Reading about the growing “transition towns” movement back to back with a read-through of Design Philosophy Papers’ latest issue on Bataille and “Inefficient Sustainability” has gotten me thinking about some of the unspoken premises that make their way into environmentalists’ prognostications of the future.
The transition towns movement began in Totnes, England, home of the Schumacher Society, and was spurred into motion in part from permaculturist Rob Hopkins’ work on transitioning to a sustainable economy, but it has now spread to hundreds of towns, villages, cities, and regions in the UK, US, Ireland, Canada, and elsewhere. Drawing from permaculture founder David Holmgren’s modeling of energy transitions and associated crises, Eco-Mag’s Future Scenarios issue offers a particularly useful and concise synopsis of four possible futures, intended to be taken up in transition town salons and community forums and to help guide in the development of local transition plans and sustainability policies. The four scenarios are distinguished by differential rates of fossil-fuel energy decline (slow or fast) and of climate change symptoms (mild or severe) and by people’s responses to these changes. The general idea is that human use of oil and other fossil fuels is “peaking” and we need to transition toward more sustainable power sources, but that these aren’t readily available; they require more systematic social, political, technological, and economic changes than most are prepared to work toward; and any transition will be marked by the effects of climate changes already, to some extent, set in motion.
The four scenarios are “Brown Tech: Top Down Constriction”, where slow energy decline rates accompanied by severe climate change symptoms allow for aggressive “resource nationalism” and centralized government and corporate investment to prevail, but with wars and chaos looming in the background; “Green Tech: Distributed Powerdown,” where slow energy decline rates and mild climate change symptoms allow for greater diversity of responses at multiple scales, including strengthened “cultures of place”, distributed energy economies, and the like (this is perhaps a best-case scenario); “Earth Steward: Bottom Up Rebuild,” in which rapid energy declines but mild climate change symptoms bring about financial and economic shock, reduction of mobility, increases in crime, malnutrition, and disease, and a hollowing out of cities, but also the rise of a kind of quasi-feudal, neo-monastic ecodecentralism rising up in the ruins (akin to what Theodore Roszak described back in his 1970s Person/Planet); and “Lifeboats: Civilization Triage,” a kind of worst-case scenario where rapid energy decline accompanied by severe climate change leads to global breakdown, significant population decline, and the abandonment of cities, but with “oasis agriculture” and regional survivalism helped out by new opportunities — such as by the creation of “highly productive shallow waters and estuaries” in and around the “complex reef structures” made possible by urban architectures newly flooded in coastal lowlands around the world. (I love it.)
It all makes for fascinating reading and provocative future-crafting. And while there’s a certain implied determinism between what happens (with energy availability and climate change) and how we react to it, the scenarios are offered as starting points for discussion, and it’s clear that the complex interactions between each variable can make for an almost infinite variability in how they are played out. That said, there’s still a kind of calculative, number-crunching imperative to this kind of futures modeling that implicitly suggests that if we get the numbers right, we’ll be able to plan our actions correctly — and therefore, that humans are as calculable an actor within the system as anything else. We consume food and resources and produce waste in ways that assume an ‘input’ and an ‘output’ that are invariable, in principle, but variable only in the extent to which we get by with ‘more’ or with ‘less’ (and ‘recycle’ to greater or lesser degrees).
