The Jevons paradox is that efficiency enables growth. New technologies that can produce more goods from a given amount of resources allow the economy as a whole to produce more. More resources get used overall.
This is the magic of industrial capitalism and the secret of growth. Economists have known it for a long time. So why is it called a paradox?
A question of scale
The paradox is that we tend to assume that the more efficiently we use a resource the less of it we will use.
This is the case in our personal lives. If you buy a more fuel-efficient car, you might drive a little bit more but overall you will likely burn less gasoline. Switching to a low-flow showerhead typically saves water at home.
This efficiency-for-conservation logic appears correct for most subsets of the economy. When a business switches to energy-efficient light bulbs, its electricity bills go down. Municipalities that require new buildings to meet energy efficiency standards might see energy use decrease within city limits.
But at the level of the whole economy, the reverse is true. These efficiency gains contribute to increasing production and consumption, which increases the extraction of resources and the generation of wastes.
Energy-efficient technologies do not reduce carbon emissions.
This suggests that energy-efficient technologies do not reduce carbon emissions, that fertilizer-saving precision farming techniques do not decrease fertilizer applications overall, and that increasing agricultural yields does not spare land for nature. Real-world evidence supports these claims.
Environmental policy focused on efficiency gains does not by itself benefit the environment. Economies grow by developing and deploying increasingly efficient technologies.
How growth happens
Consider a hypothetical example. If the owner of a tea kettle factory installs a new machine that can make one kettle from less raw copper than before, he might continue to produce the same amount of kettles at a lower cost, or he might choose to make more kettles overall from the same amount of copper.
Either way, profits will go up. The factory owner can buy more machines to make even more kettles from even more copper. Or he can invest those profits elsewhere, increasing production in another sector of the economy and thus increasing the use of copper and other materials.
As more tea kettle factories adopt the copper-saving technology, they might start selling kettles at lower prices to compete for customers. As tea kettles get cheaper, people will be able to buy more of them. Since more kettles can be sold, factories will make more—using more copper.
Copper’s price might increase as factories increase their demand for it. When the price goes up, more potential copper mining sites become profitable, which further raises supply.
Or, even if all tea kettle factories end up using less copper with the new, copper-saving machines, copper’s price will fall and other sectors will be able to afford more copper and therefore demand more.
Cheaper copper could make all copper-containing things cheaper, not just tea kettles, leaving people with more money to spend. They can demand more of the products of all economic sectors, further increasing the use of many materials, including copper.
Cheaper copper might increase industrial profits, too, which capitalists either reinvest to increase production or spend on luxury things.
Even if the initial factory owner decides to give his workers a raise rather than keeping the profit or increasing production, then the workers will have more money to spend on tea kettles and everything else. Even if they decide to save all that additional income, the banking sector will direct it toward investing in more new machinery to produce more things from more materials.
No matter what, it seems, copper consumption rises in the end, because efficiency increases kickstart the growth machine.
The more efficiently society can use copper, the more of it will generally be used. Unless, that is, society intentionally limits its use of copper.
The same goes for just about any resource.
150 years of more
English economist William Stanley Jevons gets credit for being the first to point all this out. In 1865, Jevons found that as each new steam engine design made the use of coal more efficient, Britain used more coal overall, not less.
In 1865, Jevons found that as each new steam engine design made the use of coal more efficient, Britain used more coal overall, not less.
These efficiency improvements made coal cheaper, because steam engines, including the ones used to pump water out of coal mines, required less coal to produce a given amount of useful energy. Yet increasingly efficient steam engines made coal more valuable too, since so much useful energy could be produced from a given amount of coal.
That might be the real paradox: the ability to use a resource more efficiently makes it both cheaper and more valuable at the same time.
In Jevons’ time, more and more coal became profitable to extract as more and more uses of coal became profitable. Incomes increased as coal-fired industrial capitalism took off, and profits were continually invested to expand production further.
A century and a half later, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that as industrial processes have gotten more efficient at using dozens of different materials and energy sources, the overall use of these materials and energy sources has grown in nearly every case. The few exceptions are almost all materials whose use has been limited or banned for reasons of toxicity, like asbestos and mercury.
In an economy designed to grow, the Jevons paradox is all but inevitable. Some call it the Jevons phenomenon because of its ubiquity. Purposefully limiting ourselves might provide a way out.
Fighting growth with collective self-limitation
To prevent catastrophic climate change, humanity must rapidly reduce the combustion of fossil fuels. But despite decades of policy efforts and international negotiations, emissions continue to rise every year.
The focus on making energy use more efficient is paradoxically worsening the problem, as efficiency gains facilitate increasing, not decreasing, carbon burning. And renewable energy sources are adding to fossil fuels, not replacing them. Earth’s limited sources of coal, oil, and gas will not run out in time to save the stable climate.
But what if governments around the world treated coal like they do asbestos? What if petroleum extraction and uses were subject to strict limits like those of mercury?
To limit the use of fossil fuels, or anything else, society must impose limits on itself, preferably democratically.
To limit the use of fossil fuels, or anything else, society must impose limits on itself, preferably democratically. We must set limits on our own activity.
Once binding limits are in place, efficiency gains become one of several tools for staying within them. With a hard cap on the total amount of oil that can be burned, adopting increasingly fuel-efficient machinery cannot backfire and spark growth of oil-burning economic activity. Instead, fuel efficiency would allow more useful work to be done with the limited amount of oil that society permits itself to combust.
Of course, we must also be skeptical of the maximizing mentality that considers efficiency and more to be good things as such. Collectively limiting ourselves offers not just an escape from capitalism’s endless loops of efficiency and growth; it also provides the constraints necessary to imagine and act out new ideas about what makes the good life, as well as revive and protect traditional lifeways.
For many communities around the world, a global project to limit resource use could bring liberation from pollution, exploitation, and the one-way path toward Western-style development. To them, limits do not mean reductions or sacrifice but an opportunity to pursue goals other than growth.
Efficiency makes growth. But limits make creativity.
