definition. The fossil and nuclear fuels are depleting resources and their use entails ecological harm on an immense scale. Therefore, this use will eventually become infeasible, unacceptable, and uneconomic. But how we get from here to there is radically uncertain. There is no guarantee that we will complete the transition while maintaining an industrial socio-metabolic regime (our current pattern of material and energy use and associated societal configuration). In fact, this appears highly unlikely [2, 3].

Alternative narratives

For most people in the developed world, modern energy services are so ubiquitous and ingrained in our daily lives that they have been rendered largely invisible (at least until they are interrupted). Nevertheless, understanding energy is critical to accurately discerning where we are going as a society and what we can hope to achieve. This understanding suffers from what Mario Giampietro has called a “clash of reductionism against the complexity of energy transformations” [4].

Energy is typically understood in loose terms as something produced and transported by large and highly visible infrastructures (of which there are ‘good’ kinds and ‘bad’ kinds, defined by one’s perspective). It is generally perceived that energy is used for various crucial purposes, such as moving people and things around, heating and cooling homes and workplaces, powering appliances and devices, and producing consumer goods. Beyond this, various emotionally charged and frequently oversimplified narratives come into play, which inform expectations of what lifestyles and society at large ought to look like. While the range of perspectives and positions on energy is vast, they can be broadly grouped into two opposed narratives:

  • Narrative one sees energy presenting an urgent moral duality: oil derricks, pipelines, smog-covered cityscapes, and corporate interests on one side and climate saving technologies, eco-friendly behaviours, and new political movements on the other. In this strain of thought, we already have the requisite technology to carry out the transition to renewable energy and the only serious barriers are political in nature. Nowhere is the first narrative more clearly depicted than in US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent ‘A Message From The Future’ video.
  • Narrative two considers fossil fuels to be miraculous, prosperity-building, and geo-politically important resources, which should not be disregarded in favour of unproven, unreliable alternatives. As for climate change, positions can range from “the science in not settled” to “no problem, we’ll have the tech for that”. This narrative is captured in PR communications from major oil companies (and even more transparently depicted here), frequently loaded with promises of jobs, technological breakthroughs, and nostalgia for an era of pioneering industrial vitality.

Neither of these narratives is totally correct, but neither is totally wrong either. The first rightly highlights the social and ecological imperatives we face and how some forms of energy production are significantly less harmful than others, but tends to downplay the challenges and implications of transforming the entire energy basis of modern economies. Meanwhile, the second accurately identifies the unique qualities of fossil energy resources and their role in reaching our current level of development, but fails to identify that these have a limited lifespan, both in terms of their physical abundance and the extent to which we can use them without unacceptable consequences. It is on this fraught ideological landscape that the GND must vie for influence against competing visions of our energy future.

The Green New Deal

The GND (a clear allusion to Roosevelt’s depression-era New Deal) burst onto the US political scene in 2018, emerging from the youth-led ‘Sunrise Movement’ and subsequently championed by freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and a growing list of progressive political figures. Its supporters now include Joseph Stiglitz, Ban Ki-Moon, Paul Krugman, US senators (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Ed Markey), and numerous organizations (including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, 350.org, the New Economics Foundation, Extinction Rebellion, and the United Nations Environment Programme). The concept has quickly spread internationally to Canada, the UK, Australia, and the European Union due in large part to the advocacy of respective green parties in these places. A recent Yale survey found a strong majority in the US (81% of those surveyed and even 64% of republicans) ‘strongly support’ or ‘somewhat support’ the various proposals associated with the GND. With this impressive momentum, the time has come to translate zeal into workable policy.

In the US, the GND is often described with the tagline “decarbonization, jobs, and justice.” Policy proposals center around a green industrial revolution—a rapid, large-scale transition to renewable energy alongside vastly expanded public transportation and building retrofits for energy efficiency within a 10-year timeframe. The plan is to achieve near carbon-neutrality of the US economy and improved environmental quality through immense public spending initiatives, funded primarily via redistributive measures designed to tackle inequality. The draft text of the GND House Resolution includes the aim to “virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.” Variations often include increased minimum wages, universal health care, improved access to education, shorter working hours, and democratized workplaces. For a more complete description of the origin story and details of the GND, see this article or this one.

As the GND ultimately hinges on energy transition, the feasibility of its assertions in this area are crucial.

Although it’s not hard to see the appeal, no one would deny that this is an immense task. In fact, there is already a chorus of critical voices from right across the political spectrum on questions of cost, timeframe, technical assumptions, and policy design. As the GND ultimately hinges on energy transition, the feasibility of its assertions in this area are crucial. To go any further, we need to cover some energy basics.

Energy primer

The global energy system is by far the largest, most technologically advanced collection of built capital, supporting infrastructure, expertise, and organizational capacity that has ever existed. Despite the hype around renewables, the global energy system is still 96% non-renewable, while solar and wind—the two renewable energy sources with the greatest growth potential—supplied just a little over 1% of total world energy in 2018 [5].

Firstly, it is important to understand that each type of energy production can satisfy only some types of energy demand: energy resources and the flows derived from them are not interchangeable. Instead, the energy system comprises a series of distinct flows spanning four basic stages, from primary resources through to delivered energy services:

Figure 1: Flows of energy travelling through four stages of the energy system

To provide a bit more specificity to this picture, the table below shows common examples of each of the four stages and sequences of flows between them:

If fully enumerated, this would look more like a complex, multi-nodal network rather than a straight line, but this simplification serves to highlight some key features:

  • Changes at one stage require corresponding changes at all other stages in order to avoid supply bottlenecks or unused excess capacity. Each new increment of supply (primary resources plus secondary conversion) must be met with a corresponding increment of demand (end-use capital plus energy service demand) and vice versa. This means that investments needed to change the system are often larger than they first appear—investments in one part of the system require corresponding investments in others—and the ways societies use energy must evolve as supply changes.
  • The common lay concept of ‘energy’ as a homogeneous, aggregate quantity is a fiction. The various flows within the energy system are non-equivalent and non-substitutable (at least not directly). For example, gasoline is produced by a refinery and fuels your car, but this is not interchangeable with the electricity generated by a gas-fired turbine powering your laptop. In particular, the flows of ‘energy carriers’ between the second and third stages—consisting of electricity, liquid fuels, and heating fuels—must be considered separately, otherwise we risk overlooking constraints integral to the system.

The non-equivalence of energy carriers is an essential concept, analogous to the metabolism of living organisms requiring fats, proteins, and carbohydrates to survive. For most animals, diet can change with food availability, but there are limits to this. Humans can substitute one food group for another, at least for a period of time, but beyond certain boundaries severe physiological consequences begin to occur, including starvation and death. The energy system functions basically the same way. The composition of supply or demand can’t be changed arbitrarily and to the extent that it can be changed, this typically requires expensive and time-consuming adjustments at other stages in the energy system.

Energy for energy

Aside from the flows ultimately ending up as final energy services (or waste), a large part of the output of the energy system must be directed back into its own construction, operation, and maintenance. These flows represent the metabolism of the global energy system. As shown in Figure 2, energy carriers are utilized in an ‘autocatalytic loop’ (energy invested to produce energy) and a ‘capital hypercycle’ (energy invested to maintain the means of turning energy into services).

Figure 2: Energy carrier flows required for the construction, maintenance, and operation of the global energy system

Our current economic structure and resource dependencies ensure that we’ll burn a lot of fossil fuels to carry out a major shift towards renewable energy—a cost of the transition that we can’t afford to ignore. Among other things, this complicates discussions around the pace of the transition; it is not necessarily true that faster is better as large, short-term increases in fossil fuel demand for a renewable energy buildout may lead to significant excess capacity, wasting resources and frustrating the transition further down the line. Generally speaking, an ‘optimum’ timeframe in terms of what would limit greenhouse gas emissions or ecological impact will not likely align with the deadlines proposed to date by the advocates of rapid transition. Vaclav Smil notes that energy transitions on this scale typically occur over multiple decades or centuries, not years [6].

The manufacturing of silicon wafers in solar PV panels and advanced metal alloys in wind turbines requires a lot of high temperature heat, currently provided primarily by burning natural gas or coal.

Examining the energy system’s own metabolism also raises questions of residual non-renewable energy dependence that may be difficult to eliminate. The energy system’s autocatalytic loop and capital hypercycle are comprised of a mixture of energy carriers, meaning any attempt to shift the system towards a renewable basis will likely run into limits (due to energy carriers required to support the energy system not likely to be produced at scale via renewable means). For example, the manufacturing of silicon wafers in solar PV panels and advanced metal alloys in wind turbines requires a lot of high temperature heat, currently provided primarily by burning natural gas or coal. Will it be possible to run solar PV panel and wind turbine production lines using solar- and wind-generated electricity in the future? We don’t know, but there are reasons to be skeptical [7]. How about all of the remote access roads, transmission towers, substations, and supply depots required to create a renewable energy infrastructure? And the rare-earths, lithium, copper, iron, coltan, cadmium, and vast quantities of other minerals needed for the renewable energy buildout? It is hard to see how all of this can subsist on renewable energy flows alone.

