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In recent years, ecological thinkers have increasingly popularized the notion of the Anthropocene. It is said to be our current geological epoch, beginning in mid-20th century (by most accounts), characterized by an unprecedented level of human impact—negative impact—on the biosphere. The concept seems a useful way of increasing awareness, both socially and intellectually, of our species’ relationship to the rest of nature. But to me it is unsatisfactory as a way of holistically understanding our role in nature and history. I’m troubled by looking only at impacts, particularly of our economies. Shouldn’t we also be looking at our potentials? What would be the appropriate goals and arrangements of economic life for our level of economic and technological development?
One can’t deny the importance of critical consciousness today—particularly since human impacts on the environment have been so negative. But sometimes a fixation on problems and on stopping destruction can be a distraction from looking at primary causes and at corresponding real alternatives. Sometimes a more direct focus on identifying and implementing appropriate alternatives can be the best way to curb or short-circuit destruction. In the case of the Anthropocene, the major negative impacts on the biosphere suggest the possibility of positive impacts, the possibility of economies based in protecting and regenerating both social and natural systems. It should be clear by now that it’s not simply a matter of human beings benefitting from the exploitation of nature because economic development seems to be undermining human community and quality of life and livelihoods as much as it is undermining natural systems.
Our environmental problems may be not simply an issue of the scale of our economic activities overwhelming natural systems but of the system’s reaction to new productive forces that threaten the power of industrial elites. It is interesting that the circa-1950 date proposed by scientists as the beginning of the Anthropocene roughly corresponds to the rise of culture in the economy—through the growing importance of science, white-collar, and intellectual work, entertainment industry, mass public education, mass communications, management systems and new kinds of services. Not only did this signal the appearance of a more
conscious ‘managerial capitalism’ from the old mindless market system, it depended upon a new importance of human creativity in the workaday world. It hinted at possibilities for a more dynamic role for people in the economy than simply as cogs-in-the-machine. This had been labour’s prototypical role not simply within capitalism but within civilized class society dating back 5,000 years. The main factors of capitalist production have always been natural resources and cog-labour, and the elite’s political and economic power has depended upon reinforcing both these factors. The rise of creativity and culture in the economy would likely threaten labour’s dependence economically, politically, and culturally—something that might undermine elite power altogether. Full actualization of the new productive forces could not be allowed.
Just as important as drudge labour and material resources are to capitalism, so also is industrial capitalism’s view of wealth: as basically money and matter. Capitalism can only survive by growth, something environmentalists and economists alike point out. But it is a particular kind of economic growth—quantitative growth that accumulates money and material. In an earlier stage of industrialization focused on basic material needs, such growth met many real needs, however exploitative it was and unfairly distributed. But beyond a certain threshold, this kind of growth produces pitifully little benefit for society while threatening both nature and community. Qualitative wealth, the kind that can meet human needs with ingenuity and minimal resource input, is just not in the cards for capitalism. Material sufficiency and creative work undermine both capitalism’s key production factors as well as its definition of wealth as stuff and money.
Return for a moment to mid-20th century, the apparent onset of the Anthropocene. It follows closely on the heels of the productivity explosion of the Roaring Twenties and the ensuing massive market failure of the Great Depression. The latter was a historically unprecedented collapse of ‘business confidence’ due to the very power of mass production. Worker-consumers were unable to buy all the stuff that capitalism could now produce. Henceforth, a new managerial capitalism would have to consciously find ways of generating ‘effective demand’ for corporate production. One obvious way of doing this might be redistributing wealth to ordinary worker-consumers to be able to afford to buy more. This happened to a slight degree after WWII, but redistributing wealth is always a dicey matter for the elite because it can also mean redistributing political power. Even state intervention in the economy to prop up demand is a risk because it invites more popular participation in economic decision-making. A facade of the free market ‘invisible hand’ had to be maintained.
The solution was waste. Elements of the American elite were well aware that the Great Depression was not ended by industrial unionism or a welfare state but by mobilization for WWII. They felt that perpetuating an extended Cold War could extend war mobilization indefinitely, creating economic stimulus without wealth redistribution. By the same token, a model of wasteful economic development was based on suburban sprawl, that automobile and fossil fuels could maximize the consumption of virtually every kind of material—from concrete and steel to cars, bungalows, and consumer durables. Even those sectors of the working class who benefitted materially from this waste would be trapped on an economic treadmill of the work-and-spend cycle. Not incidentally, it would also provide a private infrastructure that would push women, who had been a big part of the wartime paid workforce, back into the home as (what Galbraith and feminist writers called) ‘domestic consumption managers’ for the new Effluent Society.