Once free from the efficiency mindset, we see that setting legal limits is not the only solution to the Jevons phenomenon. Society can also purposefully choose less-efficient production processes, setting the paradox in reverse by constraining the potential scale of the economy. If efficiency makes growth, maybe inefficiency makes degrowth.
Further reading suggestions:
David Owen. “The Efficiency Dilemma.” The New Yorker, December 12, 2010. This New Yorker piece captivatingly chronicles the history of the Jevons paradox as an idea and as a real material force
Salvador Pueyo. 2020. “Jevons’ Paradox and a Tax on Aviation to Prevent the next Pandemic.” Preprint. SocArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/vb5q3. The Jevons paradox holds that using a resource more efficiently leads to economic growth and thus more of that resource is used overall. In this article, Salvador Pueyo shows that, similarly, advances in disease control have enabled humans and livestock to live at higher densities, eventually bringing about more ferocious outbreaks. He argues that the aviation industry shifts costs onto society by spreading diseases around the world, and should thus be taxed.
Sam Bliss, “Why growth and the environment can’t coexist.” Grist. This video explains degrowth in 4 minutes, starting from a Jevons-inspired explanation of how increasing efficiency in orange juice production leads to more oranges consumed, not less.
Sam Bliss is a wildly inefficient researcher, writer, gardener, and warehouse manager of Food Not Bombs Burlington. He participates in and studies non-market food systems in Vermont.
On August 24, 1978, Murray Bookchin gave a lecture at the Toward Tomorrow Fair in Amherst, Massachusetts. Also speaking at that year’s gathering were several prominent thinkers, including R. Buckminster Fuller and Ralph Nader. In his speech, Bookchin argues against the ideology of futurism and for ecological utopianism. In the Q&A session, he points out that he is not against technology itself, he is against technocracy, and he also describes, in detail, his political vision for the future.
The speech is surprisingly relevant in today’s context: it’s as if he predicted the rise of fascist ideology and lifeboat ethics in the 21st century, and it feels like a direct rebuttal of Elon Musk-esque technocratic futurism on both the right and the left.
Because his speech is so applicable today, we decided to republish it here, making it accessible to a wider audience. It has been transcribed and edited lightly for flow, brevity, and grammar, and we have divided it into sub-sections for ease of reading. The text is published with the permission of The Bookchin Trust.
This morning at eleven o’clock, I tried to explain to you why I was not an environmentalist, but rather was an ecologist. And I tried to give you some idea, at least from my point of view, what ecology meant, as distinguished from environmentalism. The point that I tried to make most fundamentally is that environmentalism tries to patch things up, applies band-aids, cosmetics, to the environment. It sort of takes hold of nature, strokes it, and says, ‘Produce!’ It tries to use soil, pour chemicals into it and if only they weren’t poisonous everything would be great. Whereas ecology believes in a genuine harmonization of humanity with nature. And that harmonization of humanity with nature depends fundamentally on the harmonization of human beings with each other. The attitude that we’ve had towards nature has always depended on the attitude we’ve had towards each other. Let’s not kid ourselves, there is no such thing as a ‘pure nature.’
The simple fact now is that I’m not only not an environmentalist, I’ve got some hot news—I’m not a futurist. I’m not a futurist at all. I’m a utopian. I want to see this word revived. I want to see us use it. I want to see us think utopian. Not think futurism. And it’s these questions that I’d like to talk about, if I may.
What is futurism?
What is futurism? Futurism is the present as it exists today, projected, one hundred years from now. That’s what futurism is. If you have a population of X billions of people, how are you going to have food, how are you going to do this… nothing has changed. All they do is they make everything either bigger, or they change the size—you’ll live in thirty story buildings, you’ll live in sixty-story buildings. Frank Lloyd Wright was going to build an office building that was one mile high. That was futurism.
The simple fact is, I just don’t believe that we have to extend the present into the future. We have to change the present so that the future looks very, very different from what it is today. This is a terribly important notion to convey. So a lot of people are walking around today who sound very idealistic. And what do they want to do? They want multinational corporations to become multi-cosmic corporations [laughter from the audience]—literally!
They want to bring them up in space, they want to colonize the Moon, they can’t wait to go to Jupiter, much less Mars. They’re all very busy, they’re coming around, they even have long hair and they even have beards, and they come around and they say ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get into my first space shuttle!’—that is the future.
This is regarded as ecology and it’s not ecology. It’s futurism! It’s what Exxon wants to do. It’s what Chase Manhattan wants to do. It’s what all the corporations want to do. But it is not utopia, it is pure futurism. It is the present extended into the future.
A mass society, and how do we keep in touch with each other? We don’t even have to look at each other. We’ll look at television screens. I’ll press a button, I’ll see you on the television screen, you’ll be on Mars, for all I know, and we’ll have a wonderful conversation with each other, and we’ll say ‘Gee whiz! We’ve got an alternate technology!’ The point is it isn’t a liberatory technology. I may know people in the future for years and years—play chess games with them, have interesting intellectual conversations with them—and never touch them once. If that is what the future is going to look like, I’m glad I’m fifty-seven years old and don’t have that much to go. I don’t want it. [laughter from audience] I am very serious.
Now I’d like to touch a few nerves. I don’t believe that the Earth is a spaceship.1 I’m asking you to think about what it means to think of the Earth as a spaceship. It does not have valves. It does not have all kinds of radar equipment to guide it. It is not moved by rockets. It hasn’t got any plumbing. We may have plumbing. But it is not ‘a spaceship’. It’s an organic, living thing, to a very great extent, at least on its surface, built of inorganic material. It is in the process of growth and it is in the process of development. It is not ‘a spaceship’.
We’re beginning to develop a language which has nothing whatever in common with ecology. It has a lot to do with electronics. We talk of input. ‘Give me your input. Plug in!’ [laughter] Well, I don’t ‘plug in’, I discuss [applause]. Machines ‘plug in’. Radar is the language that produced it and the military is the language that produced the words ‘plug in’.
