“Modernity and Biospheric Meltdown: Rethinking Exits, Austerities and Biopolitics by Gene Ray

September 24, 2012

In setting out the agenda for this conference, Yannis Stavrakakis calls for a critical and postcolonial reflection on the Greek crisis. He asks us to think about the current politics of debt and austerity within the historical force-fields of “Heterodox Modernity”: “A global crisis provides the opportunity for the enforcement of one more project of ‘modernizing’ Greek culture under circumstances of a quasi-state of emergency.” The terms constellated in this formulation point me to the emerging crisis within modernity itself.
My thesis here is that modernity exists but cannot be sustained. It stands exposed today as untenable and unviable – indeed, terminally so. Why? For all the good old reasons set out by critical theory long ago, but also, now, for some new ones. Today, biospheric or ecological meltdown and mass extinction announce the end of modernity. Our challenge now is to rescue ourselves from it: we need an exit from the logic it imposes, not a fix that would prologue it.
Given the stakes, which I clarify below, this challenge should be at the very center of political discourse and debate. It should be included now in every serious discussion about the so-called sovereign debt crisis, or art, or the postcolonial. Instead, we continue to leave it out. For many reasons, we’re avoiding this challenge. It’s too huge, too unthinkably catastrophic, too difficult and uncomfortable on so many levels. But avoidance and disavowal won’t make the biospheric crisis go away. It will impose itself now as the absolute material limit of modernity – the real constraining objectivity that will shape all politics, all possible futures.

Limits of a Master Logic.Modernity. What is that, what are we talking about? Is it a process, a logic, an object, a program, an ideology? All of the above: modernity is a global social process that, unfolding, transforms the world. But it’s not a random process; it has as logic. Modernity cannot be separated from the processes of valorization and capital accumulation. Indeed, the history of modernity is the history of capital: from the so-called primitive accumulation of the colonial era to the new enclosures and postcolonial debtors’ prisons of our time. Modernity develops and takes hold unevenly, the pain and the benefits of capital fall differentially, domination is asymmetrical. In this postcolonial sense, we speak of multiple or heterodox modernities.
The global social process is the sum of many divergent logics, many tendencies and counter-tendencies, many modes and forms and flows. But there is hierarchy in this force-field: the postmodernist thesis of the death of master logics and narratives does not hold up. The logic of accumulation continues to dominate, integrate and order all rival logics and does so in the most impersonal and indifferent way. Capital, profits, economies must grow, must be made to grow, at whatever cost: this is what we’re living through, the austerity-immiseration program that is devastating Greece and so many other places today is the enforcement of a master logic.
The accumulation process is a viciously expanding circle: Marx called it an “automatic subject” – an “animated monster.” It’s not reducible to the greed of bankers or financiers; the current banking and finance system is just a symptom of the master logic. And the pressures of this logic long ago overwhelmed the political process of so-called democracy. Since 1945, technocratic governance has become the norm. In the spectacle of what some call post-politics, politicians provide the faces and personalities, but the important decisions are increasingly made by technocrats – the managers and directors of economies, corporations and war-machines. No need to elaborate here, we’re in the grips of this.

From a biospheric perspective, the relentless imperative of growth and acceleration is precisely the problem. The ecological limits of capital have been recognized and probed by a growing group of theorists and writers, including James O’Connor, Midnight Notes, Iain Boal and Retort, Eddie Yuan and Joel Kovel, to name a few. Even some global elites of capital have been worried about the inevitable Limits to Growth, as the study commissioned by the Club of Rome had put it in 1972. These limits are now arriving, and scientists warn us that a real hell is brewing. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Public attention, ever pulled and prodded, remains unfocused and confused, while time after time, the political process fails to confront and address this crisis – as the debacles of the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change and more recently the Rio+20 Summit clearly show.
Two new disarticulations seem to be at work here: the growing gap between science and policymaking and an opening fissure between technocrats charged with planning and risk assessment and politicians bound to short-term election cycles. Rationally, the technocrats should address what is clearly a threat. But the conflicts between risk assessment and the pressures of quarterly earnings reports is already reflected in the divergent positions of the insurance industry and energy sector regarding global warming. But if the technocrats have been unable to bridge these fissures, the main reason is because the master logic strictly forbids it. Aside from the psychological factors that support inaction, we are paralyzed before the biospheric meltdown because acknowledging it calls into question the master logic itself. The solutions cannot be found within the given paradigm of growth and accumulation. The hard numbers, some of which I’ll review shortly, show that “green capitalism” and techno-fixes are rosy delusions.