The postwar boom based on such material waste eventually ended in the 1970’s as the costs of waste came due in the form of state fiscal crisis, health costs, stagflation, etc. But by the 1980’s, the system found new means of perpetuating both cog-labour
and the industrial version of wealth in the form of ‘financialization’—new forms of money and debt made possible by the information revolution. New producer services, particularly in finance, and new forms of electronic funny money could provide the necessary ‘effective demand’ for continued accumulation, making even the modest benefits for the working class now dispensable. A drastic polarization of incomes has resulted over the past 30 years, even as new sectors of unproductive and parasitic work and production have exploded. While the resulting Casino Economy almost completely collapsed in 2008, it has emerged with its essential features intact and perhaps even more exploitative with the rush of the elites to impose ‘austerity’ as the supposed solution to stagnation.
In retrospect, both economic and ecological solutions entail the opposite of austerity. Not another dose of scarcity through waste. Not more accumulation of money and stuff. Not more mind-deadening ‘jobs.’ In fact, the rise of culture and creativity—which until now has been channeled into narrow sectors and alienated production—signals the possibility of real abundance and qualitative development. Although it requires a level of guaranteed material subsistence, real abundance is qualitative, not quantitative. It substitutes human ingenuity for resources in production, making possible not just less intensive resource use but an actual dematerialization of the economy, even as quality of life increases. By the same token, the centrality of human creativity also makes human development the fastest way to attain ecological regeneration.
Today, too many social and environmental thinkers mistakenly advocate some version of austerity and scarcity as solutions. Certainly, people and movements must think deeply about what our real needs are and take on greater conservation and stewardship of natural systems. But because so much real work today—even very material work in food systems, construction, and manufacturing—primarily involves processing value and meaning, human development is key. Markets, if they are to have a place in qualitative development, must become, in Korten’s words, ‘mindful markets’ whose drivers are not monetary but social and environmental. New forms of ‘genuine wealth’ assessment—involving a wide range of social and environmental indicators—are crucial to designing these drivers and policy guidelines.
As with markets, property and ownership—crucial props of capitalism—must become simply forms of stewardship and participation utilized where appropriate, but not be a right in themselves. In their current forms, much property and ownership are forms of scarcity creation. They tend to block off possibilities to develop the increasingly commons-based forms of production intrinsic to both ecosystem health and knowledge/cultural production. In a network economy, access is more important than ownership. In contrast to material things that must be conserved, “information wants to be free”—particularly to be shared—because it is what economists call a ‘non-rival’ good. Information is most productive when copied and widely distributed. Today, intellectual property legislation is one of the most regressive forms of artificial scarcity creation, constituting a virtual war on creativity by corporate information monopolies, suppressing essential innovation in almost every sector of the economy.
Today, a nascent abundance movement is growing in many quarters—within, for example, movements for permaculture, local living economies, green energy, natural building, open-source electronic networks, industrial ecology, the feminist gift economy, and much more. While focused on quality, it is also based upon a new level of guaranteed material subsistence for all—whether that be through a basic income, alternative currencies, or infrastructures of free food, housing, education, and healthcare. We live in the potentially wealthiest societies humanity has ever known, able to now support every human being to a level of healthy subsistence. This material security—essentially a right to live that rates as a crucial stage in human social evolution—is not only an important tool to eliminate poverty and extreme inequality, but it must be a platform for truly regenerative economic activity.
The negative impact we have had on the rest of nature in the Anthropocene may never be fully reversed, but there is plenty we can do positively to mitigate and regenerate healthy ecosystems and our own communities. It may well be that even worse than the damage that capitalism has been doing to the planet is its suppression of human potentials for abundance. Those capacities are still growing, and it behooves us to unleash them fully while we still have a chance.
Brian Milani writes and teaches on green political-economy and social change in Toronto. He has offered courses at York University, OISE/University of Toronto, the Transformative Learning Centre, and the Labour Education Centre. He wrote Designing the Green Economy: The Postindustrial Alternative to Corporate Globalization (2000); Building Materials in a Green Economy: Community-Based Strategies for Dematerialization (2005); and is working on a forthcoming book The Threat of Abundance: Emerging Human Potentials and the Crisis of Capitalism. A former carpenter and green builder, he co-founded Green City Construction and the Eco-Materials Project.