Twilight of the Fossils

This piece first appeared in Occupy!, an OWS-Inspired Gazette, now available for free in print and online.

Unable to imagine the past except in the form of costume dramas or to think of the future except in terms of far-off collapse, our era has suffered from a blocked political imagination. For twenty years we flattered or rued our condition as the end of history. But present-day civilization reflects arrangements exceptional in human history—and perhaps equally fragile. It is characterized in particular by an unprecedented dominance of fossilized labor (or capital) over living labor, and of fossil energy—oil, coal, and natural gas—over living energy. This reign of the fossils must and will end. Two special conditions that we’ve taken for granted are not long for this world: an ever-growing supply of fossil fuel and other non-renewable resources, and endless economic growth. The words ecology and economy share a root in oikos, Greek for household. This suggests the concerns they name must ultimately coincide: the establishment and maintenance of the human residence on earth. Yet economics and ecology are rarely taken seriously at the same time, and official opinion usually denies that a crisis exists in either sphere. Few professional economists and no prominent politicians will concede what was obvious to the classical economists: namely, that economic growth would eventually terminate in what John Stuart Mill called a “stationary state.” Mill and Adam Smith focused on limits to the division of labor: subdividing economic activity could only bring about productivity gains up to a point. More recent analysts have worried about the exhaustion of natural resources (as in the Club of Rome’s famous 1972 report, The Limits to Growth and much literature since), or about the preponderance of services, such as health and education, over industry and agriculture in contemporary capitalism. As an IMF working paper from 1997 argued, industry and agriculture are, for technical reasons, susceptible to productivity improvements that the service sector can never enjoy to the same extent: manufacturing or farming can become more efficient in a way that nursing or teaching, for example, cannot. Given mass unemployment on a global scale, it’s not that further per capita economic growth has become impossible in principle. To employ the unemployed would by definition (and all other things being equal) increase output. But the world economy since the 1970s has been marked by overaccumulation of capital, as the Marxist tradition calls it, and insufficient wages. Globalization has undermined the bargaining power of labor, as the workers of any one country more and more compete against those of all countries. The result is a chronic shortfall of demand: workers, employed and unemployed, simply lack the means to purchase enough of capitalism’s output for the system to expand at prior rates. But even if the world economy were re-balanced in such a way as to ensure an ideal proportion of profits to wages, resource constraints would soon impair the productivity of precisely those areas of the economy—manufacturing and agriculture—in which great advances in productivity have historically taken place. The most immediately threatening resource constraint is “peak oil”: a maximum rate of annual production. If peak oil hasn’t yet arrived, it soon will, in spite of the discovery of large underwater deposits and improvements in recovery rates for existing fields. (The International Energy Agency’s chief economist has announced that conventional oil production probably peaked in 2006.) Peak production of both conventional and unconventional liquids needn’t immediately crash the world economy, as doomsday scenarios have supposed. But a declining supply of petroleum will coincide with a growing global population, and alternative liquid fuels, whether cleaner or dirtier than petroleum, will be more expensive to produce than “black gold,” with serious consequences for global transportation costs. Nor is peak oil the only looming environmental check to growth. A group of scientists, including the leading American climatologist James Hansen, has identified nine “planetary boundaries” that humanity transgresses at its peril. Already three—atmospheric concentrations of carbon, loss of nitrogen from the soil, and the extinction of other species—have been exceeded. What will be the economic dimensions of these ecological limits? Fuel costs, falling over several centuries, may rise dramatically, whether as a result of peak oil or a carbon tax or some combination of the two. And prices of raw materials, from cotton to copper, are also likely to continue increasing. The risks for industrial productivity are obvious. Meanwhile soil exhaustion and an unstable climate—the severe floods and droughts brought on by global warming—threaten to erode agricultural productivity. In all, we are likely to confront a stagnant or even shrinking economy together with a growing human population, predicted to reach nine billion by midcentury. Schumpeter pronounced that “stationary capitalism would be a contradictio in adjecto.” More recent work, notably by Hermann Daly, has disputed the claim and an outlined a steady-state capitalism. Beyond question is that a such a society would be very different from the capitalism we have known. What to do? Mostly the question goes unasked. Economists notoriously proceed as if the natural world were inexhaustible, and even the socialists among them have often branded talk of resource constraints as Malthusian scare-mongering. Ecological discussions tend to be less blinkered. Even so, the green conception of an “ecological civilization” (to borrow a term of Fred Magdoff’s) tends toward a hazy communitarianism; the future is pictured as a somewhat imaginary Vermont. Questions of the production and distribution of wealth, of trade and class, are ignored. The task of political imagination, as an age of “globalization” founders in economic stagnation and drawn-out environmental collapse, is to conceive a contrary movement of localization: the reorganization of society on a more modest, local scale. The alternative is aggravated class society and “planetary eco-side,” as it has been called. The economics of localization contain a promise to reverse the domination of capital over labor. An end to cheap transportation may enforce a re-localization of industrial production, strengthening the hand of workers whose jobs are no longer so easily off-shored. Meanwhile costlier raw materials—their higher price owing both to scarcity and increased transportation costs—will have to be used with greater care, yielding a material culture characterized by durable rather than disposable goods and a re-emphasis on artisanal work. And skilled labor can command a higher price than unskilled. Over past centuries, industrial and agricultural production have become ever more capital-intensive and less labor-intensive. Marx called this “the rising organic composition of capital,” and the results have been those he predicted: mass unemployment for labor and a profitability crisis for capital. Localization might bring about something different-—production by the masses instead of mass production. The relocalization of production will take place in a global economy approaching stasis. The social implications of such a conjunction are profound. If capitalism has proved tolerable to the mass of workers over past centuries, their acquiescence has been bought by growth: the rich got continuously richer but so did the poor tend to become less poor. A stationary state, by contrast, is a zero sum game, in which the increasing wealth of one class can only reflect the diminishing wealth of another. It will bring class division, and so class conflict, into sharp relief. Nothing ensures that the result of such a contest will be egalitarian; relocalization—of politics no less than of production—by its nature implies that outcomes will be various. But a stationary state will concentrate many minds, currently indifferent to questions of economic organization, on the necessity of socialism for any humane future society. This need not mean a “command economy” or “central planning”; theories of market socialism are well-developed, and even the practice isn’t unknown. Socialism means, here, broader ownership of productive resources and a more equal though not necessarily flat distribution of income and wealth. We need, in other words, to learn to imagine a self-renewing civilization of social production and renewable energy: a sort of solar socialism. Economically, this implies full employment and a basic social provision of fundamental goods. But the implications aren’t only economic. Today politics and culture are both administered from afar; they are the self-interested productions of an elite, delivered to the masses. Societies organized on a more local and egalitarian basis will have the chance to conduct politics and create culture more intimately and democratically than we do today. More modest in their material wealth than the rich countries are today, they may be immodest in their elaboration of human capacities. Nor should localization imply provincialism: digital interconnectedness can keep us worldly and cosmopolitan even as we become more rooted in our local ground. Fredric Jameson observed a generation ago that it had become easier to envisage environmental collapse than any revolutionary change to capitalist society. It may be that the two can be imagined as one.

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