Addressing the biospheric crisis would require a passage to a different social logic, one not based on ceaseless growth and the domination of nature. We need to rethink our “common sense” assumptions about quality of life and standards of living. But this rethinking must go beyond the menu of lifestyle choices on offer in the given consumerism – or, better, the given modernity. We need to work out new enjoyments, grounded in transformed experiences of time and place, and in transformed relations and ways of producing. Collective self-rescue entails changing our values, habits and material relations on a global scale. But the immense investments in the given social process, enforced by war machines, block any such transformation. Besides, haven’t all attempts so far to organize such a passage as an oppositional project failed, or at least been defeated? And yet, that, and nothing less, is what is required.
Whatever hope can be found in this impasse derives from the survival imperative. Biospheric meltdown will eventually teach even the most stubborn of us that capitalist modernity has become a terminal race to bottom. Can we stop racing?

Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment is the now classic analysis of how reason, a product of the drive for self-preservation, tends to recoil into a logic of self-repression and social domination. But now there is a new twist to the dialectic. The same drive for self-preservation now becomes a point of counter-pressure that pushes us to find a new social logic. There are no guarantees, of course, but this challenge could potentially bring us together, against the real force of everything that normally tears us apart.
The biospheric crisis, like modernity, falls on us differentially. To begin with, the Global South will suffer the most. The wealthy North, by accident of geography and inherited privilege of past crimes, will manage to muddle through. But only to begin with. In time, this maelstrom threatens to pull us all in and under. To grasp this and take it seriously realigns and reorients everything. To be sure, one response to this will be a cynical instrumentalization under the rubric of the politics of fear. New states of emergency and a new official war on terror will certainly be declared at some point. We will have to resist and contain the kinds of bad catastrophism Eddie Yuan and Iain Boal have discussed, even as we engage with the actual catastrophe. 

But we clearly have an urgent common stake in global self-rescue. On that basis, just possibly, humanity, which until now has been merely an unrealized cosmopolitan promise, might yet emerge. There is at least an opening here to the good universal, to the shared aspiration to be free of terror and domination. And non-dominating relations to nature would also open up new prospects of ecologically-inflected enjoyments, beyond the pressures of capitalist time. The poet Gary Snyder points to these enjoyments that come with slowing down and taking the time to find out how to inhabit our places; gently, he suggests that we “learn the birdsongs and wildflowers.” We should not assume too quickly that every exit from the logic of growth and consumerism dooms us to an impoverishment of life. Weaning us off our current addictions, the needed shifts would bring different enrichments and foster different values and qualities. Unhappily, we don’t have unlimited time to find the keys to this passage or exit.

Phantasms of Progress. On the level of ideology, modernity has been animated by the myths of enlightenment and automatic progress. The more knowledge and science grow, the better off we are and the closer we approach some vanishing point of total knowledge and ethical perfection. We know it didn’t happen that way. Under the pressures of self-preservation, we developed magic, then myth, then reason, science and technology. These gave us increasing power of mastery over nature, but also became the tools and weapons of societies based on domination and state terror.
Step by step, every gain in the domination of nature was turned into a new means for the domination of man by man. This is the dialectic of enlightenment: reason in the service of domination recoils into unreason and distorts the yearning for freedom into actual unfreedom. The division of manual and intellectual labor, in which art and culture is implicated to this day, gives rise to class societies of incredible complexity and, eventually, global scale. Under the regimes of accumulation, certain directions of development tend to win out over others, absorbing and pulling the others into alignment.

