The above image: “Depicting a topic as expansive as inequality in a single frame is a challenge, especially since unequal experiences are often lived adjacently, but separately. Photographer Johnny Miller has successfully achieved a method of visualizing inequality—by using a drone to spotlight from above how rich and poor can inhabit spaces that are right next to each other, but so different.” Continue reading “Inequality, Poverty, and Injustice; a problem of too much and not enough.”
I will begin at the end. The last sentence in Jason Hickel’s new book is “We have everything to lose and a world to gain.” We have always had everything to lose, perhaps, but it is only relatively recently that we have, and by “we” I mean we of the so-called First World, drifted so far into a mass delusion that we no longer live in “the world.” We live off the world, enjoying lifestyles that depend on long supply chains which we barely realize exist. We have developed elaborate intellectual structures to deny that the world matters or has any standing except as a extraction site or a dump. To mainstream political and economic thinking, the world is not a factor in any discussion of goals and values. The world as foundational to our being, much less as a full subject with intrinsic value to itself, has no place in mainstream thinking. It is a resource, a dead corpse on which we feed. This is our Achilles’ heel, our fatal blind spot. It has been built into our intellectual tradition for millennia. It is our daunting task to alter that tradition, change the intellectual DNA of our civilization, and re-learn the values and aspirations that animate our daily lives. Jason Hickel’s book is an important contribution to that effort.
A quick synopsis of the contents: Part One, titled More is Less, sketches the rise of Western capitalist modernity and its increasingly disastrous outcomes. Part Two discusses the possibilities of a post-capitalist, de-growth evolution.
Hickel’s earlier work The Divide makes a illuminating case for re-thinking “Third World development” and the relationship between global North and South. Less is More builds upon that earlier work, but also takes it in a new, more risky direction. It is relatively easy and safe to make technical arguments about macro-economics and to critique the inequities of global capitalism. But in Less is More Hickel also critiques the foundations of “the divide” in the strains of thought that have led to our instrumentalist, extractive, ruthless social order. He calls out the European Enlightenment – Bacon and Descartes in particular – for drawing up the philosophical permits to ravage the world in the name of God, Reason and Modernity.
As an alternative to this dismal, world-ravaging tradition and its dismal science, Hickel points to the indigenous traditions of animism to make the argument that it is animism’s inherent ecological sophistication that is more rational in the long term than the extractive logic of modernity. There is no argument more important. Bruno Latour speaks of moving from economy to ecology as the guiding metaphor of our civilization. Animism is the key that turns ecology from a way of knowing into a way of life.
But to call up animism is an attack on the foundations of capitalist exploitations and its resultant privileges, and that means risking being ostracized by the gate-keepers of High Seriousness and Academic Prestige. I deeply appreciate the risks that Hickel is running in making the argument for animism and indigenous ecological knowledge.
As a step towards changing our trajectory, Hickel makes the case for the de-growth paradigm and its positive possibilities: “Degrowth begins as a process of taking less. But in the end it opens up whole vistas of possibilty. It moves us from scarcity to abundance, from extraction to regeneration, from dominion to reciprocity, and from loneliness and separation to connection with a world that’s fizzing with life.” The concept of degrowth is necessary in order to call out the almost religious power that the idea of economic growth has over our thinking, but it may only be a stage on our way to becoming animists/ecologists. And to getting our world back, which may be what we always and only wanted in the first place.
Progress is difficult even in the best of times, and this is far from the best of times. Increasingly I am shocked and dismayed by actions of Republicans in control of our government. No only are some people doing things that are unethical but some verge on criminal, certainly unconstitutional. Continue reading “Real Progress”
As I was talking on the phone (about social dynamics!), I observed one of the ranch hands walk across the base-yard and put something into the new chicken run that my brother had made for his motley flock of egg-layer breed roosters the day before. My brother is indulging a long-suppressed passion for chickens. I really do not know what he was thinking buying one hundred and fifty rooster chicks even if they were only a dollar a chick. We sold some but he still has about seventy little roosters left. It turned out that what the ranch-hand threw into the baby rooster mosh-pit was a juvenile gamecock. Which is about like throwing a velociraptor in with some triceratops toddlers. Or a gladiator in with the peasants. Continue reading “Vignette”
Here’s a terrific article that seems to have generated quite a bit of attention in the Twitter/social media world.: COVID-19 Broke the Economy. What if we Don’t Fix It?