Electricity

And then there’s electricity. Electricity is not like the other energy carriers in one critical sense: it is not a physical substance that can be produced and set aside for later use. In effect, this means supply must match demand at all times in order to maintain the stable, functioning electrical networks that distribute electricity to end users. Demand is stochastic—it changes as industrial production ramps up and down, and more erratically as households turn on or off light switches, run appliances, or do anything else that uses electricity. Consequently, supply must be ‘dispatched’ to meet demand on very short timescales as any temporary gap leads to changes in system frequency and large gaps can cause blackouts and damage vital electrical equipment (illustrated below).

Figure 3: The supply-demand ‘seesaw’ directly affects the frequency and stability of electrical networks (image source)

The key problem with most renewable electricity production (including production from solar and wind) is that it is intermittent and can’t be counted on when it is required most. Electricity systems needs to retain the ability to meet demand when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. There are ways to maintain this ability as the share of renewables increases, such as building enough spare dispatchable generation capacity to act as a backup (often gas- and coal-fired) or building storage and additional transmission capacity. All have significant costs, in both energetic and monetary terms, and face their own social and technical limitations. For example, while there is much discussion around building better batteries to unlock renewables, this is still an exceedingly expensive option that is suitable only for shorter timescales, not the summer to winter supply-demand gaps creating most of the need for system flexibility [8]. Returning to our diet analogy, pinning all of our hopes on storage is a bit like asking a someone to put on 300 lbs every fall to survive the winter months with very little food. We wouldn’t expect a human being to be capable of this for very long and the odds of the energy system pulling off the equivalent feat are not much better.

This difficulty only increases as renewables provide a larger share of total electricity. Figure 4 below shows how the mitigation investment required to maintain stable electricity grids increases non-linearly as the share of intermittent renewables grows [9, 10]. Technical and economic limitations in the electricity sector will manifest during any large-scale transition to renewable energy. Aside from a few fortunate regions with abundant dispatchable renewable energy resources (geothermal in Iceland, hydropower in Nicaragua, etc.), with current technology, this ceiling is far below the aspirational 100% renewable goal of the GND. The importance of these electricity system barriers is underscored by the fact that the provision of many of our energy services will need to be electrified in order to align with the growth of renewable energy.


Figure 4: The level of mitigation necessary to maintain stable electricity networks increases exponentially as intermittent generation rises

A story of limits

The crux of the problem is this: renewable energy typically produces forms of energy that are poor substitutes for the energy required to manufacture, transport, install, and operate renewable energy, at least without major investments into each stage of our energy system, significantly reducing or even erasing the net energy delivered. As such, these energy sources are dependent on the existing system and function less as a replacement for the fossil fuel economy and more as a temporary extension of it. The empirical evidence agrees—renewable energy investment does a poor job of displacing fossil fuels [11]. Of course, there are exceptions (such as traditionally produced biomass), but these have nowhere near the potential scale required to run today’s enormous globalized, industrialized economy.

Wherever the existing limit lies on the path to a 100% renewable energy system, we can and should push this limit through changes to consumption behaviours on the part of both industries and households, through things like shared utilization of end-use capital and energy services (think communal kitchens), a shift away from currently preferred but inefficient types of end-use capital (e.g. prioritizing public transit and micromobility over cars), greater alignment of demand to match intermittent supply, and overall demand reduction. However, it is precisely these kinds of changes which are more difficult to motivate, especially among those following the second narrative described above who may assume that high-energy, fossil-fuelled lifestyles represent ‘the good life’. Even at the extremes of practical behaviour change, the 100% target may still be unattainable.

Leaving aside the narrow concept of limits, a fundamental change in our energy basis and socio-metabolic regime would mean becoming a very different society from the one we know today. It is tempting to opine on our society’s wasteful habits and ask how much energy we really need, but the answer depends largely on the type of society we want to live in. Do we want to be able to build smartphones? How about MRI machines and water treatment plants? We may not be able to pick and choose what we want to keep from varying levels of socio-technical complexity (while it is certainly worth discussing what we might want to keep and what we can afford to lose). There is no demonstrated historical tendency for complex societies to voluntarily downshift their energy consumption on a large-scale [12].

When politicians and activists say “we have the technology” they vastly understate the challenges, potential barriers, and ultimate consequences involved in the transition.

The main point here is that the prospects and implications of shifting toward renewable energy extend far beyond present-day cost-benefit calculations, political maneuvering, or waging war on climate change. When politicians and activists say “we have the technology” they vastly understate the challenges, potential barriers, and ultimate consequences involved in the transition.

Raised stakes and political pushback

By forcing extensive change into an expedited timeframe, the GND raises the stakes and reduces the margin for error in the transition to renewable energy. If such a policy package were embraced, people everywhere would be subject to dramatically increased risks of misallocation of resources, misalignment of capacity between the various stages within the energy system, and of consequent economic and social fallout. The calls for radical action motivating the GND stem from a sense of desperation in the face of increasingly dire predictions regarding converging climate and ecological crises. That desperation is certainly justified, and yes, time is not on our side, but we must not dismiss the existential risks of a poorly executed GND.

The GND makes some very big promises and displays unmistakeable utopian elements. The problem is not so much the aspirational decarbonization goals, but the assurances of prodigious social benefits assumed to be attainable through or while pursuing them. Universal modern healthcare and higher education, job guarantees, raised minimum income, the elimination of poverty and inequality, significantly increased taxation of the wealthy—these goals proved elusive even during the period of greatest stability and economic surplus the world has ever seen. To achieve them during what will likely be a period of profound and growing ecological disruption, climate instability, and social unrest is rather optimistic to say the least. We will need to walk a long tightrope, balancing the pace of change, unforeseen challenges, impacts on communities, and necessary sacrifices. Perhaps the most dubious aspect is the overall ethical shift underscoring the kind of social cohesion necessary to achieve the GND in developed nations, from hyper-consumerism to environmental stewardship and the voluntary curtailment of discretionary consumption—essentially expecting everyone to spontaneously drop any differences of opinion and embrace the first narrative.

Owing to the existence of embedded conflicting perspectives, the GND will always have its opponents. Assuming we go ahead with it, any unintended consequence or local failure (of which there will be many) will be met with a backlash that risks eroding public confidence in the GND. This is a dynamic heightened in direct proportion to the level of ambition the GND embodies; the more utopian the stated goals, the starker the underwhelming reality, and the greater the negative reaction will be. How would we maintain broad political support for the GND, given the inevitability of broken promises? It may be that some of these promises need to be tempered against the requirement for achievable goals. A prime example can be seen in the German Energiewende, a planned national energy transition initiated in 2010 aimed at phasing out coal and nuclear energy. Promises of clean, renewable, reliable, and affordable energy clashed against the reality of Europe’s highest power prices and unconvincing progress on decarbonization [14]. This failure dampened public enthusiasm and made other countries hesitant to follow Germany’s example. The GND must learn this lesson—to promise more than you can deliver is to ensure failure.

There isn’t one unique, unambiguous end point to travel toward in response to the challenges we face.

One might reasonably ask whether too much ambition is really a weakness. Isn’t it better to have highly aspirational goals, even if they aren’t achieved, if only to carry us further than we would have gone otherwise? Well, not necessarily. It is important to note that there isn’t one unique, unambiguous end point to travel toward in response to the challenges we face. Time and our capacity for change are both limited. A last-ditch, herculean attempt to rebuild modernity anew would forestall the pursuit of other more credible and beneficial models of development.

First things first

So is the GND a good idea? Unfortunately, not in its present form. Given current levels of understanding of the complexities and trade-offs involved in a transition to renewable energy, and inflated expectations of future energy consumption, it would almost certainly result in a catastrophic failure. However, if guided by 1) an accurate and realistic understanding of the role of energy in society and 2) a willingness to honestly confront the profound socio-economic implications of a shift to a renewable energy basis, a reformulated GND might be able to point our global system toward a more sustainable paradigm.

