Ecology, Technology, and Scale

October 10th, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism  |  1 Comment

In the debate between Alex Gourevitch on one side, and Chris Bertram and Jacobin contributing editor Max Ajl on the other, I’d put myself more on Bertram and Ajl’s side. Gourevitch’s essay was a bit too long on caricatures of environmentalism, and too short on critiques of the particular way in which development operates in capitalism.

I do think, though, that Ajl’s opening is a bit misleading as to the substance of his argument. He ridicules Gourevitch’s call for “control and manipulation of nature” as “pure ideology”, and insists that “ecological problems are not resolvable through endless technofixes”. But the further control and manipulation of nature by means of technology is then precisely what he goes on to advocate. What separates the two positions is that while Gourevitch tends toward an uncritical conflation of “development” and “capitalist development”, Ajl outlines an explicitly ecological (though not necessarily anti-capitalist) path of development, involving things like high-speed rail networks and alternative energy systems.

Ajl’s other important point is to separate the defense of advanced technological society from the praise of large scale, centralized industrialization. As Bertram notes in his post, there is a sort of stagist theory of history implicit in Gourevitch’s argument, in which poor countries must pass through the same kind of industrial development that characterized the imperial metropoles in the twentieth century. In fact, it is possible for poor regions to skip over some parts of the earlier history of industrialization entirely. Hence we see countries skipping the buildout of land line telephones in favor of cellular, and the same may happen with distributed solar power generation.

Thus, while the specific criticisms Gourevitch makes (on Palestinian bicycle generators and the California energy crisis) are mostly on target, he is too quick to dismiss “federated, small-scale self-sufficient production communities” entirely. As Ajl notes, a red-green vision may reject retreating into some pre-industrial past, but it is also about something more than just generalizing current rich country ways of life to the whole world.

I’m jumping into all this because it connects to my last post on 3-D printers and related small-scale fabrication technologies.* One of the appealing things about these technologies is that, as Juliet Schor notes in this post, they have the potential to make high-productivity but small scale production much more viable. This implies that an increasingly productive economy need not be identical with an increasingly centralized and hierarchical one. Which is not to say that big and complex infrastructural systems can be done away with entirely, only that they can be a less important part of our material culture. It may turn out that the industrial age was actually the apex of economic “bigness”, and that the post-industrial future will be both more decentralized and richer, a manifestation of what Ursula Leguin calls a “genuinely mature society” that employs advanced technology but has transcended the capitalist imperative to constantly grow and expand.

This would be very fortunate, and not only for reasons of ecological sustainability. Ashwin Parameswaran, in his many posts at Macroeconomic Resilience, has discussed the way in which contemporary capitalism is the endpoint of the high-modernist “control revolution”. In his view, post-Fordism is merely a completion of the Fordist project of “systematising each element of the industrial process”, and “introducing order and legibility into a fundamentally opaque environment via a process that reduces human involvement and discretion by replacing intuitive judgments with rules and algorithms.” The attempt to stabilize the incredibly complex systems of a modern macro-economy then leads, he says, to a situation in which the rules and feedback loops are so complex that they render “the system fundamentally illegible to the human operator”. According to this analysis, our current version of “too big to fail” crony capitalism actually has much in common with the Soviet project, which ultimately failed “due to its too successful adherence and implementation of the high-modernist ideal.”

In recent times, decentralization of the economy has been rhetorically associated with the libertarian right (even if, as Parameswaran argues, their project was actually a continuation of the control revolution). There is no reason, however, for the Left to respond by fetishizing bigness, which would be no better an answer than the the fetish for smallness that afflicts some of the environmentalists Gourevitch criticizes.

  • As an aside, I should clarify that some of what I discussed in that post was speculative, and not meant to describe the current state of these technologies. In particular, I’m well aware that it’s not possible to manufacture anthrax (or, to be scientifically precise, the Bacillus anthracis bacterium) in one’s home. But there’s no reason to believe such things won’t eventually be possible.

Responses

  1. Tom Walker says:

    October 10th, 2012 at 6:58 pm (#)

    And here I was thinking by ‘scale’ you must be referring to diminishing and/or increasing returns.

    Endogenous Growth Theory and Ecological Unequal Exchange: linkage, displacement and deflection of ‘diminishing returns’

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