This is the kind of assumption that George Bataille and his latter-day ecological interpreter, Allan Stoekl, would reject. Much of Design Philosophy Papers’ latest issue — online now and viewable for free only until the next issue comes out (so read it while it’s there!) — takes up Stoekl’s 2007 book Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability and its implications for thinking about sustainability and eco-design. While I haven’t read the book itself yet, the general Bataillian argument presented in Stoekl’s article and those that follow it is that “conservation” provides for a “thermodynamically pessimist” understanding of human and material nature, one that cradle-to-cradle eco-designers McDonough and Braungart model after Central American leaf-cutter ants rather than on anything resembling humans past or present. As Stoekl writes, “Total upcycling on the model of the ants” — that is, where nothing is not recycled, or upcycled, back into the system — “is certainly inspiring, but it neglects one evident aspect of the human: to constitute itself through one-way waste, to define itself precisely as the animal that casts off, that eliminates, that buries, that disposes of.” Stoekl relates this trait to anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s notion of the gift economy, where the gift is that which circulates, “and in circulating it passes through the entire community, bringing it together” and linking it to their environment. “Between hunter and forest there is the priest; the sacrificial gift ensures that the forest enters into the gift giving relation with the community.” Where exchange relations are “one way” and in moving they lose value, to be discarded as “waste,” gift relations entail “the maintenance of the giver from which one receives: the forest, the environment.” Another way of putting this is that we are not limited to seeing ourselves as consumers of the world, such that the only option for sustainable consumption is one that is maximally reduced. We can also enter into relations with the world that are based on gift-giving, reciprocity, celebration, and ritual extravagance (which Mauss modeled in part on the potlatch ceremonies of west coast Native cultures).
“Sustainability here is not the product of an ever more maniacal quantification, a cradle to cradle accounting that mandates a recycling possible only through the rigid organization and hierarchy of the ant colony. Rather sustainability now is the after-effect of the gift, it is the generosity of the environment, if we can call it that, responding to our own generosity.”
The difference between Stoekl/Bataille and McDonough/Braungart/et al may boil down to one of emphasis (I guess I’ll find out when I read his book). But it’s rooted in Bataille’s insight that, as Jamer Hunt puts it, “rational thought itself must be at stake if we are to surpass the political economy of the calculative and instrumental.” The universe itself is not rational, and our attempt to squeeze the future into a rational frame is more an effort to maintain a productivist humanism, the same thing that got us to this place, than it is an embrace of the universe. Stoekl writes:
“At some point the hubris of Man — the belief that the energy of the universe serves no other purpose than to be appropriable and ‘serve Man,’ that grotesque and phantasmic signifier — runs up against a profound barrier: there is an enormous amount of energy that is not servile. It spirals out of celestial bodies, it blows away in the wind, it courses uselessly through our bodies. Its expenditure is our finitude (our mortality), and its finitude — in the sense that heterogeneous energy opens the possibility but also defines the limits of the homogeneous energy that can serve — is our expenditure (our waste of effort, of time, of our own self-satisfaction).” (Bataille’s Peak, p. 224)
What catches my attention about this is the implication that ecological accounting has little power to mobilize people because it doesn’t speak to their spiritual needs. Envisioning futures and projecting ourselves into them — as in the Transition movement with its future scenarios — has some power to mobilize — through its imagery, and especially through its capacity to rebuild local culture and civic practice (though its dependence on volunteerism is a serious limitation). But it’s the excessiveness of “ritual, ceremony, ornamentation, feasting, song, dance, performance” which have the greatest power. And it’s precisely these libidinally engaging, excessive forms that are being mobilized so successfully by post-Fordist consumer capitalism — through advertising, branding, and the imagineering industries, the late modern equivalents of Ficinian magic, but ever more efficient and effective — all of which makes of them the real terrain for eco-social struggle.
The other thing I get from a Bataillian approach is a seductive kind of ontological speculativeness, the sort of thing that someone like Reza Negarestani works at in his surrealistic geopolitical excavations of the Middle East, or Deleuze and Guattari in their “geological” moments, DeLanda in his history of geological-organic-linguistic matter-energy, and, a little more conventionally, Evan Eisenberg in his Ecology of Eden, with his descriptions of how “grass enlisted the aid of humans in its turf fight with trees for control of the African savanna” and of humans as “saprophages” feeding off decayed or decaying matter (wood, peat, coal, oil). If we are to arrive at an understanding that we are not “Man,” endowed with the calculative capacity to reason our way to sustainability, but are already thoroughly enmeshed in colonies of life-cycling, breathing, shitting, reproducing and ever-circulating materiality, then we need to think more creatively about the kinds of colonies we have built up and about our capacity for building new (and old) ones differently.