‘Give me your input’. That is not what I want. I don’t want your output, I want you. I want to hear your words. I want to hear your language. I’m not engaged in ‘feedback’ with you [laughter], I’m engaged in a dialogue, a discussion. It isn’t your ‘feedback’ I want, I want your opinion. I want to know what you think. I don’t want to have a circuit plugged into me where I can get your ‘feedback’ and you can get my ‘input’. [laughter]
Please, I’m making a plea here, and if you think I’m talking about language, I think you would be wrong. I’m not talking about language, I’m talking about sensibility. A plant does not have ‘input’ or ‘output’. It does something for which electronics has absolutely no language—it grows! It grows! [applause]. And let me tell you another thing, it not only grows, it does more than change; it develops. We have a big problem with all these words which reflect a way in which we think, and that’s what bothers me.
This is the sensibility of futurism. It is the language of futurism, in which people themselves are molecularized and then atomized and then finally reduced to subatomic particles, and what we really have in the way of an ecosystem is not growth, and not development, what we have is—plumbing. We run kilocalories through the ecosystem. And we turn on valves here and we turn off valves there.
Now, this may be useful, I don’t deny that. We should know how energy moves through an ecosystem. But that alone is not an ecosystem. We’re beginning to learn that plants have a life of their own and interact with each other. That there are subtle mechanisms which we cannot really understand. They can’t be reduced to energy, they can’t be reduced to kilocalories, we have to look at them from a different point of view. We have to view them as life, as distinguished from the non-living, and even that distinction is not so sharp and clear as many people think.
Most futurists start out with the idea, ‘you got a shopping mall, what do you do then?’ Well, the first question to be asked is, ‘why the hell do you have a shopping mall?’
So this is the language of futurism, and the language of electronics, which reflects a very distinct sensibility, that bothers me very, very, much. It is not utopian—and I’ll get to that afterwards—it is the language of manipulation. It is the language of mass society. Most futurists start out with the idea, ‘you got a shopping mall, what do you do then?’ Well, the first question to be asked is, ‘why the hell do you have a shopping mall?’ [laughter] That is the real question that has to be asked. Not ‘what if’ you have a shopping mall, then what do you do.
Out there in the great vast distance, which people feel we should colonize, moving out into spacecraft, or somehow relate to the distant universe and listen to the stars, but we haven’t even begun to listen to our own feelings. We haven’t even begun to listen to our own locality. This planet is going down in ruin, and people are talking about means of projecting space platforms out there, talking of a global village,2 when we don’t have villages anywhere on this planet to begin with. We don’t have them. We don’t have any villages, we don’t have any communities, we live in a state of atomization, and we expect to electronically communicate with each other through global villages. This bothers me because it may be good physics, it may be good mechanics, it may be good dynamics, it may be good anything you wish, but it is not ecology. It is not ecology.
What is ecology?
The most fundamental mistake begins with the idea that things change. Now, you know, to change may mean something or may mean nothing. If I step away here and walk three feet away, I have ‘undergone change’. I’ve moved three feet away, but I haven’t done a damn thing so far as I’m concerned, or so far as you are concerned. It is not ‘change’ that I’m concerned about. What I’m concerned about is development, growth. I don’t mean growth in the business sense, I mean growth of human potentiality, I mean growth of human spirit. I mean growth of human contact. That is ecological. To develop is what is really ecological. To change can mean anything. The question is, what is the end toward which you want to develop? What is the goal you’re trying to realize, and then, afterward, whether or not you have developed to that goal. So mere input and output and feedback, mere motion means nothing—the real problem is discussion and dialogue, recognition of personality, growth and development, which is what biology is concerned with. It is not concerned merely with change.
Lastly, it must be made very clear that if you believe that the Earth is a spaceship, then you believe that the world is a watch. You and Sir Isaac Newton agree perfectly, the world is a clock, just as a spaceship is a lot of plumbing with a lot of rockets, with a lot of dials, with a lot of pilots, and all the rest of that stuff. And if you believe in addition that the beauty, today, of change is that you can move all over the place in a helicopter, which will pick up your geodesic dome,3 or use some type of electronic communications to relate to somebody who is three thousand miles away, whom you may never see, then we are not changing, in the developmental sense, anything at all, we’re making things worse, and worse all the time. And that is a matter, also, of very great concern to me.
Ecology—social ecology—must begin with a love of place. There must be home. Oikos—home—ecology—the study of the household. If we do not have a household—and that household is not an organic, rich community—if we do not know the land we live on, if we do not understand its soil, if we do not understand the people we live with, if we cannot relate to them, then at that particular point we are really in a spaceship. We are really out in a void.
Ecology must begin with a very deep understanding of the interaction between people, and the interaction between people and the immediate ecosystem in which we live. Where you come from, what you love, what is the land that you love. I don’t mean the country or the state, I’m talking about the land that you may occupy. It may even be a village, it may be a city, it may be a farmstead.
But first and foremost, without those roots that place you in nature, and in a specific form of nature, it is a deception to talk about cosmic oneness, it is a deception to talk about spaceships, it is a deception even to talk about ecosystems without having this sense of unity with your immediate locale, with your soil, with your community, with your home. Without that community and without that sense of home, without that sense of the organic—of the organic and the developmental rather than the mere inorganic and ‘change’ in which you merely change place—you are changing nothing, the problems are merely amplified or diminished, but they remain the same problems.
What isn’t ecology?
It is for this reason that futurism today plays an increasingly very very reactionary role, because it works with the prejudice that what you have is given. You have to assume what exists today, and you extrapolate into the future, and you play a numbers game. And then you go around and you logistically manipulate here and there, and implicit in all of this is the idea that you are things to be manipulated. There are all kinds of technicians who are going to decide through their knowledge of electronics, through their ‘know-how’, through their ‘feedback’ and their ‘input’, where you go, what you should do: and this is becoming a very serious problem today, particularly when it is mistaken for ecology, based on the organic, on the growing, on the development as an individual, as a community and as a place.
You then finally reach the most sinister numbers game of all: who should live and who should die. The ‘population game’. The terrifying lifeboat ethic, in which now in the name of ecology, today views are being proposed that are almost indistinguishable from German fascism.
There are those who are made to drown, they happen to live in India. Conveniently, they happen to have black or dark skin, and you can identify them. And then there are those who occupy another lifeboat, that lifeboat is called North America. And in that lifeboat, you have to conserve what you have, you see?