Here are some additional principles for a truly transformative GND that I would propose:

  1. Energy literacy: energy transition is at the heart of the GND and its current assertions in this area are highly questionable. As such, there is a pronounced need for energy literacy, both in policy formulation and post-implementation general education. This energy literacy is needed to disarm simplistic narratives and enable transformative thinking.
  2. Demand side adaptation: to help bridge the gap between ambition and feasibility and unlock energy transition to the extent possible, the GND must embrace a radical rethinking of expectations for energy consumption. This must include overall demand reduction, but also greater demand flexibility, shared utilization of energy services, and shifting away from inefficient modes of energy service provision. Supply side interventions won’t cut it, we need to talk about the energy we use as a society.
  3. Evolving timeline: a complex, socio-metabolic process cannot be forced to conform to arbitrary deadlines and attempting to do so serves only to lock in unintended, suboptimal outcomes in terms of what we really want to achieve. The GND must abandon its stated 10-year timeframe and instead incorporate an informed, contingent, and evolving target for the pace of the transition.
  4. Political realism: assuming a forthcoming, sweeping alignment of perspectives on energy and social issues and subsequent unilateral action, as if in a political vacuum, is simply wishful thinking and must be rejected. The GND’s overall strategy must remain mindful of contrary narratives and the political pitfalls of excessive ambition. There should also be more discussion on who—from movements like Extinction Rebellion to environmental justice groups—can build the necessary political power for a truly transformative GND and how.
  5. Epistemic openness: new approaches are needed to navigate radical uncertainty and conflicting socio-technical narratives regarding energy transition. The GND must engage fields like Post-Normal Science—an approach to scientific decision-making for issues where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent” [15, 16]—as antidotes to reductionism and ideological echo chambers.

As a parting thought, ‘deal’ may not be the appropriate language given an overwhelming level of uncertainty. How can a deal be made and subsequently serve as the benchmark of success when the most relevant details are not yet known? In place of the GND, we might be better served by scaling back our ambition and embracing a Green New Direction. This alternative could preserve many of the same essential goals, but would need to forgo the use of enticing promises to motivate action and instead do the hard work of building solidarity and commitment to collectively face an energy future which will be more complex, more unpredictable, and more challenging than anything we’ve previously encountered.

References

  1. White, L.A., Energy and the evolution of culture. American Anthropologist, 1943. 45(3): p. 335-356.
  2. Krausmann, F., et al., The Global Sociometabolic Transition. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 2008. 12(5-6): p. 637-656.
  3. Haberl, H., et al., A socio-metabolic transition towards sustainability? Challenges for another Great Transformation. Sustainable Development, 2011. 19(1): p. 1-14.
  4. Giampietro, M., K. Mayumi, and A.H. Sorman, Energy analysis for a sustainable future: multi-scale integrated analysis of societal and ecosystem metabolism. 2013, London, UK: Routledge.
  5. BP, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019. 2019, BP. p. 64.
  6. Smil, V., Energy transitions : history, requirements, prospects. 2010, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
  7. Moriarty, P. and D. Honnery, Can renewable energy power the future? Energy Policy, 2016. 93: p. 3-7.
  8. Carbajales-Dale, M., C.J. Barnhart, and S.M. Benson, Can we afford storage? A dynamic net energy analysis of renewable electricity generation supported by energy storage. Energy & Environmental Science, 2014. 7(5): p. 1538-1544.
  9. Heard, B.P., et al., Burden of proof: A comprehensive review of the feasibility of 100% renewable-electricity systems. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 2017. 76: p. 1122-1133.
  10. Trainer, T., Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case. Energy Policy, 2010. 38(8): p. 4107-4114.
  11. York, R., Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels? Nature Climate Change, 2012. 2(6): p. 441-443.
  12. Smil, V., Energy in world history. 1994, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  13. Cai, T.T., T.W. Olsen, and D.E. Campbell, Maximum (em)power: a foundational principle linking man and nature. Ecological Modelling, 2004. 178(1): p. 115-119.
  14. Schiffer, H.-W. and J. Trüby, A review of the German energy transition: taking stock, looking ahead, and drawing conclusions for the Middle East and North Africa. Energy Transitions, 2018. 2(1): p. 1-14.
  15. Funtowicz, S.O. and J.R. Ravetz, Science for the post-normal age. Futures, 1993. 25(7): p. 739-755.
  16. Tainter, J.A., T. Allen, and T.W. Hoekstra, Energy transformations and post-normal science. Energy, 2006. 31(1): p. 44-58.

Tim Crownshaw is a PhD Candidate in the department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University in Canada and a student in the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) research partnership. He studies global dynamic transition pathways from non-renewable to renewable energy resources using quantitative, systems-based modelling approaches.

Redwashing capital

by Rob Wallace

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Aaron Bastani, author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, called refusals to adapt capitalist technologies under anti-capitalism’s banner a failure of imagination:

Ours is an age of crisis. We inhabit a world of low growth, low productivity and low wages, of climate breakdown and the collapse of democratic politics. A world where billions, mostly in the global south, live in poverty. A world defined by inequality.

But the most pressing crisis of all, arguably, is an absence of collective imagination. It is as if humanity has been afflicted by a psychological complex, in which we believe the present world is stronger than our capacity to remake it—as if it were not our ancestors who created what stands before us now. As if the very essence of humanity, if there is such a thing, is not to constantly build new worlds.

If we can move beyond such a failure, we will be able to see something wonderful. The plummeting cost of information and advances in technology are providing the ground for a collective future of freedom and luxury for all.

There is much to unpack here, part and parcel of a futurism more social democratic than communist already critically reviewed here, here, and here.

Are democratic politics even possible under capitalism, as Bastani off-handedly presumes? Is high growth an appropriate economic marker even out of capitalist hands? And what of the apparent disconnect here between all the new toys Bastani stans and that poverty in the global South?

I’ll be confining my objections here to the analytical core of Bastani’s thesis, before briefly turning to what a science (and tech) for the people, tied to a truly transformative shift in human relations, is already looking like instead.

On its face, the thesis is simple enough. Karl Marx, Bastani argues, was a capitalist. He even wrote a book about it. It’s a line for which the internet fed billionaire Elon Musk through a digital woodchipper. Herman Melville was a white whale, one wag riposted.

Here, Bastani spins the reversal with a more erudite flair, claiming Marx’s affinities for capitalism were more utilitarian. Communism depends on capitalism, much as children depend on their parents. There must first be a means of production to seize, after all. The deduction capsizes the standard interpretation that Marx pursued his studies as a critique—right there in the subtitle of his major work—by which we might break from capitalism.

That doesn’t mean socializing capitalism is by definition the only option forward. Now that would be a failure of imagination.

It follows, Bastani continues, that a techno-optimism around the best of what capitalism produces is the only communist future possible. It’s a veritable truism that any new future will begin with where history to this point has left us off. To various degrees, all of us are presently slated inside capitalism’s historical moment. But, against Bastani, that doesn’t mean socializing capitalism is by definition the only option forward. Now that would be a failure of imagination.

It’s a notion that also opens a path to capitalizing socialism, exactly as Marx himself warned. Such strategy assumes capitalist power bends to good ideas and not, with enough cash and violence, the other way around. “In Amerika,” to reappropriate the prototypical Cold War sendup, “capital socializes you.”

Cyborg Marx vs Ecological Marx

In a follow-up on the Verso blog, Bastani paints Marx an out-and-out tech-utopian, ignoring the documented ecological Marx and more critical interpretations of the Grundrisse’s “Fragment on Machines” on which Bastani bases his argument:

An aspect of Marx’s thinking which remains underemphasised is how he recognised capitalism’s tendency to progressively replace labouranimal and human, physical and cognitivewith machines. In a system replete with contradictions, it was this one in particular which rendered it a force of potential liberation.

Media philosopher McKenzie Wark, for one, is sympathetically dismissive of this middle Marx:

Read as low theory, rather than philosophy, Marx’s 1858 “Fragment on Machines” turns out to be interesting but of its time. He is bamboozled by this new machine system form of tech. He describes it, in mystified form as “a moving power that moves itself”. Actually it isn’t. A whole dimension is missing here: the forces of production are also energy systems. Entirely absent from this text is the simple fact that industrialization had run through all the forests of Northern Europe and then switched to coal, which was in turn more or less exhausted by our time. This is connected, as we shall see, to Marx’s failure to think through the metaphor of metabolism in this text.

By way of human ecologist Andreas Malm and environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster, Wark argues that Bastani-like celebrations of communist cyberocracy, in which machines reduce labour time in favor of people’s leisure, omit a critical element. They miss our relationship with the environment, the other key component of human appropriation. “Notice,” Wark continues,

how energy finally appears here, but only the energy of human labor. [Marx] has not [yet] grasped the extent to which the replacement of human energy with fossil-fuel energy is very central to how capitalism unfolded.

A mature Marx concurred, placing the correction front and centre. Indeed, in terms that read as if directed at Bastani point-by-point, he begins the Critique of the Gotha Program by explicitly denouncing such an omission as a part of the bourgeois program:

“Labor is the source of all wealth and all culture.”

Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. The above phrase is to be found in all children’s primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning. And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth.

The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.

Much else is missing. Bastani’s steampunk portraiture—Marx’s telescopic eye short-circuiting his own beard afire—sidelines the ways capitalist tech, and the limited problems its owners choose to solve, penetrate our social relations at their foundations. The modes of production Bastani celebrates in capitalism co-produce the relations of production—capital dominating the proletariat—to which he says he objects.

In agriculture, for instance, the gene editing Bastani champions isn’t really about solving problems presented in an albeit historicized natural economy still dependent on the sun, seasons, and organisms’ life cycles. These problems are dealt with in direct terms today by those agroecologies worldwide that haven’t been smashed by capitalist land grabs. The latest and greatest in genetic engineering aren’t needed where traditional breeding programs are perfectly capable even under rapid climate change. Proprietary GMOs are more about looping farmers into a ratchet of production that both subjects them to labour discipline and helps garnish the near-entirety of farm revenue.

Indeed—funny enough given Bastani’s tech fetish—capital is perfectly happy trashing research and development if its monopolies in economy and State power succeed in depressing competition and externalizing such costs of production to labour, consumer, government, and nature. In other words, the efficiencies for which capital incessantly searches, squeezing out every iota of surplus value, often have little to do with commodity production directly.

New tech can even get in the way of profit. Solar energy is only the most obvious example. But the drag is everywhere. Alongside reducing the number of breeding lines across plant and animal species, agribusiness consolidation reduces the numbers of geneticists working in the sector. Homogenization divorced from the biologies and behaviors of livestock extends to the science pursued.

Tech’s environmental hoaxes

By these trajectories, Big Ag, emblematic of other industries, corners itself into some darkly hilarious traps of its own making.

In the face of African swine fever, presently the world’s largest-ever livestock disease outbreak, the hog sector is pursuing suddenly fashionable facial recognition software to keep track of sick pigs (without changing the husbandry that sickens them). Despite efforts on the part of the sector to blame backyard producers, the outbreak is progressing hand-in-hoof with sharp increases in the numbers of total and per-farm head, declines in hog diversity, explosive growth in international exports shipping millions of head country-to-country, and a system design disallowing hybrid hogs who survive from breeding on-site and passing on their immunity. The incapacity to respond to African swine fever and other deadly diseases is built into the economic model before a single hog gets sick.  

In other words, the sources of liberation technology Bastani upholds in actuality embody the very alienation to which Marx objected, divorcing both nature and humanity from possible solutions as problems arise. I’m not the first to point this out. Rut Elliot Blomqvist directly addressed this gap in Bastani’s argument last year. But power, as apparently playacted by the ecomodernist Left, is found in refusing to respond to such counternarratives with anything other than tweeted insult.

There are other interactions between our two sources of wealth—labour and the environment—that belie tech’s easy payoff. The environment can destroy labour and machines; earthquakes, for instance, to choose what was up until fracking the least socialized “natural” disaster outside a meteor strike. Of course, choosing to build a nuclear facility on a major fault is entirely money over matter run amok.

By the second contradiction of capitalism, labour and tech, in the other direction, can destroy the environments upon which they depend. Much of colonialism involves spatial fixes by which this damage is externalized onto the Indigenous, up until imperial might or the resources themselves or both run out. The cycle of accumulation then retracts into internal colonization as capital cashes out, as in the case of fracking in the U.S. Unless the resulting damage just offers the next window of investment, as, for instance, with oil and sand opening up in a melting Arctic.

Should the chain of relative opportunities conclude in abandoning the planet, dead Mars, as even well-intended techno-optimism has cheered, somehow represents a happy ending and not a recursion spun off into space. A Hard Times headline summarized an analogous trap in all its dialectical tragicomedy: “Desperate Attempt to Escape Mosh Pit Looks Exactly Like Moshing.”

As Marxism has long observed, even under the neoclassical model, tech repeatedly drives itself into a ditch. Innovations score quick profits until the new fixed capital spreads, competition intensifies, and economic crises precipitate, to be alleviated, or, better put, reconstituted by exports, monopoly, and war.

And by out-and-out murderous fraud. As we learned earlier this year, why deliver a fully functioning plane when you can upsell basic safety features? With Big Pharma in a productivity crisis, and the number of new drug classes in secular collapse, Sackler-owned Purdue Pharma pursued a “Project Tango” by which it sold cures to the opioid addictions that company reps, “turbocharging sales,” pushed doctors to prescribe in the first place. The company, turning rent-seeking from land to body, aimed to make itself an “end-to-end pain provider.”

In promising fully automated communism, left technologism quietly factors out our present pace in tech evolution from the market cycles underlying it.

Another round of innovation isn’t necessarily about use value, as tech-optimists focus on, but on resetting such market grifts. As the payoff is the endpoint that matters, many an innovation is only tangentially related to what the commodity is used for by the consumer. In promising fully automated communism, left technologism quietly factors out our present pace in tech evolution from the market cycles underlying it. But planned obsolesce and other such sleights-of-hand shouldn’t be folded in as virtues in any vision of modern communism.

It isn’t just the resulting despoliation of land and sea that shows environmental conservation is antithetical to the rules of this game. Against the hype of green capitalism, more efficient production, say, growing more food per hectare, doesn’t save the environment. By the Jevons paradox, such successes only spread out, taking the lead eating through the “saved” resource. Along the way, as more of the resource is destroyed, what’s left of what once was part of our shared commons suddenly accrues value it never had. Under Lauderdale’s paradox, a decaying resource base isn’t grounds for good corporate governance but serves as the basis for a fight for the leftovers, as in the case of the multinational rush for the last of the world’s “virgin” farmland in Africa.

As if right off the pages of the National Review, left accelerationists square this circle by dismissing environmentalism as neo-Malthusian catastrophism. There are no ecological precipices, they claim. A boundless nature automatically cleans up after humanity’s expropriation. Water, for one, doesn’t disappear, Jacobin accelerationist and Verso author Leigh Phillips posted on a recent Facebook thread, it just transforms into another form something else in the food chain can use. It’s a Žižekian gambit, the philosopher’s lateral lisp ablazing: DEY VILL BE MORE ECOSOCIALISH DAN DA ECOSOCIALISH DEMSHELVE. With a neoclassical faith in Earth’s regenerative powers that outstrips the biosphere itself.

Back on this planet, on the other hand, with an uneven relational geography of per capita freshwater use largely driven by global North agriculture and industrial production alienated from the very ecological processes appealed to here, many a region’s quantifiable, and, yes, limited supply of potable water is crashing out.

History isn’t deterministic

The ecomodernist missteps track back to inception.   

Marx hypothesized capital originated in a similar if era-specific game of socioenvironmental whack-a-mole. To return to the very Grundrisse to which accelerationists appeal and, as excerpted here, in the earlier German Ideology he wrote with Engels, Marx traced capitalism’s genesis as a spiraling dialectic of population, machine, expropriation, and geography:

The labour which from the first presupposed a machine, even of the crudest sort, soon showed itself the most capable of development. Weaving, earlier carried on in the country by the peasants as a secondary occupation to procure their clothing, was the first labour to receive an impetus and a further development through the extension of commerce. Weaving was the first and remained the principal manufacture. The rising demand for clothing materials, consequent on the growth of population, the growing accumulation and mobilisation of natural capital through accelerated circulation, the demand for luxuries called forth by the latter and favoured generally by the gradual extension of commerce, gave weaving a quantitative and qualitative stimulus, which wrenched it out of the form of production hitherto existing.

Alongside the peasants weaving for their own use, who continued with this sort of work, there emerged a new class of weavers in the towns, whose fabrics were destined for the whole home market and usually for foreign markets too. Weaving, an occupation demanding in most cases little skill and soon splitting up into countless branches, by its whole nature resisted the trammels of the gild. Weaving was therefore carried on mostly in villages and market-centres without gild organisation, which gradually became towns, indeed the most flourishing towns.

That is, by its very own combos of due cause and historical chance, feudalism arrived upon the circumstances that prefigured capital. In a dizzying dance, the effects of one feudal process turned into the causes of another, to and fro.

So contrary to tales left and right of capitalism’s genesis, capital never sprang from Adam Smith’s or Milton Friedman’s (or Dr. Dre’s) head fully formed. The transition in the prevalent mode of production, as Marx and Engels tie it off here, emerged woven out of conditionally translated factors:

With gild-free manufacture, property relations also quickly changed. The first advance beyond natural, estate-capital was provided by the rise of merchants whose capital was from the beginning moveable, capital in the modern sense as far as one can speak of it, given the circumstances of those times. The second advance came with manufacture, which again made mobile a mass of natural capital, and altogether increased the mass of movable capital as against that of natural capital. At the same time, manufacture became a refuge of [free labour] peasants from the gilds which excluded them or paid them badly, just as earlier the gild-towns had served as a refuge for the peasants from the oppressive landed nobility.