Adorno saw two dominant tendencies in late capitalism: what he called “integration” and “administration.” Both turn out to be genocidal. Integration denotes the tightening net of social control and the increasing elimination of difference under the reign of identity-thinking. Integration produces forms of subjectivity that deeply internalize the master logic. Administration refers to the expanding powers of bureaucratic concentration and managerial direction – what in the context of today’s struggles against austerity we call technocracy.
Under a globalizing social process empowering expansive states and corporations tending toward “total” administration and integration, the process of subject formation is increasingly hijacked. Critical, autonomous subjectivity is increasingly blocked and restricted. Under these conditions accommodation is the subjective imperative: toe the line or risk social banishment or worse. Freedom is the freedom to obey and conform or starve on the streets.
The systems of social control become very sophisticated, from culture industry to spectacle. “Commanded enjoyments” are on offer, at least for some: the corrupting phantasms of identity, lifestyle, consumerism and virtuality, as discussed by Yannis Stavrakakis and others. We have learned that the housing bubble and associated derivatives markets floated the illusion that consumerist standards of living could be sustained, even as neo-liberal economics imposed a general precarization of labor and widened the global gap between rich and poor to levels not seen since the nineteenth century. The consumer debt crisis expanded into the sovereign debt crisis, but the ever-hoped for “recovery” confirms our deep shared investment in a system reaching its limits. The wish, that our lifestyles are sustainable, dies hard. We all share, more or less, a stubborn resistance to change that willfully disavows the evidence. In any case, for those who rebel against this menu, there is enforcement. Coercion and violence are applied continuously: probably never in history have we been so tracked and surveilled and made the objects of continuous, official terror.

Permanent war and emergency have specific origins in the last century. Auschwitz and Hiroshima are leaps in state terror that signal the end of the myth of progress. They are the proof that modernity itself is genocidal. Auschwitz – and yes, that place name must resonate in very specific ways, here in Thessaloniki – points to a potential for industrialized mass murder lurking irreducibly in the tendencies of integration and administration: a political program is rigorously pursued by combining the standard processes of industrial production with official bureaucratic planning and accounting. Which group or community is attacked is important of course, but is not the essential point. Any group can be targeted. Once demonstrated, this is a potential any state can actualize with the powers at its disposal.
Hiroshima actualized a different potential: the terminally genocidal power of weapons systems produced under the merger of science and war machine. Since 1945, this terror has operated on us continuously, even when only deployed as threat. The rise of the vast national security-surveillance state and the administered politics of fear that goes with it, unfolds from the tendency of weapons technologies to overwhelm politics. Together, Auschwitz and Hiroshima gas and bomb the myths of progress and enlightenment. To grasp the implications of these demonstrated potentials is to understand that that they threaten all of us, without exception. There are no more safe places. After 1945, the future itself is in doubt.

Only psychological repression and disavowal of this global trauma, supported by the manufactured optimism of consumerism, can avoid confronting the new reality. And yet avoidance has prevailed. We have not succeeded in understanding, confronting, controlling and eliminating these powers of terror. In fact, they have continued to grow and proliferate – from robotics and drone warfare to nano- and biological weapons of mass destruction.
The biospheric meltdown, driven by spiraling growth and production, would appear to be the real endgame of modernity. Now, the imperative of social self-preservation comes into conflict with the instinct for bodily and species survival. Now, evidently, we transform the social logic or allow it to terminate us. Adorno, inflecting Benjamin, set out three entwined relations of domination: the domination of nature, external and internal, and the domination of man by man. All three – the violent plunder of nature outside us, the self-repression of our bodies and psychic processes, and our dominating relations to each other – all are the sites of a struggle not just for liberation but now also for survival. The difficult condensation of these relations is behind Adorno’s quip that “Nature does not yet exist.”