You have to be prepared to develop an ethic, you have to be prepared to develop the stamina to see people die. Of course you’ll regret it, but scarce resources and growing population, what can you do? You’re out there on the ocean, the ship is sinking, so instead of trying to find out what was wrong with the ship that makes it sink, and instead of trying to build a ship that will make it possible for all of us to share the world, you get into a lifeboat, just like you get into a spaceship, and at that particular point, the world be damned. And that is a very sinister ideology.
I speak as one who comes from the thirties, and remembers, very dramatically, that there was the demographic ecology, if you like, in Germany, no different from some of the demographic ecology I have been witnessing today.4 Remember well that the implications of some of these conceptions are extremely totalitarian, extremely un-ecological, extremely inorganic, and tend, if anything, to promote a totalitarian vision of the future in which there is no human scale, in which there is no human control.
Another thing that troubles me very deeply is the enormous extent to which social ecology or ecological problems are reduced simply to technological problems. That is ridiculous. It’s absurd. The factory is a place where people are controlled, whether they build solar collectors or not. It makes no difference. [Applause] The same relationships will exist there as under any other circumstances of domination exist. If ‘household’ means that women take care of the dishes, and men go out and do the manly work such as make war and clean up the planet, and reduce the population, where have we gone? Nothing has changed. What will a ‘spaceship’ on earth look like? What will it be? Who will be the general to give the orders, who will be the navigator to decide which way the ‘spaceship’ goes?
Please bear in mind what the implications of these things are. If people live in cities that are one mile high, how the hell can you get to know each other? How can you have a feeling for the land in which you live, when the landscape that you see goes up to a horizon twenty, thirty, forty miles away? On top of the World Trade Center, I have no feeling for New York. If I were just an ordinary, simple product of the United States Airforce, and I were ordered from the World Trade Center, way up there, to bomb Manhattan, looking down upon it, I would see nothing. I would press the button and it would be meaningless. Up would go the great bomb, the great flash, the great cloud. It wouldn’t have any meaning to me. Down on the ground, when I look up at the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center, I feel oppressed. I feel that I have been reduced to a lowly ant. I begin to feel the demand for an environment that I can control. That I can begin to understand. But when I see plants growing around me, when I see life existing around me—human life, animal life of all its different forms, flora—then I can relate. This is my land.
What we have to do is not only ‘think small’, we have to think human.5 Small is not enough. What is human is what counts, not just what is small. What is beautiful are people, what is beautiful is the ecosystems and their integrity in which we live. What is beautiful is the soil which we share with the rest of the world of life. And particularly that special bit of soil in which we feel we have some degree of stewardship. It is not only what is small that is beautiful, it is what is ecological that is beautiful, what is human that is beautiful.
What is important is not only that a technology is appropriate. As I have said before: the Atomic Energy Commission is absolutely convinced that nuclear power plants are appropriate technology—to the Atomic Energy Commission. The B1 bombers are very appropriate technology—to the Air Force.
What I am concerned with is, again, what is liberatory, what is ecological. We have to bring these value-charged words, and we have to bring these value-charged concepts into our thinking, or else we will become mere physicists, dealing with dead matter and dealing with people as though they are mere objects to be manipulated, in spaceships, or to be connected through various forms of electronic devices, or subject to world games, or finally, set adrift on a raft or a lifeboat in which they kick off anyone who threatens to eat their biscuits or threatens to drink their distilled water—and that becomes ecofascism. That becomes ecofascism, and it horrifies me to think that anything ecological—even that word ‘eco’—could be attached to fascism.
First and foremost, we must go back to the utopian tradition, in the richest sense of the word. Not to the electronic tradition, not to the tradition of NASA, not to the tradition of Sir Isaac Newton, in which the whole world was a machine or a watch.
You can travel all over the country and learn nothing, because you’re carrying something that’s very important with you, that will decide whether you learn or not, and that is: yourself. Move to California tomorrow, and if you’ve still got the same psychological and spiritual and intellectual problems, you’ll be sweating it out in San Francisco no differently than you do in Amherst or New York. That is the important thing—to recover yourself, to begin to create a community. And what kind of community imagination can begin to create.
What does it mean to be utopian?
‘Imagination to power’, as the French students said. ‘Be practical, do the impossible’, because if you don’t do the impossible, as I’ve cried out over and over again, we’re going to wind up with the unthinkable—and that will be the destruction of the planet itself. So to do the impossible is the most rational and practical thing we can do. And that impossible is both in our own conviction and in our shared conviction with our brothers and sisters, to begin to try to create, or work toward a very distinct notion of what constitutes a finally truly liberated as well as ecological society. A utopian notion, not a futuristic notion.
It finally means this: that we have to begin to develop ecological communities. Not just an ecological society—ecological communities, made up of comparatively small numbers of groups, and beautiful communities spaced apart from each other so that you could almost walk to them, not merely have to get into a car and travel sixty or seventy miles to reach them. It means that we have to reopen the land and reuse it again to create organic garden beds, and learn how to develop a new agriculture in which we’ll all participate in the horticulture.
If you don’t do the impossible, we’re going to wind up with the unthinkable—and that will be the destruction of the planet itself.
We have to look into communities that we can take into a single view, as Aristotle said more than 2200 years ago—and we have yet to learn a great deal from the Greeks, despite all their shortcomings as slave-owners and as patriarchs—a community that we can take into a single view, so that we can know each other. Not a community in which we know each other not by virtue of sitting around and talking over the telephone, or listening to some honcho talk over a microphone, or listening to some bigger honcho talk over a television screen. It has to be done by sitting around in communities, in those town meetings, and in those structures which we have here in the United States as part of the legacy, at least—the best legacy of the United States—and start thinking utopian in the fullest sense of the word.