Feudalism could very well have ended a different way. If we leap-frog forward into what we presume will be the far side of the age of capitalism, we should expect a similar storyboard, with cause and effect and happenstance pinballing back and forth. Facile determinism was, and will never be, the order of the day. Stochastic outcomes burble out from between social systems’ historical constraints.

Liberation, then, isn’t just a matter of seizing physical factories, as if the objects they produce, the ring of all rings, my precious, are revolution in a package. It’s fascinating the extent to which some liberals grasp this point better than our leftish techno-determinists. In encapsulating the grim scientific projections for climate change in his recent book, a David Wallace-Wells still bewitched with “our” present lifestyle hedged that

these twelve threats described in these twelve chapters yield a portrait of the future only as best as it can be painted in the present. What actually lies ahead may prove even grimmer, though the reverse, of course, is also possible. The map of our new world will be drawn in part by natural processes that remain mysterious, but more definitively by human hands. At what point will the climate change grow undeniable, un-compartmentalizable? How much damage will have already been selfishly done? How quickly will we act to save ourselves and preserve as much of the way of life we know today as possible?

For the sake of clarity, I’ve treated each of the threats from climate change—sea-level rise, food scarcity, economic stagnation—as discrete threats, which they are not. Some may prove offsetting, some mutually reinforcing, and others merely adjacent. But together they form a latticework of climate crisis, beneath which at least some humans, and probably many billions, will live.

The urban legend that Marx saw the most industrially advanced countries as necessarily the communist vanguard was dead wrong.

One can see why historian Eric Hobsbawm, bashing the arguments of Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara’s socialist manifesto before it was fashionable, insisted, as much as a matter of method as fact, that the urban legend that Marx saw the most industrially advanced countries as necessarily the communist vanguard was dead wrong. In fact, Hobsbawm continued, for better or worse, Marx and Engels placed early bets on a revolutionary (and decidedly agrarian) Russia:

No misinterpretation of Marx is more grotesque than the one that suggests that he expected a revolution exclusively from the advanced industrial countries of the West…

Engels records their hopes of a Russian revolution in the late 1870s and in 1894 specifically looks forward to the possibility of “the Russian revolution giving the signal for the workers’ revolution in the West, so that both supplement each other.”

Such a series of retroactive reversals—an ecological Marx, the gap between tech and problem-solving, and the possibility that communisms can emerge on the periphery out of a different combinatorial of production—is hard to assimilate if you’ve founded your political program upon radicalizing commodity fetishism at capital’s centre.

Turning outer space into Flint

The particulars are as goofy as they are galling.

If, as it appears in his Times piece, Bastani thinks food is only about basic nutrition or good taste (however important these both are), then he has bought exactly into an agribusiness productivism that making lots of (marketable) food is the task at hand.

No wonder lab meat and other examples of cellular agriculture ring his bell. Never mind food fully engulfed by industrial processing represents the next generation in expropriation. No peasant in the Amazon helping cultivate regenerative agroecologies need apply under Amazon’s (or Uber’s) business plan for drone-striking edible petri dishes to your shipping container’s door. Never mind such pellets are being produced by the very venture capital that helped bring about the environmental crises in the first place. It’s as if tech frisson alone is enough of a rationale to keep capital in power and objections to cease fire.

Food sovereignty, in contrast, extends beyond such vulgar food security to a people’s right to control their land and labour in the course of producing culturally appropriate food they—they!—wish to grow and eat, if under the constraints of regional planning and wider gyres of global circulation.

Bastani’s wanton oversimplifications extend to health and energy. In an age of poisoned water in Flint, Michigan and the opioid epidemics spreading across farming communities around the world, he calls for tech-led interventions into health that are grounded in commoditization-friendly preformationisms about human biology. Health and disease are inside you from the start. One just needs a pill or genetic intervention to cure you. But in reality, such reductionist medicine works for only some diseases and is conspicuous in its dearth of notions of shared public health outside pharmaceutical market shares.

Backing an anti-Marxist ecology, Bastani pegs our energy demands to mining asteroids. Marx’s “Theft of Wood” in outer space. At what cost to Earth will it take to get us up there? Who will control the mines across The Expanse? Does this political economist’s effort to think through the likely political economy to emerge out of such a program extend beyond the cheery engineering porn many such Left proponents can’t seem to understand as it is?

Philosopher Alain Badiou is scathing of such a cheap politics, in this case so literal in its actualization:

Blind worship of “novelty” and contempt for established truths. This comes straight out of the commercial cult of the “novelty” of products and out of a persistent belief that something is being “started” that has already happened many times before. It simultaneously prevents people from learning from the past, from understanding how structural repetitions work, and from not falling for fake “modernities.”

A Left actually working in the natural sciences is arriving at different conclusions, sketching out the horrific details of emerging capital-led tech.

Over a series of technical monographs (here, here, and here), mathematical epidemiologist Rodrick Wallace uses information theory and control theory to show efforts at developing artificial intelligence for driverless cars or electric grids are grounded upon badly supported models of human consciousness. The resulting fast-tracked experiments in silicon cognition, conducted on public roads with little regulatory supervision, are lining up as high-stakes demonstrations of what Wallace has described as machine psychopathology:

The asymptotic limit theorems of control and information theories make it possible to explore the dynamics of collapse likely to afflict large-scale systems of autonomous ground vehicles that communicate with each other and with an embedding intelligent roadway. Any vehicle/road system is inherently unstable in the control theory sense as a consequence of the basic irregularities of the traffic stream, the road network, and their interactions, placing it in the realm of the Data Rate Theorem that mandates a minimum necessary rate of control information for stability. It appears that large-scale [vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure] systems will experience correspondingly large-scale failures analogous to the vast, propagating fronts of power network blackouts, and possibly less benign but more subtle patterns of individual vehicle, platoon, and mesoscale dysfunction.

The moral calculus of the resulting accidents—who will driverless cars choose to kill—is giving even sociopaths such as Henry Kissinger the kind of pause that escapes our future-so-bright Left.

The information and tech revolutions Bastani presents as a cheap exit out of our present mess are proving costly even on days in which operations work perfectly.

The information and tech revolutions Bastani presents as a cheap exit out of our present mess are proving costly beyond such failures, even, much like infamous Bitcoin, on days in which operations work perfectly. Technology Review reports:

In a new paper, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, performed a life cycle assessment for training several common large AI models. They found that the process can emit more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent—nearly five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car (and that includes manufacture of the car itself).

The fully automated communist equivalent, sharing similar presumptions, much as Stalin and Cargill on industrialized agriculture or the convergent political ergonomics behind Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, would likely differ little in its catastrophic outcomes save perhaps who exactly picks up the tab.

In parallel to the misplaced magical thinking that disappears such inconveniences, the ecomodernist program is fitted with a political tin ear as if a single EarPod (the other lost at a boozy IPO launch). “Let’s leave Earth!” enthuses one of its planks.

Now there’s a rallying cry for the proletariat who are to be left behind. Space exploration extending beyond telescopy and into colonization represents the kind of innovation in accumulation that until now has given only more power to the Jeff Bezoses of the world. Or the Adam Dunkels, in the social democratic version. Through the guarded gate of a gravity well and with every canister of food, water, and air necessarily manufactured—and, as in Flint’s water, turned into a fictitious commodity—the powerful, already remote-programming on-the-spot firings, would be better able to control the people Bastani claims he aims to liberate.

Socializing sciences for the people

Even on their own terms, these phantasmagorias suck. Are other futures possible?

Ecosocialism and ecocommunism aim to transform society “away from socially and ecologically destructive systems.” Our capacity to socially reproduce ourselves as a species requires we integrate production, conservation, and human liberation—across labour, race, indigeneity, and gender, among other axes.

Against ecomodernist smears, alternatives in ecosocialism (here, here, and here, for a starter kit) aren’t organized around prelapsarian fantasies of returning to a mode of production that existed nowhere save in the minds of its critics. They are not, as left business observer Doug Henwood and other accelerationists repeatedly troll, neo-primitivisms championing eating twigs, living in huts, and reducing the human population by 90%.

“[Accelerationism’s] main shortcoming,” anarchist social theorist Kevin Carson rolls his eyes,

is a failure to understand the significance of the technologies it sees as the basis for the post-capitalist system. Although Accelerationism celebrates advances in cybernetic technology and network communications as the building blocks of post-scarcity communism, it is tone deaf when it comes to the specific nature of the promise offered by these technologies, and actually runs directly counter to them. This failure includes a lazy conflation of localism and horizontalism with primitivism and backwardness (to the point of treating ‘neo-primitivist localism’ as a single phrase), and a lionization of verticality, centralism and planning.