We would also, of course, have to register the other qualifications that critical theory has outlined. We need an approach to the biosphere that both is critical and gives scope for feeling and experience. It won’t help to wrap and obscure nature in all kinds of New Age pseudo-mysticism. “Nature” and “the human” are both dynamic, historical constructions rather than static, eternal essences. They are inseparable non-identicals: neither makes any sense except in relation to the other. More, nature and the human mediate, mutually condition and change each other. However, this cannot change the fact that humans have animal bodies that are part of nature and its ecological systems. We cannot escape our dependence on the ecological base. The biosphere remains the inescapable necessary condition for human presence on earth. Or, to express this in Foucault’s idiom: all possibilities for “biopolitics” are bound to and limited by the fate of the biosphere. Strictly speaking, all biopolitics should link up explicitly with the challenge of rescuing the ecological commons.
We can know and experience nature and the biosphere in many forms, on many levels. Because the knowledge of nature that science produces has been so powerful, modernity has valued it more highly than other forms. But science, too, is a social fact, with origins in history and subject to historical development. Modernity grants science a relative autonomy, but this has not protected it from the compromising and distorting pressures of the master logic. Undeniably, modernist science has tended to merge with capital and war machine. Corporations and the state fund expensive scientific research, and control over funding has inevitably shaped the setting of research agendas and led to development in certain directions rather than others.
Keeping in mind this critique of modernist science, we can note that the gap that has opened between science and policymakers over the biospheric crisis, above all regarding global warming, is a major disruption of these tendencies toward merger with capital and the state. It favors a reassertion of scientific autonomy that should be welcomed. Indeed we might hope the insubordination of climate scientists becomes a more robust correction within a comfortably servile post-Hiroshima scientific establishment. That said, we should not forget that scientists are not critical theorists: they are not routinely trained to critically analyze the social process and their own place within it. We can expect that the biospheric crisis will push many of them to grow beyond this disciplinary limitation.

The very last Rabb’s tree frog, in a zoo in Atlanta, 2011

Meltdown and Mass Extinction. This has all been terribly theoretical and abstract. Let me try now to make it more concrete. We are all aware of global warming and the scenarios predicted: melting ice caps, rising sea levels, droughts, plagues, rogue storms and massive displacements. Two degrees Celsius is the number widely held to be the threshold of acceptable, “manageable” warming, and this number was even acknowledged by politicians in Copenhagen. Many scientists think this number is too much. James Hansen calls it “a prescription for long-term disaster.”
In a recent article for Rolling Stone (2 August 2012) ominously titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Bill McKibben reviews the numbers from new climate simulation models and energy sector reports. We have already raised the planet’s temperature by 0.8 degrees, almost halfway to target. Scientists calculate that we can release a maximum of 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have a reasonable chance of holding warming to two degrees. At the current rate, as one researcher puts it, “we will blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in sixteen years.”
McKibben points out, however, that the proven coal, oil and gas reserves of the world’s largest corporations and states – reserves that are already on the account books, planned for and in-line to be extracted and burned up – is 2,795 gigatons – more than five times the allowance. The worth of those reserves is estimates to be $27 trillion. Under the current logic, there is no chance that $20 trillion of value is going to be left in the ground. Forget about two degrees.

We tend to think that warming and climate change are the big problem, but these are but aspects of the biospheric crisis. Pollution, ocean acidification, habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity are also game-changing ecological factors. It is the combination of all these processes, each intensifying the effects of the others, that is crashing the planet and leading to what a growing number of biologists call a mass extinction event.
Paleontologists have identified five major extinction events in the earth’s history. The largest of these, the so-called “Great Dying,” was the Permian-Triassic event of 250 million years ago. At that time 90% of all marine species and 70% of all land species went extinct. The last mass extinction was the Cretaceous-Tertiary event that killed off the dinosaurs. That one took place 65 million years ago. Scientists warn us that a sixth mass extinction event is now unfolding, and unlike the others, we ourselves have initiated this one. We are disappearing species at a shocking rate: 100 to 1000 times the background rate, or the rate before humans arrived on the scene, as legible in the fossil record. This is roughly three species every hour. The eminent scientist E.O. Wilson predicts that the rate of species loss could reach 10,000 times the background rate within the next two decades. A monoculture world of reduced biodiversity and collapsing ecologies is not just an aesthetic and emotional impoverishment of quality of life, it is a survival risk for us as well. No one can say how far a mass extinction will go.
Moreover, our response to the extinction of other species is the true ethical test and measure of our relation to the non-human. In 1975, the philosopher and bio-ethicist Peter Singer published his now classic critique of what he called “speciesism,” the bias humans have for valuing the interests of their own species above all others. Singer pointed out that such a bias is no more ethically defensible than racism or sexism. The treatment of the animals we industrially raise and slaughter for our food is a well-known – and ongoing – scandal. The ecological sciences, of course, teach us that consideration of any species outside its context of relations with other species is very problematic.