We have also to develop our own technologies. We can’t let other people simply build them for us. They can’t be transported from God knows where to us. We have to know how to fix our faucets, and create our own collectives. We have to become richly diversified human beings. We have to be capable of doing many different things. We have to be farmer-citizens and citizen-farmers. We have to recover the ideal that even a Ben Franklin—who by no means can be regarded, in my opinion anyway, as anything slightly more than a philistine—believed in the 18th century: you can both print and read, and when you printed, you read what you printed. That’s what we have to bring to ourselves. We have to think not in terms, merely, of change; we have to think in terms of growth. We have to use the language of ecology so that we can touch each other with the magic of words and communicate with each other, with the magic and the richness of concepts, not of catchphrases that are really snappy [snaps fingers]—’input’, ‘output’.’Dialogue’ is longer, but it has a beautiful ring to it. Dia logos, speech between two, talking between two. Logos—logic, reasoning out creatively, dialectically, and growing through conversation, and growing through communication. This is what I mean by utopia. We have to go back to Fourier, who said that measure of a society’s oppression could be determined by the way it treats its women. It was not Marx who said that, it was Charles Fourier…. We have to go back to the rich tradition of the New England town meeting, and all that was healthy in it and recover that and learn a new type of confederalism.
Today, the real movements of the future insofar as they are utopian in their outlook—insofar as they are trying to create not an extension of the present, but trying to create something that is truly new, that alone can rescue life, human spirit, as well as the ecology of this planet—must be built around a new, rich communication, not between leader and led—but between student and teacher, so that every student can eventually become a teacher, and not a dictator, a governor, a controller and a manipulator.
And above all, we have to think organically. We have to think organically—not electronically. We have to think in terms of life and biology, not in terms of watches and physics. We have to think in terms of what is human, not what is merely small or big, because that alone will be beautiful. Any society that seeks to create utopia will not only be a society that is free, it also has to be a society that is beautiful. There can no longer be any separation—any more than between mind and body—between art and the development of a free society. We must become artists now, not only ecologists, utopians. Not futurists, not environmentalists.
Murray Bookchin was asked two relevant questions from the audience, which were inaudible in the recording. The first questioner asked if he was against technology.
Murray Bookchin: No, that is not at all true. I see a very great use for technology. What I’m talking about is a technocracy. What I’m talking about is rule by technicians. What I’m talking about is the use of various types of technological devices that are inhuman to people and inhuman in their scale, and cannot be controlled by people. The beauty of an ecological technology—an ecotechnology, or a liberatory technology, or an alternative technology—is that people can understand it if they are willing to try to devote some degree of effort to doing so. It’s simplicity, wherever possible, it’s small-scale, wherever possible. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about going back to the paleolithic, I’m not talking about going back into caves. We cannot go back to that and I don’t think we want to go back to that.
In the next question from the audience, Bookchin is asked to, very concretely, describe his political vision. There is laughter after the question.
I’m going to be really hard rocks about this and get down to it and not just tell you that I’m giving you some vague philosophical principles. I would like to see communities, food cooperatives, affinity groups, all these types of structures—town meetings developed all over the United States. I’d like to see neighborhood organizations, non-hierarchical in their form, developed all over the United States, from New York City to San Francisco, from rural Vermont to urban California. When these particular organizations develop rapidly and confederate, at first regionally, and hopefully, nationally, and perhaps even internationally—because we are no longer talking about the United States alone, we’re even talking about what’s going on in the Soviet Union to a very great extent—I hope they will then, through one way or another, by example and through education win the majority of people to this sensibility. And having done this, demand that society be changed, and then afterward we’ll have to face whatever we have to face. The only alternative we have after that, if we don’t do that, will be as follows: we will be organized into bureaucracies, bureaucracies in the name of progress, as well as bureaucracies in the name of reaction, as well as bureaucracies in the name of the status quo. And if we’re organized in the form of these bureaucracies, whether we use solar power or nerve gas, it makes no difference, we’re going to wind up, ultimately, with the same thing. In fact, the idea that solar power or wind power or methane is today being used instead of fossil fuels, will merely become an excuse for maintaining the same multinational, corporate, and hierarchical system that we have today.
So I propose that those types of organizations, and those types of social forms, be developed all over the country, and increasingly hopefully affect the majority of opinion, to a point where the American people, in one way or another, make their voices heard, because they are the overwhelming majority, and say they want to change the society. And if America turns over, the whole world will change, in my personal opinion. Because this happens to be the center, literally the keystone of what I would call the whole capitalistic system that today envelops the world, whether it be China, Cuba and Russia, or whether it be the United States, Canada and Western Europe. That is, very concretely, what I propose.
Daydreams are dangerous. They are pieces of imagination, they are bits of poetry. They are the balloons that fly up in history.
I’d like to make this very clear, the American people first will begin to change unconsciously, before they change consciously. You’ll go around to them and you’ll say, what do you think of work? And they’ll say it’s noble. You’ll ask them what do you think of property? And they’ll say it’s sacred. And you’ll ask them, what do they think of motherhood, they’ll say it’s grand, it’s godly. What do you think of religion and they’ll say they belong to it and they are completely devoted to it. You’ll ask them, what do they think of America, and they’ll say, either love it or leave it. You’ll say, what do you think of the flag and they’ll say it’s glorious, Old Glory.
But then one day something is going to happen. One day, the unconscious, the expectation, the dream, the imagination, the hope that you go to bed with as you sink into the twilight hours of sleep, or the early morning when you daydream, just after the alarm clock has gone off and you’ve shut it down—those expectations and dreams that lie buried in the unconscious mind of millions upon millions of American people are going to break right into consciousness. And when they break right into consciousness, heaven help this society. [audience cheers] I’m very serious.
That is the strange catalysis, the strange process of education; everyone today is schizophrenic, we’re all leading double lives, and we know it. And not only are we leading double lives, those ordinary—so-called ‘ordinary’—people out there are also leading double lives. And one day, that double life is going to become one life. Maybe it’ll be for the worse. But maybe it’ll be for the better. At that particular point, maybe something like May, June 1968 in Paris will start. All over the place, all kinds of flags will go up that don’t look like the flag we’re accustomed to seeing. [laughter from audience] Maybe black or red, I don’t know. At that particular point, millions of people will stop working, and they’ll start discussing.