I like the analogy of economic growth compared to an aircraft taking off and flying higher and higher. Now we can see that the aircraft is running out of fuel and we need to find somewhere safe to land.
— David Smith (@Elan51) June 18, 2020
A very Latour-ian analogy. Where do we land? Or more accurately, we are going to land, how do we handle it? What do we name the place where we land? How will we behave towards each other?
While I’m citing articles and in case anyone out there is also a Latour-fascinated nerd, here are a couple of secondary pieces: One is constructively critical and useful to synthesize Latour’s complexities, the other is a a bit of a hatchet job of Latour’s whole deal from a traditional leftist perspective. Also useful, though in my opinion, not entirely fair in its accusations of anti-intellectualism.
I am planning to attend my first fully digital conference: Degrowth Vienna 2020. Check it out, it’s free and no long plane ride required!
I’ve been circling around the degrowth concept for some time, ever since being introduced to some of the leading thinkers on degrowth, most notably the essential Jason Hickel, by the even-more-essential Chris Smaje and his blog Small Farm Future. Although I’m 100% on board for getting past the growth paradigm, I have been a bit leery of the implied negativity in the concept of degrowth, when what we need, most desperately, is a positive direction. I’ve been leery of getting caught up in tearing down the old obsessions, rather than finding a new way to live. But it is necessary to challenge the old dogma and the concept of degrowth does call the growth orthodoxy out. Explicitly. Manifesto nailed to the door. Change of paradigm.
I think it’s time to commit, or least dive deep. What has helped to convert me is an open letter posted on Twitter (our current version of the cathedral door) elucidating five principles of a degrowth approach to rebuilding from the coronavirus breakdown. The first principle is: Put life at the center of our economy. That is the positive trajectory that is needed in this moment of danger and possibility, of death and change. And life, not just at the center of our economic systems, but in every little thing we do. Life at the center. Perhaps most crucially at the center of our economic systems, but not just there. At the center, as well, of our arts and our pleasures, of our values and our aspirations.
Here are the five principles of degrowth per the open letter :
- Put life at the center of our economic systems.
- Radically reevaluate how much and what work is necessary for a good life for all.
- Organize society around the provision of essential goods and services.
- Democratize society
- Base political and economic systems on the principle of solidarity
There is a lot to love in those principles. The sad thing to me is that I have almost no cultural experience of “the principle of solitary.” American culture has become so thoroughly individualistic and hierarchical that solidarity seems very distant, something dreamt about or heard at third hand. We have so little vocabulary for working collectively that we are unable to speak, unable to imagine solidarity with each other. There is only the scrabbling of special interests, of winner-take-all competition, of rat-race politics and business. For that we have words, models, and theories. In the arts and sciences of solidarity we are beginners with much ground to make up. Can we learn to believe in each other again? As never before? Can we, at this late hour, learn to speak solidarity?
Doubt entered our way of knowing, alongside danger: another feature of the Anthropocene. – Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing and Niels Bubandt, “Swimming with Crocodiles”, Orion, Spring 2020, 70.
Like many, I have become somewhat obsessed with the novel coronavirus. Most days I spend a good chunk of time tracking the tragedies and transformations it has already wrought, as well as trying to understand the shape of what is to come.