Derrida and others have further unsettled the common sense assumptions and prejudices here: on one hand, the borders separating us from the non-human are unclear, unstable and do not hold up; on the other, our relation to the non-human is a form of our relation to radical difference or otherness. The ethical and political stakes of the latter relation are enormous. If we give ourselves permission, by means of whatever rationalizations, to do whatever we like to non-humans, then the way is clear to reduce groups of people to non- or sub-human status, in order to do what we want to them. This moment, in which a targeted group is pushed outside the category of humanity, is a recurrent one in the history of genocide, and should give us pause in this context.

In the present crisis in Greece, we are justly worried about the treatment of immigrants and the rapid rise of the neo-fascist Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn. Just consider, then, what is likely to happen when millions of new ecological refugees are cast adrift by global warming and climate change, and the imperatives of rapid adaptation begin to pull us through the eye of the needle. The biospheric meltdown is going to constrain politics in very specific ways. The longer we wait to address it, the more likely all moderate and humane options will be squeezed out. If we do nothing and allow the worst-case scenarios to materialize and develop, then the political choices we will face will be very repugnant ones.

Beyond Disavowal and Helplessness. Marx had already given us an early, but very important analysis of the human-nature relation. We cannot think of this relation as simply the way we as individuals feel or think about nature. The subjective emotional and affective aspects are important, but the relation operates on a more material, objective and impersonal level than that. The true structure of this relation is found in the way we organize what Marx called the “metabolic interaction with nature”: in other words, how we produce the things that satisfy our basic needs, namely food and shelter. In that primary production is encoded the true facts of our treatment of the biosphere, and everything else, including art and culture, is built on that basis. And indeed, the way we produce the most basic things we need is the problem, from an ecological or biospheric view. A quick look at the global food production system will illuminate the whole ecological problematic and confront us with the scale of the crisis.
A recent study in Scientific American (November 2011) analyzed the current food system in light of the challenges facing it. Here’s how this article begins: “Right now about one billion people suffer from chronic hunger. The world’s farmers grow enough food to feed them, but it is not properly distributed and, even if it were, many cannot afford it because prices are escalating.” There are 7 billion people alive now, and 1 in 7 – a billion people – are literally starving. By 2050 there will be 9 to 10 billion people alive and the demand for food is expected to double.

Industrio-chemical agriculture – the so-called Green Revolution – has always justified itself by high yields compared to subsistence and traditional farming. But we now know those yields are unsustainable, since they come at extremely high ecological cost. The real justification of the Green Revolution has been the profits produced by this mode of food production. The postcolonial truths are inescapable here: all over the world, over and over again, the new enclosures are driving small farmers and peasants off their land and turning people who were able to grow their own food sustainably into wage laborers dependent on imported food that they cannot afford.

The unsustainablities are also well-known. The cash crops of industrial monoculture are drenched in chemical fertilizers and combat-grade toxins. Most of it runs right into streams, rivers and eventually the sea, producing algae blooms and dead zones. Despite the fertilizers, the soil is more depleted with each crop, because the pesticides kill off the good insects along with the pests and the cycles of soil fertility are broken. 80-90% of all human water consumption is directed to farm irrigation, sucking up aquifers and reservoirs and running many streams dry. Much of the water is sprayed on fields, and much of that is immediately lost to evaporation.