Then you’ll have that terrifying situation called mob rule. But that will happen, and that’s what happened here in 1776, they believed in the King, right up until July 1776. In the meantime, they were having doubts. They didn’t even know they didn’t like the monarchy. But one day they woke up and said, the hell with King George. And they ran ahead, and they wrote the Declaration of Independence, and it was read to the troops. At that particular point, the Union Jack went down and the Stars and Stripes went up. This is the way people actually change. People change unconsciously before they change consciously. They begin to float dreams—daydreams are dangerous. Daydreams are pieces of imagination, they are bits of poetry. They are the balloons that fly up in history.
Transcribed and edited by Constanze Huther.
Murray Bookchin was a political theorist, philosopher, and activist. He developed the philosophy of social ecology and the political theory of libertarian municipalism, or communalism, which has influenced the growing ‘municipalist’ movement around the world. He was the co-founder of the Institute for Social Ecology, which is still active today. Bookchin died in 2006. The full audio version of this speech is available from the University of Massachusetts Special Collections and University Archives here.
All photos are by Lionel Delevingne, taken between 1975-1978, reprinted with permission from the Lionel Delevingne Photograph Collection at UMass Amherst. Thank you to Eleanor Finley for obtaining the scans.
World War II ended more than half a century ago. Yet stumbling upon unexploded bombs in Germany is still a frequent occurrence. Of the roughly quarter million bombs that did not explode during the war, thousands are still buried underground all over Germany. One of these left-over bombs self-ignited recently in Limburg’s countryside. The blast of the 250kg explosive occurred in a field of barley in the middle of the night and was large enough to dig a crater 10 metres wide and 4 metres deep.
This accident is a welcome occasion to revisit the concept of slow violence coined by Rob Nixon. He describes this phenomenon as ‘a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.’ This concept reminds us that violence is not always what we expect it to be, explosive and sensationally visible but can be incremental and generate unpredictable outcomes across spatial and temporal scales.
The buried past exploding in the present is a haunting metaphor for the bombing of the future through endless environmental exploitation.
One may ponder whether the detonation of a decade-long silent bomb is a powerful metaphor for the slow violence of time compression and space destruction. Whereas past bombs remain deadly decades after they were dropped, current techniques of industrial agriculture function like a buried bomb, threatening a sustainable future. When these ‘climate bombs’ explode, it could mean the annihilation of life itself on the planet. In this way we can see the past, present, and future colliding in explosive fury. In Germany, just as Allied bombing raids (from above) failed to detonate instantly, industrial agriculture (down below) will continue to distribute persistent pollutants into the future, eventually detonating beyond the spatial and temporal boundaries of the land. The entanglement of weapons of mass destruction and weapons of mass production ultimately compresses time and space into a forever impending catastrophe. In a strange inversion on the horizon of temporality, we could be reaching a point in history when the buried past exploding in the present serves as a haunting metaphor for the bombing of the future through endless environmental exploitation.
Historical entanglements of war, agriculture and climate change
When contemplating the detonation of a WW2 bomb in a German field, one is struck by the disorienting compression of history, in which war pollution caused by a 20th Century conflict returns to haunt the peaceful lives of 21st Century farmers. From a temporal perspective one generation of pilots’ aerial bombing time travels to reach another generation of peacetime farmers, blurring the temporal lines between war and peace. The legacy of warfare in peacetime extends far beyond the traumatic legacy imprinted on the social fabric and reaches the material foundations of welfare itself. From a spatial perspective, the explosive legacy of Allied strategic bombing over Germany parallels another type of aerial campaign, involving the heavy spraying of chemical fertilizers to improve agricultural yields. Just as war remnants explode upon industrial agricultural production today, fumigating raids have been systematically bombing crops since the inter-war years with pesticides and nitrogen-enriched fertilizers. One such toxic legacy that radically transformed the industry was developed by German scientist Haber-Bosch, whose process to produce ammonia was as critical in the manufacturing of plant fertilizers as it was in developing the Zyklon B poison gas used during the Holocaust. In a parallel twist, the development of chemical insecticide presently used for industrial-scale agricultural production is thus intimately related to transformations in chemical warfare designed for genocide.
Transfers between war and agriculture operated at both the technological and the ideological level. The co-production of techniques of agricultural and military control blurred the boundaries between insects and humans, friend and foe, domestic pest control in peacetime, and enemy annihilation in wartime. For instance, the development of chlorinated gases during WW1 demonstrated the insecticidal properties of certain organochloride compounds. After the conflict, the chemical industry, profiting greatly from war, promoted the conversion of its offensive poison gas arsenal to pesticide application. The same planes, which had spread poison gas over enemy lines, were used to spread herbicides, strengthening the alliance between the military and the budding post-war mechanization of agri-business. After WW2, Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as the chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbon DDT, emerged from the technical imaginary of modern warfare, while warfare legacies like nerve gases emerged from agricultural processes to protect crops from pests. Paralyzing gases, such as Sarin, demonstrated a similar effect on humans as on insects. After WW2, retired bomber pilots would indiscriminately shower the countryside with millions of tons of poisonous pesticides. Chemical warfare was successively waged as much on the battleground as on food crops, fuelling a reciprocated sociotechnical imaginary involving both the sanitization of food and the synthetization of war. The blurring of boundaries between war and peace was most apparent during the Cold War, when defoliants like Agent Orange, developed from agricultural herbicides, were sprayed on Communist enemies in South East Asia. In this case, the mutagenic effects on human populations persisted for decades later.
The co-production of techniques of agricultural and military control blurred the boundaries between insects and humans, friend and foe, domestic pest control in peacetime, and enemy annihilation in wartime.
A remnant WW2 bomb, which randomly exploded in Germany’s countryside in 2019, symbolizes the indistinction between techniques of military destruction and techniques of industrial agricultural production, both predicated on eradication campaigns. Just as mass warfare indiscriminately kills soldiers and civilians alike, modern farming methods contribute to indiscriminate bombing of not only pests, but fragile and diverse ecosystems. Nitrogen fertilizers increase agricultural yields, yet accentuate global warming and pollute water-tables, rivers and estuaries with excessive nitrates. Whereas 3% of the human population perished in WW2, a recent study shows that over 40% of insect population have gone extinct through the intensive use of pesticides developed by the same war machines. Here, the warplane and aerial pesticide-spraying aircraft emblematically collide and violently explode in a dustbowl of ecological disaster.