How I think about the virus and its impacts changes at least a little every day, and has changed quite a lot over these weeks. I wrote earlier that I thought of the coronavirus as a message, and I still think so. Not that I think of it as an intentional message from God, Nature or Gaia, so much as a foreshadowing of what is coming, what is unfolding. Many of us have had the luxury of living within a benign, stable environment for all our lives. The coronavirus may be the first wave of the cataclysm we have called “climate change.” This is what climate change will be like, to live it. This uncertainty. This pain. This breakdown of systems designed to function under stable environmental and social conditions. The difference is that this is just a little nudge, just one little ripple on a global scale, rather than the relentless cascade of breakdowns that climate change will bring. And this little nudge is sending us into a tailspin. Continue reading “Coronavirus Journal: Under the Sign of the Crocodile”
Published on the website for Critical Inquiry
The unforeseen coincidence between a general confinement and the period of Lent is still quite welcome for those who have been asked, out of solidarity, to do nothing and to remain at a distance from the battle front. This obligatory fast, this secular and republican Ramadan can be a good opportunity for them to reflect on what is important and what is derisory. . . . It is as though the intervention of the virus could serve as a dress rehearsal for the next crisis, the one in which the reorientation of living conditions is going to be posed as a challenge to all of us, as will all the details of daily existence that we will have to learn to sort out carefully. I am advancing the hypothesis, as have many others, that the health crisis prepares, induces, incites us to prepare for climate change. This hypothesis still needs to be tested.
What allows the two crises to occur in succession is the sudden and painful realization that the classical definition of society – humans among themselves – makes no sense. The state of society depends at every moment on the associations between many actors, most of whom do not have human forms. This is true of microbes – as we have known since Pasteur – but also of the internet, the law, the organization of hospitals, the logistics of the state, as well as the climate. And of course, in spite of the noise surrounding a “state of war” against the virus, it is only one link in a chain where the management of stocks of masks or tests, the regulation of property rights, civic habits, gestures of solidarity, count exactly as much in defining the degree of virulence of the infectious agent. Once the entire network of which it is only one link is taken into account, the same virus does not act in the same way in Taiwan, Singapore, New York, or Paris. The pandemic is no more a “natural” phenomenon than the famines of the past or the current climate crisis. Society has long since moved beyond the narrow confines of the social sphere. Continue reading “Is This a Dress Rehearsal? – Bruno Latour on the Pandemic”
Last Sunday afternoon I came across a yellow-white dog lying hidden in a patch of tall grass. Someone’s hunting dog that had gotten lost and never found in all likelihood. It was emaciated and clearly very sick. Probably I should have just left him there to die. It would have been the wise thing to do, in retrospect, but also something that I don’t know if I am capable of doing, wise or not. So I brought him home, locked him in the bathroom in my carport, and tried to help him. He was so weak he couldn’t walk or even hold his head up for very long. He had beautiful brown eyes. When I tried to open his mouth to get some electrolytes down his throat I saw that his gums were ivory-white. Not good. I made a boot-bath of chlorinated water outside the door so I would not be tracking pathogens out of the room. I gave the dog a shot of penicillin hoping that it might help him, although it was pretty clear he was a goner. In the process of re-sheathing the needle, I grazed my finger. A tiny graze, I wasn’t sure if I had even pierced my skin. I was horrified at my carelessness. I went into the house and scrubbed my hands with soap and scalding water. Should I go to the emergency room? It seemed like an over-reaction since I wasn’t sure I had even infected myself. That night it rained like the devil, 4.5 inches. The dog died in the night. It was some consolation that at least he was somewhere warm and dry in his last hours, although perhaps he was too far gone for it to have mattered much. The next day the pinprick on my finger was red and swollen. I had infected myself with something. Over the next day I felt it traveling up my arm, making my muscles ache. It was a startling sensation to feel oneself being infected, and especially so given the general anxiety about infection in these recent days. I was lucky that I could get a prescription for a broad-spectrum antibiotic via telemedicine that stopped the infection. Continue reading “Bodies of Infection”
Humans have seemed unable to get a handle on climate change, with global emissions of greenhouse gases continuing to grow every year. But a microscopic pathogen, so structurally simple that it does not even have a single cell and is arguably not even alive, may be capable of accomplishing what our political leaders thus far cannot.
If I appear to minimize the suffering caused by the coronavirus, it is not my intent, and I also fear what the virus may wreak on those most vulnerable in my community and family. But I do think we need to say it out loud: this small being has opened possibilities for change that didn’t exist a month ago. I hope we can learn from it. Continue reading “Listening to the Coronavirus”