But it is shocking to learn that industrial agriculture is also the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions – more than other commodity production, more than global shipping and transportation, more than the military-industrial complex or the energy sector. And it’s not just the tractors, pumps and machinery involved: most of the emissions come from tropical deforestation, methane produced by livestock animals and rice paddies, and nitrous oxide released by over-fertilized fields.

The scientists’ recommendations include more organic farming and an end to deforestation, more efficient use of resources, a dietary shift away from meat and the reduction of food waste. This is all wonderful advice, but of course Jonathan Foley and his panel of experts has bracketed the problem of capital and the logic of accumulation – this crucial obstacle to change is, no surprise, outside the purview of their study. But the overview at least helps us to see how the productive processes articulate modernity’s real, material relation to nature. To change this – to change the way we live – we need to change the way we produce. It is a question of liberating ourselves from a master logic.

What to do? We need to start grappling seriously with these problems among ourselves. How? We probably need to begin, most of us, by looking inside and unlocking some of the blockages that have been preventing us from focusing on the violence and damage being wrought on the biosphere. Critical theorist and psychotherapist Shierry Weber Nicholsen has argued that we all share a love and concern for nature, based on early experiences of intimacy, astonishment and joy; if we avoid too much awareness about what is being done to the biosphere that sustains us, that is because this awareness is deeply traumatic and triggers unconscious defensive responses. Maybe we first need to find the courage to acknowledge to ourselves our own capacities for emotion in this regard, and probably we only begin to do this as we risk sharing our concerns and responses with others. This may involve a surprising recovery of some forgotten bonds and attachments of childhood. Unconsciously, we know how much has already been destroyed and lost; it is for the sake of what remains and can be saved that we need to express and share our grief and distress about it. Rendered productive and politicized, mourning opens a passage to rescue.

What is certain is that we cannot wait for the technocrats and politicians to solve the biospheric crisis for us. We need to begin living it as the urgency it is, working it into all our discussions and reflections and shaping it into a daily ethics and practice. On that basis, we build our commons, make alliances, and choose our struggles. If we are artists, our concern will guide our practice: there are many models and precedents, and many still to be invented. Responding to the biospheric meltdown is also going to require coordinated state action – the scales involved make this unavoidable. And yet, largely for the reasons sketched, policymakers are paralyzed and politicians don’t dare confront any of this. So we will have to find the forms of struggle, resistance and invention that move us beyond this impasse.
Meanwhile, “lines of flight” are an available “other means” to begin helpfully addressing this crisis at the level of everyday life. The needed ethico-politics, to repeat, must go beyond green lifestyle choices. I don’t want to denigrate conservation efforts and so-called responsible consumerism, but we all understand these micro-efforts do not confront or undo the master logic. Stronger lines of flight are already emerging. Since I sketched the problem with modernist food production, I want to end by mentioning a promising alternative.

Permaculture, a form of organic gardening and farming that also fosters biodiversity and remediates ecological damage, offers a much more robust line of flight. Cooperating with, rather than fighting against the ecological principles of natural succession and symbiotic relations, permaculture fosters the growing of edible forests that, when mature, will require no extra water or fertilizer and less labor than conventional forms of cultivation. An integrated movement for safe and sustainable food production, permaculture is a practical subtraction from the profit-driven industrial food system. It can be practiced on any scale, collectively as well as by individuals and families. The more organized and collective, obviously, the better. Permaculture indicates how it is possible to change our mode of production in ways oriented to a non-dominating relation to nature and man. It also offers a radically different basis for autonomy that is highly relevant to debates about sovereignty in Greece and elsewhere today. Something similar is needed all along the line.

This is a very quick and cursory treatment, I know. But I’m convinced it’s necessary to keep the biospheric crisis in the discussion, and that critical theory supports and demands our concern about it. Certainly, any serious discussion of modernity has to take it into account. Acknowledging the emotions and understanding the challenge and stakes, we can begin to move on to the possibilities for rescue.

This essay began as a talk at the conference “Art and Politics at the Limit: Claiming a Heterodox Modernity,” in Thessaloniki, Greece, in September 2012, in the context of the exhibition Action Field Kodra.
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