At the risk of taking a shortcut, could military explosives have been detonated by the long-term effects of industrial chemicals? While the explosive devices used in war have an almost-guaranteed immediate effect upon impact, fertilizers and pesticides have gradually contaminated and decimated the biological diversity of landscapes over the span of a century. What is truly remarkable is that the incessant application of chemical fertilizers may well have been the powder keg responsible for the recent ignition of the rusty WW2 bomb in the German countryside. Recent reports suggest, idle undetonated bombs are triggered by heatwaves, which are in turn exacerbated by climate change, in large part due to industrial agriculture. Climate disruption and the recurrence of seasonal heatwaves have been amplified as a result of the compound effect of methane emissions from agriculture and of the heavy use of nitrogen-based fertilizers releasing nitrous oxide emissions. In turn, climate shocks like drought and heat waves exert enormous pressure on surface and ground-water levels. The entanglement of buried bombs and climate change intersects across the European countryside, illustrating feedback loops between war, industrial agriculture, climate change, and food insecurity.
Military and climate disruptions mirror each other in what seems to be an endless feedback loop of fire and fury.
When buried bombs of the past detonate inside the boundaries of our present era, they parallel public concerns with the current ecological crisis. Increasingly frequent heatwaves and changing weather patterns are harming crop yields and raising concerns around animal welfare, indicating that climate shocks, such as drought threaten food production. European firefighters are now fighting a strange war on two fronts: a climate war with a firehose against wildfires and a war against explosive remnants of WW2, using battle tanks to shield themselves from the blaze.
Analysts have recently drawn comparisons between WW2 and the climate crisis, claiming ‘global warming has heated the oceans by the equivalent of one atomic bomb explosion per second for the past 150 years.’ Further analogies between modern warfare and the climate crisis can be drawn from the emergency drop by a Swedish Air Force fighter jet of a 500-pound precision laser-guided bomb near a fire approaching a military firing range. Donald Trump made the uncanny quip recently of dropping nukes to stop increasingly killer hurricanes. Such extreme examples show how the perpetuation of war and climate change are undeniably linked. Since its carbonbootprint contributes to the greenhouse effect, the military fuels the very fire it attempts to extinguish, one bomb at a time. What the news headlines from Europe confirm is that military and climate disruptions mirror each other in what seems to be an endless feedback loop of fire and fury.
Fumigating the future
On the other side of Germany, in a strange coincidence, another event was taking place around the time of the WW2 bomb detonation in relating the past and future to the present state of environmental degradation. A surprise attack and partial occupation of a coal mine was organized by the environmentalist group End of the line in the Rhineland region. The occupation of the mine was motivated by its disapproval with the utility company RWE and their plan to cut down an old growth forest to make way for the enlargement of the mine. Such plans for expansion, protestors claim, would turn the Rhine district into one of the largest CO2 emitters in Europe.
This time, the strategic site was not occupied by the Allied armies against the abrupt violence unleashed by a world conflict, but by peaceful climate activists protesting against the slow violence of mining expansions. By sundown, the police launched teargas to dislodge the activists out of the coal mine. Police literally fumigated the climate protesters in the same way farmers fumigate insects.
The strange, or maybe timely coincidence, of both events on German soil: the detonation of a WW2 bomb, and the surprise occupation of a coal mining crater by an army of green activists, highlights the overlapping toxic legacies of successive historical periods. While the first reveals how old war contamination may unpredictably creep out of the past, the second anticipates a massive climate shock looming in the future.
In the same way that the legacy of WW2 bombing occasionally haunts the present, we are still haunted by one of the oldest and dirtiest resources of capitalism’s historical trajectory: coal. Why is that so? The history of energy usage is not one of transitions, but rather of successive additions of new sources of primary energy. Indeed, world energy markets never fully transitioned from coal to petroleum; similarly, it is highly improbable that a transition will entirely take place from petroleum to renewable energy.
Police literally fumigated the climate protesters in the same way farmers fumigate insects.
Fossil fuel extraction and pollution is the legacy of the past taking effect in the present and locking-in possibilities for future decades to come. The Earth’s atmosphere is already damaged by the 1,500 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted by the coal economy. In a similar way in which war remnants caused by a 20th Century conflict impacts the lives of 21st Century farmers, 18th Century models of energy production are still operational in the 21st Century, with all their damaging effects across time and space. The hard divisions in the destruction of life between past and present and an always improving future is merely an illusion from this view.
Tragedy or farce?
To summarize, the ignition of bombs and the expansion of mines suddenly converged in the past months to illustrate a legacy of slow accumulative violence, transcending space and time in the German countryside. What does such an entanglement reveal about our era? The contemporary moment of social and environmental emergency synchronizes weapons of mass destruction with weapons of mass production.The synchronization of warfare and welfare has provoked, on the one hand, the destruction of geographic space, resulting in the displacement and contamination of human communities and natural habitat. On the other hand, their synchronization has meant the compression of time available for the Earth to regenerate from exploitation.
Bombs of the past haunt our present, while bombs of the present inevitably preordain our future. The real catastrophe, as German philosopher Walter Benjamin claimed, is not some isolated apocalyptic event but rather the perpetuation of the continuous flow of the logic of capital and its wake of destruction across time and space. The accidental detonation of a WW2 bomb interrupted only the routine of a farmer, whereas a perpetual fossil-fueled war predicated on capital accumulation is waged daily against the regenerative capacities of the Earth, threatening a sixth mass extinction.
The contemporary moment of social and environmental emergency synchronizes weapons of mass destruction with weapons of mass production.
Hegel claimed that history is cyclical and repeats itself. Marx added that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. As reflected in this piece we may add, in a strange succession of events, history is compressing time and eroding space, by accelerating the rate at which farce and tragedy repeat themselves simultaneously. The tragedy lies in the annulment of future life potentials by military planes and mining cranes; the farce is the destruction by the military and industry of the material conditions of their own reproduction. The tragedy is also in the fumigation of farms by industrial agriculture, while the farce is a regressive state-sanctioned police force fumigating activists who attempt to protect the very conditions for the maintenance of life on Earth.
