Climate denialism among progressives

Climate denial is the preserve of god-fearing, right wing nutters right? Certainly, the denial of climate science is favourite pass time of shock jocks on the right. But what about climate politics?  That is an entirely different matter. It cuts both ways. For instance on the progressive side, there is an enormous amount of bullshit and tech-hocus-pocus to the effect that we can have our cake (modern dentistry, antibiotics, consumer culture, highly progressive technology, ‘progress’) and eat it also (i.e. that we can do all the above ‘sustainably’). There is an almost complete denial of the fact that institutional and ideational forms of social emancipation which, in the West, we have  [quite rightly] naturalized and made effectively ‘non-negotiable’ – have an intrinsic and ‘inelastic’ relationship with energy/material throughput; that social complexity is a low entropy phenomenon and expensive.

Think for example (a) of the idea of human rights and the complex social/institutional structures needed to give it substance;  (b) of all the nuts and bolts of the Keynesian welfare state (KWS); (c) of all the dominant forms of feminist thought and practice that centre on access to the capitalist labour market; (d) of the very specific forms of emancipation associated with a universal right to independent living and autonomy for people with disability —  these are undoubtedly great achievements! They are even ‘non-negotiable’ – in the sense that the very suggestion of trade-offs in these areas (bar perhaps the more extensive manifestations of the KWS) is increasingly taboo in mainstream political culture. Even right wing conservatives, feel the need to suggest that reducing state expenditures on disability provision will clear the way to better provision, greater autonomy, and more independence through well-functioning markets (clearly a stupid idea). They don’t have the bollocks  or honesty (usually) to reject explicitly or overtly, the goal of independent living in itself. But at the same such welfare  provisions do depend upon economic growth. The state and the market are co-evolved and co-dependent. You can’t have one without the other.

In the world of capitalist-welfare economics, all consumption is good – because all economic transactions, all movements of people, goods and capital, and all transformations of nature directly or indirectly, generate fiscal transfers to pay for public infrastructure and services. There is no ‘trivial consumption’ in this sense. And because of this, at such time when biophysical limits to growth begin to undermine the growth machine, these non-negotiable cultural and political priorities  will be ‘negotiated.’ Precisely because ‘nature bats last’ resources are limited and the enduring focus for political conflict. However taboo such a conversation may be right now, in the face of systemic resource constraints, we will negotiate our priorities, choices will be made, incommensurable interests and experiences will be compared and traded-off against each other.

It is disingenuous or self-denying for liberal academia and the sustainability industry to suggest otherwise. It is precisely those laudable social commitments that form a kind of climate denial.  They [religious conservatives and neo-cons] deny the science. We [progressives] deny the social-political implications.  How do these forms of climate denial relate to each other?  If we are to find a sustainable political economy that might nurture some kind of global civilization for, let’s say, one or ten millennia, then it seems likely to me that SOME aspects of land-based, family-based, traditional conservative thought and practice might have to come into the conversation – might have something to offer. I am thinking of : (a)  the resurgence of indigenous practice and ‘traditional knowledge’ [which separate from an instrumental alignment with diversity politics within liberal capitalist states, is not in itself necessarily ‘liberal’ in the sense of being aligned to rational / moral individualism, (individual) human rights (as opposed to say a ‘land ethic’) etc; (b) conservative traditions associated with Aristotelian/Thomist virtue ethics – Macintyre, William Ophuls’ most recent works, Adrian Pabst and John Milbank (c) the social-catholic tradition of distributism (d) any kind of bioregionalism – if taken seriously ….all of which would be well placed to have an interesting conversation with   (e) certain anarchist traditions, some (f)  libertarian ideas (e.g. Kevin Carson’s Homebrew Industrial Revolution) ,  (g) Wendell Berry (a tradition of his own),  (h)William Morris etc.