Dark ecologist Timothy Morton engages this position at its source:

[The] Severing [between the reality of a human-centric world and the real of ecological symbiosis across species] has produced physical as well as psychic effects, scars of the rip between reality and the real. One thinks of the Platonic dichotomy of body and soul: the chariot and the charioteer, the chariot whose horses are always trying to pull away in another direction. The phenomenology of First Peoples points in this direction, but left thought hasn’t been looking that way, fearful of primitivism, a concept that inhibits thinking outside agrilogistic parameters [of an industrial ecology without nature].

Agroecologies and other community-led models mind this gap, organizing their ethoses around nature’s intrinsic fecundity while regularly adapting to the latest that soil and other regenerative sciences have to offer when made available. Along the way, these ‘back road’ methods refuse to divorce modes and relations of production as a matter of first principle. Nor do they just hand over their land and labour to assuage the brand loyalties upon which the Henwoods of the world glom as if in existential terror. 

In something of an afterthought in the best annihilation of the ecomodernist program I’ve read this year, development sociologist Max Ajlexplains how new tech can indeed be used, but from the start must be folded into a recursively negotiated model of how we are to socially reproduce ourselves as a society:

A second potential course of action is devoting as much research as possible into lessening the difficulty of the [agriculture] labour involved, through—of course!—technology. In both [what is now capital’s] core and periphery, how much farming will be mechanized and, more importantly, which tasks should not be mechanized remain open questions. So, too, is the meaning of mechanization, and what kinds of tools can spare labour without excess energy-intensive extraction. How much we can replace hard labour with constant attention through human presence and careful intervention in natural cycles is another open question.

In describing a novel municipal food program in Brazil that central planning, without a single robot deployed, scaled up to feeding hundreds of thousands from forest-adjacent farm to city table, political agroecologist Jahi Chappell suggested our social institutions can be as unworldly an advance as any handheld gadget:

The truth is that the future will be based not on the promises of whiz-bang technology, but on the more mundane features of the decisions our societies make about what we will do, how we will do it, and who will get to decide. That is, our future fates are based on our institutions. “Institutions,” as a technical term, refers to the rules prevalent in a society. They are essentially about how we run our lives individually and collectively, and the many conscious, and unconscious, mechanics underneath the surface. Our ancestors would likely be just as shocked at these institutional foundations of our current societies as they would be at the tools and technology that support them. Institutions, in this way, are as much the stuff of sci-fi fantasy as bleeding-edge plant breeding techniques and the Dick Tracy wrist-radio/watches some of us now wear on our wrists. 

It’s as if, as environmental humanities scholar Anthony Galluzzo posted recently, humanity, not tech is—ha—the engine of history. Again, it’ll be people, not science alone, environmental scientist Erle Ellis wrote in another Times op-ed, who’ll save us from ecological collapse.

Tech bros win-winning the world away

So what to make of this fringe of Marxian tech bros with outsized access Chappell and Galluzzo dubbed the Jetsonian Left, beyond its recapitulating industry’s penchant for finding due cause in objects, rather than in an ecosocial scope capital can’t easily flip into commodities?

Given the generic corporate marketing in what presents itself as anti-capitalist doctrine, one of the few explanations that lines up the albeit scattered dots is that Bastani and his fellow Prometheans see something they like of themselves in their bourgeois enemies. It may explain in part why Bastani, hog-tying himself this way, got his ass whipped on TV by a doddering foursome of system apologists.

And capital, so skilled at such flattery, is happy to oblige. By historian Joseph Fracchia’s account, Marx saw materialism outside merely the “stuff” of the world. Capital also deploys innovations in the social and the semiotic—through many of Chappell’s institutions it’s captured—to help organize production and the greater cultural environment in its favor.

The resulting dynamics now playing out are textbook. Reformists, observed historian Doug Greene on Facebook, are demanding revolutionaries skip what was the centennial of an outdated communist revolution. Also, they continue, “‘We should adapt the exciting ideas of [long-dead social democrat] Karl Kautsky!‘”

When the spectre of revolution re-emerges—percolating today from the Yellow Vests to Sudan and it seems increasingly underneath elsewhere—there’s always room for Leftists who propose more of the establishment as the radical path forward. It’s a road their capitalist allies and even out-and-out employers—Galluzzo points out Jacobin author Leigh Phillips works for the nuclear industry—would never let them anywhere near commandeering. 

With capitalists scared sleepless by revolution, redwashing has re-emerged.

In other words, there’s always a future, even a communist futurism, for useful idiots too smart to fail. With capitalists scared sleepless by revolution, redwashing has re-emerged. While the term has been used to denote corporate donations to Indigenous causes or redbaiting progressives, in the face of growing public abjection, the capitalist class now appears searching for the shelter of left paraphernalia beyond selling back revolt.   

And the customer-centric talent that capital seeks, showing up as if incarnating an epochal process, is now offering to scale up these win-win deliverables. Just six months ago, his Fully Automated manuscript already in press at Verso, Bastani tweeted:

I’m a big fan of capitalism from 1800-1980. It’s just now that record is facing serious, sustained, and arguably secular challenges.

Just now, mind you. After Native American genocide, Black slavery, Victorian holocausts, child labour, the Great Depression and Nazi Germany, Vietnam and fifty years of other proxy wars, and environmental ruination across the global South. “Challenges,” he calls them, as if on spec, pitching some Silicon Valley moneybags. Because, yeah, those guys, biohacking their computer selves to liver failure or dying in line at the Mount Everest gift shop, should arbitrate the world’s next steps.

The automation pursued out of such base appeals may be increasing in extent and luxury, but there’s little communist about it. People and the planet deserve far better.

Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer. He is author of Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science and, most recently, co-author of Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection

Pulling the magical lever

Image: Pixabay

by Rut Elliot Blomqvist

Ideas about the importance of the imagination in an age of political and ecological crisis are popping up everywhere: in the arts, in activism and other forms of politics, and in a wide range of academic disciplines and fields. This blog is one example.

In addition to creative efforts to imagine other futures, we also need critical analyses of such visions. This is because imaginative responses to crises cover a broad spectrum of politics and worldviews—and even our dreams of a better future can be constrained by the political structure and ideologies of the present. A critical approach to utopian imaginaries is essential for any rethinking of political futures; without it, we risk being trapped in the same old stories even as we see ourselves as thinking outside the old story box.

Even our dreams of a better future can be constrained by the political structure and ideologies of the present.

In this essay, I discuss one category of future visions: techno-utopianism. There are plenty of techno-utopian fiction and nonfiction stories to choose from. Three that have caught my attention and that have some interesting similarities and differences are British campaigner and lobbyist Jonathon Porritt’s design fiction book The world we made, futurist Jacque Fresco’s The Venus project, and the movement for Fully Automated Luxury Communism.

To see how viable these visions are, I’ll analyze their narrative and argumentative logic and also connect the basic assumptions in these visions to the modernization hypothesis—the idea that human history is a process of evolution towards modernity through economic development and technological progress. Several schools of thought in the critical social sciences have emerged in reaction to this widespread conviction about progress. World-systems theory is one of them, and it retells the story of modernization (or of ‘the modern world system’) by taking the colonial expansion of Western Europe as a starting point. This expansion wasn’t driven by some automatic force of modernization but by the accumulation of resources in privileged areas and the consequent impoverishment of peripheries. This perspective should lead us to ask whether institutions and artefacts that are often taken for granted in attempts to reimagine politics—like the technologies that are central in techno-utopianism—are compatible with or inimical to environmental sustainability and social justice.

With this critical perspective in mind, we will now turn to the three stories and their connections to political movements.

The World We Made: Alex McKay’s Story from 2050

Jonathon Porritt, a British environmentalist with a background in the UK Green Party and Friends of the Earth, has written a 300-page design fiction imagining concrete steps from the year 2014 to an imagined sustainable future in 2050. Design fiction aims to inspire new forms of design and engineering (and sometimes also political policy), and its possible functions in relation to environmental issues  are currently being investigated by researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.