Tina Beigi is an environmental engineer who is currently pursuing a PhD in Ecological Economics at McGill university.
Michael Picard is a research fellow at the Institute for Global Law & Policy of the Harvard Law School and teaches International Law at Sherbrooke University.
The authors would like to thank Vijay Kolinjivadi and Elliot Blomqvist for their precious editorial feedback on preliminary drafts. The usual caveat applies.
As part of Not the Anarchist Bookfair in London, Corporate Watch along with Uneven Earth and Plan C London organized a discussion on technology, ecology and future worlds. The event, named Techno Fantasies and Eco Realities, was attended by about 20 people and included some wide ranging and at times lively discussion around the role of technology and ecology in future worlds. In particular it focused on how we can free our imaginations from the grip of capitalist realism (the idea that capitalism is the only option for organizing society), picturing possible future worlds and the role that technology will play in them, while keeping our imagined worlds grounded in social and ecological realities. For example, not forgetting that we are living on a planet with limited natural resources or that we have to consider how to make these imagined futures real.
Participants were invited to read three short pieces ahead of the discussion:
Although initially a tongue in cheek provocation, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC) has morphed into a serious proposition of how technology and automation could be used to provide for everyone’s needs and free people from the drudgery of wage labour. Bastani’s piece attempts to counter some of the ecological critiques of the idea, arguing that FALC can be green. Instead of trying to halt the progress of technological development, and reduce energy consumption, Aaron argues that we should ride the technological horse to move beyond scarcity, proposing a kind of accelerationism where technology is rapidly advanced in order to bring about radical social change.
In “Accelerationism.. and Degrowth? The Left’s Strange Bedfellows”, Aaron Vansintjan looks at accelerationist ideas like FALC and compares them to ‘degrowth’, evaluating the similarities and differences between the two frameworks. Degrowth is a movement that has emerged from environmentalism and alternative economics and is focused on theorising and creating non-growth based economies and societies.
Although accelerationism and degrowth are apparently opposed, Vansinjtan finds some shared ideas, including their recognition of the need for deep, systemic change, their calls for democratisation of technology and their rejection of ‘work’ (or at least the idea that work is inherently good). The key differences centre around accelerationism’s focus on reappropriating technology to achieve a resource-unlimited society, versus degrowth’s aim of limiting the development of certain forms of technology and staying within resource constraints. Degrowth also seeks to slow the metabolism of society, whereas accelerationism aims to increase the pace of social change. Ultimately, while supportive of accelerationism’s inspiring vision, Vansinjtan finds it seriously lacking in dealing with ecological critiques.
Rut Elliot Blomqvist examines three different visions of possible future worlds and the role that technology plays in them. ‘Pulling the Magic Lever’ is a reference to how technology is used to answer social or ecological problems without explaining how it will do so: you simply ‘pull the magic lever’ of technology and hey presto, it’s all solved. It’s a running theme in all three of the imagined futures Blomqvist chooses to analyse. The first is in The World We Made, a novel by environmentalist Jonathon Porrit, then The Venus Project, a technology based political proposition, and finally Fully Automated Luxury Communism. In their analysis, Blomqvist uses a World Systems Theory approach to evaluate the ideas, critiquing the story of modernisation by framing it around colonialism.
The World We Made is based on Design Fiction, where fiction inspires possibilities of new designs. It sees the human species in general as the villain responsible for destroying the environment. In the novel’s fantasy scenario, however, humans manage to turn things around and start to use technology and various existing world institutions for the common good. As Elliot points out, this book flags up an important discussion around the idea of the ‘anthropocene’ (a proposed name for a new human-affected geological epoch), which may support the view that the human species in general is the problem, rather than certain humans or, say, a capitalist growth-based economy. They also describe the book’s tendency towards technological optimism: it presents technology as providing the answers, without explaining how, and ignores the socio-cultural-political reasons for current ecological destruction.
The Venus Project is found to be even further along the techno-optimist spectrum and again ignores how its proposed technological utopia might be brought into existence. As well as highlighting its fetishisation of the scientific process, Elliot explains how The Venus Project often engenders conspiracy theories, a number of which are dangerously close to anti-Semitism.
Continuing the trend, FALC is found to involve similar techno-utopianism, where the working classes seize the means of production and use automation to create a world of plenty. Elliot points to a blind spot, as FALC doesn’t consider the limits of post-industrialism beyond the western world. Elliot describes how all three rely heavily on ‘pulling the magic lever’. While they show imagination, they are limited by the fossil-fuelled mentality they seek to criticise.
In our discussion at Not the Anarchist Bookfair, we asked participants to discuss two questions:
What role does technology play in our ecologically sustainable future, and how do we get there?
How can we move beyond the techno-optimist versus primitivist dichotomy? (I.e. beyond viewing technology as either the solution to or source of all our problems).
The questions were discussed in pairs, in small groups and then with everyone participating, and led to a broad discussion of the various themes raised. Some key points that came out included:
The importance of considering the social power necessary to make futures, and how human agency is often missing in visions of techno utopias.
The need to change who makes technology, how it is produced and the inherent politics of technologies.
The need to highlight and develop technology’s potential within the ecological movement, including within degrowth discussions.
The need to positively promote ecological future visions, and how to counter environmentalism’s ‘hair shirt’ image.
Considering whether we should assume that technologies will inevitably be developed, and so ride the tech bandwagon, or try to intervene and prevent or hinder certain developments.
Thinking about if/how we can change the basis on which automation takes places and is implemented. E.g. is non-capitalist automation possible, and if so, how could it be made non-capitalist?
Thinking about ways of bringing ecological and technologically based visions of the future back together.
A number of participants were keen to continue discussions and we are considering further forums to hold related future discussions. Corporate Watch is currently working on a technology project, if you are interested in knowing more or collaborating on future work, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. To get involved with discussions as part of the Plan C Climate cluster contact email@example.com
This article was also published on the Plan C blog, here.