Porritt’s report from the future, which is divided into sections of a few pages each, is permeated by a positive rhetoric that emphasizes solutions and does not linger on conflicts. He motivates this in the postscript by stating that ‘yet more tales of doom and gloom are not going to make a difference’ (p. 275). Where ecological and political crises are acknowledged—for instance concerning droughts and mass protests in the once abundant Fertile Crescent (pp. 22-27), or issues with profit maximization (pp. 54-57)—the story always moves on to hopeful conclusions about how a united world comes to its senses and decides to act in the nick of time. The narrator Alex McKay, a male community college teacher in an unspecified anglophone country (presumably the UK), writes in the preface to the report that humanity has found ‘a renewed sense of purpose as a family of nations’ (p. 1). The book conceptualizes the agent of historical change, or the protagonist in a story of action for sustainability, as an abstract, united humanity which realizes its potential for goodness and acts through the existing political institutions of the 2010s. In terms of political change, we just need the general public to protest a bit (pp. 32-36) and ‘get today’s political classes to think beyond the next election’ (p. 275). Other institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, large corporations, and powerful industries—not to mention the underlying institutions of money and industrial technology, artefacts that are presented as natural phenomena and barely subject to cultural analysis—are conveniently tamed or turn out to work for the common good. This is emblematic of a tendency in many accounts of climate change (and is a central point of disagreement in the debate over the concept of the Anthropocene): to imagine a generalized human ‘we’ as first the villain causing climate change and environmental degradation and then the chastened hero who takes responsibility for the situation.

His wish to stay away from ‘doom and gloom’ means that he also stays away from a rigorous analysis of the political and ecological crises of the present.

In doing so, The World We Made fails to analyze the complex, intertwined political and economic causes behind global environmental change, climate change, global inequity, and the lack of transformative action in current political institutions. This is at least partly due to Porritt’s choice of rhetorical strategy. His wish to stay away from ‘doom and gloom’ means that he also stays away from a rigorous analysis of the political and ecological crises of the present. Consequently, as a work of fiction The World We Made can be criticized for poor characterization of both protagonists and antagonists and the lack of a coherent explanatory backstory. The cultural and material motivations of those who participate in ecological destruction and the exploitation of other people are absent, as are explanations for how institutions that are inimical to sustainability suddenly turn out to be useful tools for political change. To compare this to another well-known narrative in speculative fiction, it is as if Boromir in The Lord of the Rings were hailed for his brilliant idea of using the One Ring to do good and then everyone goes with him to Minas Tirith, they win the war with hardly any bloodshed—Sauron accepting to keep financial profits and slavery at a minimum—and the ominous aura surrounding the Ring turns out to be a stupid doom and gloom thing which luckily no one bought into.

The proposed solutions to ecological and political crises in Porritt’s design fiction take the form of leaps of faith—often faith in technology as a kind of magic—based on best-case scenarios. As six years have passed since The World We Made was published, some of those best-case scenarios have been literally disproven. The most absurd example is the contrast between Porritt’s imagined reformist and peaceful outcome of the Arab Spring (p. 22) and today’s situation with the Syrian civil war, ISIS, the political crisis in Libya after Gaddafi was ousted, enforced EU borders and the EU deal with Turkey to keep refugees out, and so on. To this criticism we can add a world-system understanding of the ‘green’ technologies which Porritt sees as our global salvation (pp. 15-21, 274-275): since industrial technologies in the past have been built on the exploitation of resources and labour in impoverished peripheries, we have no reason to believe that a non-exploitative force of technological progress will suddenly kick in and modernize us all out of this mess. As I will return to towards the end of this essay, these technologies need to be analyzed in connection to their role in the world system as a whole and not only on the basis of the local benefits they offer the people who control them.

The Venus Project

If there are tendencies to view technologies as magic in Porritt’s thinking, it is nothing compared to what is presented in the political vision of the Venus Project. The project was founded by futurist Jacque Fresco and is an important source of inspiration in some environmentalist circles.

The Venus Project is described on the website as ‘a single man’s vision of the future where war is obsolete, there’s no lack of resources, and our focus as a species is global sustainability and the preservation of the environment.’ The key to this is the progress of modern technology. In Fresco’s vision, humanity will use ‘the latest scientific and technological marvels’ to ‘reach extremely high productivity levels and create abundance of resources.’ The scientific method will guarantee progress in all areas, from energy to social relations. In an interview in The New American, Fresco explains how:

  ‘Nobody makes decisions in the Venus Project, they arrive at them,’ Fresco said. For example, a soil sample would go to ‘Central Agriculture’, which would analyze it, and make a determination as to what the best crop to grow in that soil would be. ‘We intend to use surveys to arrive at decisions rather than make decisions.’

This objective scientific analysis will unleash the full force of technological progress. It will give us clean nuclear power through the development of Thorium reactors. We can also expect a system of fully automated construction with gigantic 3D printers building everything humans need. We will live in circular cities planned and managed by computers and organised around a ‘central dome or theme center’ housing ‘the core of the cybernated system, … computerized communications, networking systems’ (which is reminiscent of the utopian tradition of imagining the ideal city). There will be permanent space stations, serving as gravity-free research environments and supplying information about the earth’s ecological status to the supercomputers which run human society. The complex transportation system of the united planetary civilization will include hovercars, hovering conveyors called transveyors replacing other vehicles in cities, and hovering aircraft ‘controlled by electro-dynamic means eliminating the need for ailerons, elevators, rudders, spoilers, flaps or any other mechanical controls.’

If the scientific method and technological progress are the heroes of Fresco’s story, the main villain is money. In an interview on the website of the Venus Project, Fresco says that he can’t see peace and equity happening ‘in a monetary-based system where the richest nations control most of the world’s resources.’ The proposed alternative is a ‘Resource Based Economy’ in which ‘all goods and services are available to all people without the need for means of exchange such as money, credits, barter or any other means.’ It will be achieved through the application of the scientific method and the declaration of all resources ‘as the common heritage of all Earth’s inhabitants.’

There doesn’t seem to be any need for rigorous arguments supporting the ability of technology to create resources or in other ways transcend the laws of physics. As a result, the Venus Project’s imagined technologies are a lot like the Star Trek Replicator: a machine creating matter out of pure energy, where neither the source of this energy nor the way the machine works is defined.

The term for this type of science fiction world-building, where no effort is made to prove the feasibility or viability of future technologies, is soft science fiction.

The term for this type of science fiction world-building, where no effort is made to prove the feasibility or viability of future technologies, is soft science fiction. On the pop-culture site tvtropes.org, soft science fiction is illustrated by how it would explain time travel: ‘You sit in this seat, set the date you want, and pull that lever.’ Techno-utopianism, it seems, is soft science fiction: you pull the lever of technological progress and post-scarcity comes about. In Global Magic: Technologies of Appropriation from Ancient Rome to Wall Street, the anthropologist and political ecologist Alf Hornborg describes this as a form of fetishism; he argues that ‘technology is our own [modern] version of magic’ as it is ‘widely imagined to have autonomous agency’. He also contends that this fetishism ‘serves to mystify social relations of exchange’. Only by disassociating modern technology from global relations of exchange, and viewing it as a quasi-living thing which can act and has a purpose in itself, can we conceive of globalized technologies as creating wealth rather than accumulating it for the few.

Fresco’s vision relies entirely on a fetishized conceptualization of technology and a disassociation of ‘technological marvels’ from the system of exchange which he sees as a root cause of injustice and environmental destruction. This is made possible by his viewing money as a social institution but technology as a natural—or even supernatural and magical—force. This ambiguous attitude to modern institutions, with a critique of modern political economy and a celebration of modern science and technology, makes the Venus Project a fascinating techno-utopian vision to study. Maybe Fresco’s critique of money can still be useful for environmentalist movement building?

Further research on similar political visions and the opinions of Fresco’s followers suggests otherwise: it seems Fresco’s cabalistic critique of the monetary system he would overthrow lends itself to conspiracy theories. The Zeitgeist Project, created by Peter Joseph, one of Fresco’s most passionate disciples, is a telling example. Peter Joseph has made three Zeitgeist films covering issues of debt, interest, and how banks create money—and affirming the conspiracy theory that the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks were an inside job. And that’s not the only connection between the Venus Project and conspiracy theories. In Sweden, where I live, many who swear allegiance to Fresco’s vision are involved in the movement Vaken (Awake) which believes in a number of conspiracy theories and is based on the idea that only a small group of spiritually enlightened people can access an ‘esoteric worldview’ and see through these conspiracies. Although neither the Zeitgeist project nor Vaken explicitly talk about banking and money in terms of a Jewish conspiracy, the step is not far from their combination of conspiracy theories and a critique of banking and money to the openly anti-semitic narrative told by many contemporary national socialists and ecofascists.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Source: Novara media

If we leave out the affinities with conspiracy theories, there are striking similarities between Fresco’s vision and the techno-utopian post-scarcity vision of a new trend in (predominantly Anglo-American) leftist thinking: Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC). The two basic premises for this vision are the concept of automation and, instead of Fresco’s critique of money, political change achieved through the seizing of the means of production by the working class.

The productive capacity of technologies is simply taken for granted—you just pull the lever.

In the same soft science fiction manner as in the Venus Project, the productive capacity of technologies is simply taken for granted—you just pull the lever. Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media and proponent of FALC, states matter-of-factly that ‘[t]here is a tendency in capitalism to automate labor, to turn things previously done by humans into automated functions’. In this same Guardian article, we learn that ‘[t]he ideology [of FALC] springs from a tangle of well-observed trends. Generally, the rate of technological progress and labour productivity is rising, but wages are stagnating and factories are shedding jobs’ (emphasis added). In a similar manner, an article in Forbes contends that ‘[t]he rate of technological progress and worker productivity is on the rise’ and that ‘[r]obots, AI, machine learning, big data, etc. could basically make human labor redundant and instead of creating even further inequalities it could lead to a society where everyone lives in luxury and where machines produce everything.’ In sum: technological progress is a fact, automation is a well-observed trend, and this is stating the obvious. We all know the Earth is not flat; we all know automation is coming and technology creates abundance.

But although ideas about automation and the end of work are spreading in Western and Westernized societies, these trends are in fact not as uncontested as it would sometimes seem. Both empirical research on the industrial energy technologies that are necessary for automation and theoretical analyses of ideas about the end of work and technological progress shed doubt on automation as an unstoppable natural force. I’ll return to the former topic in the next section.

Critical analyses of ideas about automation have been around since the concept began to spread in the 1990s. A central text is George Caffentzis’s ‘The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery? A Critique of Rifkin and Negri’ which argues that the ‘“end of work” literature of the 1990s … creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both friend and foe that, behind everyone’s back, capitalism has ended.’ Caffentzis concludes that this kind of politics is ‘hardly inspiring when millions are still being slaughtered’ by the same processes of accumulation that have supposedly been subverted by the liberatory power of industrial technologies. This analysis recasts so-called labour-saving technology as a tool for the control of labour rather than the liberation of it. In Fossil Capital, Andreas Malm identifies the same logic in the shift to steam power in the British empire: steam engines and fossil fuels were adopted by factory owners not because they saved labour but because they allowed for more efficient control of labour.

But FALC does not simply view technological progress itself as what brings about the end of capitalism—the movement demands socialization of the industrial means of production. In The utopia of rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy, David Graeber (though he subscribes to anarchist philosophy, not to statist luxury communism) provides a similar argument. He contends that capitalist ownership of the means of production means that automation has been used to save labour-time locally by displacing it to countries where unions are weaker and wages are lower. However, like FALC, he claims that it would be possible to use such machines to liberate labour if the means of production were owned collectively. The question is then whether the local benefits provided by industrial technologies can be made universally available.

The local accumulation of resources in places like Western Europe and North America becomes a universal historical trend of development towards ever more prosperous societies.

When the experience of automation and technological progress in privileged countries is situated in the larger context of the world system, there is reason to doubt this possibility. FALC relies on a Marxist version of the modernization hypothesis. It accepts theories about ‘post-industrial society’ as the stage of development that inevitably follows after industrialization and interprets the decline in domestic industrial production in privileged parts of the world as an indication that all countries can move to a post-industrial stage. The local accumulation of resources in places like Western Europe and North America becomes a universal historical trend of development towards ever more prosperous societies.

But to get a better idea of how feasible the visions of FALC, Fresco, and Porritt are, we need to unpack their ideas about societal production and reproduction. What gives life to these futuristic societies? By means of what energy are they constructed and maintained?

Three perspectives on change, one magical lever

Image: Pixabay

Solar energy is one of the most central animating powers in all three imagined futures. Bastani’s thinking is a case in point:

A world which has completely decarbonised production at some point in the twenty-first century is not the wet dream of tech optimists, but seemingly inevitable when you look at the falling cost of PV and wind technologies as a consequence of experience curves,

and therefore,

‘the idea that the answer to climate change is consuming less energy—that a shift to renewables will necessarily mean a downsizing in life—feels wrong.’

Falling prices and Bastani’s intuitions are the arguments offered for the viability of solar PVs as a replacement for fossil fuels. It is assumed that PVs are a fossil-free and practically unlimited source of energy. Such an assumption relies on the belief that the process of transforming the flow of energy from the sun into an electric current, storing that energy, and putting it to use in industrial production is at least as efficient as (or more efficient than) photosynthesis. This is the dominant view of solar PVs and it has been around at least since the Brundtland report on sustainable development, published in 1987. A contemporary leftist version of it is developed in ‘Solar Communism’ by David Schwartzman. This perspective on solar PVs has traction across the political spectrum.

If we want to create a ‘hard’ science fiction story about a solar-powered future, we would need to base the world-building on something more than vague statements about how abundantly the sun shines on the surface of this planet and how the wonders of technological progress will harvest this energy and create post-scarcity. We should instead consider the net energy that can be derived from solar power—or the energy return on energy invested (EROI). We should trace the sources of the energy that goes into the construction of the technology, and follow supply chains to investigate the resource extraction that is necessary for the construction and maintenance of the technology.

There is plenty of scientific controversy regarding the EROI of photovoltaics. The EROI is commonly calculated to around 11-12 to 1, meaning that you can get 11-12 times as much energy back from PVs as you have put into the construction of them. Some calculations (one article by Ferroni and Hopkirk and one by Ferroni, Gueko, and Hopkirk) suggest the EROI of PVs to be much lower—perhaps even lower than 1 to 1, which would make solar PVs a so-called ‘energy sink’ that costs more energy to construct than you can get in return. By comparison, the first oil fields which fuelled the booming industrial expansion of the 20th century had an EROI of around 100 to 1. (The energy investment amounted to little more than poking the earth with a stick, and the return was a high-energy fuel.)

In addition to the EROI, our hard science fiction story about solar power should include the sites of extraction and processes of refinement of the materials needed for solar panels and batteries (such as silicon, lithium, and rare earth metals). This would indicate that the construction of PVs generates pollution and CO2 emissions and exploits large areas of land somewhere in the world system—generally just not in the backyard of the privileged. A horrible story about one of the central locations in this extraction is told in an article in The Guardian: in Inner Mongolia, ‘China’s second-largest coal producing region, the main global supplier of rare earths and the site of large natural gas supplies’ (emphasis added), traditional Mongolian herders and their sheep are getting sick from pollution and are being displaced. When herders have protested, Malm writes in Fossil Capital, Chinese authorities have cracked down on them brutally, even murdering at least one herder.

Our hard science fiction story about solar power should also factor in that there is no such thing as perfect recycling and that many of the necessary materials are scarce, and hence consider that extraction should be expected to peak very fast in a solar-tech-powered version of present global civilization. This means that a high-tech luxury solar utopia modelled on the energy-intensive lifestyles of privileged groups in the current world system is not feasible. Solar-powered industrial techno-utopias should not be understood as alternatives to the current system but rather, with Hornborg, as ‘an expression of the global processes of capital accumulation which fossil fuels have made possible.’

Looking for non-magical utopias

Such soft science fiction imaginaries of magical sustainability and equity are examples not of a liberated imagination but of an imagination limited by the same fossil-fuel dependent system that it seeks to criticize.

The ideological positions may be very different in Porritt’s pro-capitalist sustainable development thinking, the Venus Project with its critique of money and possible affinities with nazism, and the movement for Fully Automated Luxury Communism, but the device of the fetishized magical lever of solar power (along with other magical industrial technologies) is equally central in all three stories. These techno-utopian imaginaries are constrained by a mainstream view of industrial technology as detached from social relations and resource flows, and the offered visions of the future can thereby conceptualize industrial technology as emancipatory. Such soft science fiction imaginaries of magical sustainability and equity are examples not of a liberated imagination but of an imagination limited by the same fossil-fuel dependent system that it seeks to criticize. Sadly, this means that the three techno-utopian visions that I have discussed here can’t be used as inspiration for the creation of anything but an upper-class gated community sucking out resources and labour from peripheries and keeping the unfortunate poor out. Their putative but ineffectual concern for the wellbeing of all people and all life makes them nice apologetic narratives to turn to for those of us who live in privileged parts of world society.

While there is a need for visions of a better future, these types of techno-utopian imaginaries—regardless of how well-meaning—will ultimately do more harm than good. In the face of current political and ecological crises, it is not comforting or empowering to be told to pull a magical lever. The rise of fascism, expanding neo-colonialism and extractivism, and runaway climate change and mass extinction call for more complex strategies and stories of change.

Rut Elliot Blomqvist is a co-editor at Uneven Earth, a musician and songwriter, and a PhD student at the University of Gothenburg. Elliot’s research explores the intersection between fiction and political theory in utopian and dystopian thinking about global environmental change.

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

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