The problem we have now is not simply or even most importantly the denial of climate science. It is a discourse that aligns denialism versus truth/facticity, with right versus left, and good versus bad. A conversation across the lines can’t take place when the choice is Clinton versus Trump; and it will never take place when liberals think that they have all the answers, that the science of climate change doesn’t pose terminal/existential questions to both the consumer economy BUT ALSO cosmopolitan diversity politics AND social democratic redistributive projects. As far as I can see, with regard to climate, Trump, Clinton, Obama and Trudeau are on the same side. I am with Paul Kingsnorth on that.  Look at Trudeau! – Could there be a more attractive poster-boy for progressive politics? – He just signed off on pipe-lines for big oil!  Clinton/Obama – global free-traders on steroids.  In what way is he, or are they, more progressive than a pro-life conservative Catholic distributist who would at the same time challenge the market economy and wants a more embedded but culturally conservative form of political economy involving substantial aspects of livelihood, gift economy, reciprocity – and a definition of the good life that centres family over wealth/acquisition and consumption?  Both sides are in denial. Self-preservation might lead me to side with the distributist…without any illusions. But there may be really interesting possibilities that we can’t see for want of a conversation across the tracks.

Some references:

The Manifesto


University Sustainability: Ritualizing Green Communion

University Sustainability: Ritualizing Green Communion

After 1970, universities around the world embraced the idea of sustainable development. Faculties were established. New departments and schools created. Thousands of courses were developed to explore the logic and implications of the new science of sustainability – across every discipline, from Sociology and Politics to Ecology, Earth Science, Engineering and English. Tens of thousands of universities and colleges have sustainability policies, committees and dedicated officers, student clubs and festivals. The mantra has been strong. Hundreds of thousands of students have been trained. But the effects of all of this activity have been underwhelming at best but in reality, negligible, compared to the scale of the problem. The main reason for this is that the focus has been mainly a scientific understanding of the problem and the development of rational interventions to address it. Both the scientific models and the proposed interventions take as their starting point, the ontology of rational individualism. They focus on ‘knowledge’ and ‘data’ to provide a starting point for civic exhortation to rational citizens at the ballot box and incentive structures directed at rational consumers. What they do not do is attempt to create ideologies or to mobilize collective spiritual or psycho-analytical drivers of group behaviour. Almost no universities consider psychoanalytical, spiritual, religious or ritual themes as central components of sustainability research, curricula or management practice. Most don’t consider them at all. And yet a simple ecumenical act such as holding hands at a set time each day, and every day and perhaps some kind of symbolic enactment of reciprocity and breaking bread, could provide an easy way to ritualize both the cognitive dissonance between the sphere of scientific model-making that provides the dynamic rationale for modern universities, and the relational context for (ecological) conscience formation that echoes the spiritual purpose of monasteries from which universities emerged during the early modern period.

Some observations on sincerity, ritual and moral outrage on the Interweb

Moral outrage is self-serving say the psychologists – a form of virtue-signalling that serves to insulate the outraged against feelings of guilt and culpability.  The link is here:

It’s an interesting piece of research, and has much relevance to the tenor of the debates in which I find myself involved on social media but also in academia.  Intuitively, it seems to me that these dynamics are exacerbated by virtual interaction on the Interweb.  In an online spat, abstract ethical mores and principles are not tempered or filtered through real, complex, multi-dimensional people and relationships, in real places. The echo-chamber effect ensures that, increasingly, we live and communicate within self-policing bubbles which minimize any real diversity of opinion. If you think I am overstating the problem, just try venturing onto Facebook with even a hypothetical and timid pro-life opinion or perhaps a tentatively pro-Brexit analysis of the EU politics, or if your friends are conservatives you could say something nice about Hilary Clinton. Either way, prepare to be pilloried, insulted and dismissed with every ad-hominem play imaginable. Prepare for anything, in fact, but a reasonable exchange of views.

The reason is something to do with what Ulrich Beck referred to as hyper-individualization. The disembedding of individuals from place-bound communities, and ascribed social and occupational roles, is synonymous with modernization. To be modern is to be able to ask questions such as ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What can I become?’ This hallmark of modernity is less the freeing-up of individuals and more the creation, for the first time in human history, of the individual as a unit of both social organization and consciousness. The process has a great deal to do with capitalist political economy  (after Karl Polanyi) but also with changes in forms of consciousness that followed in the wake of mass literacy (after Walter Ong).  What is absolutely true is that the sense of ‘self’ as rattling around a relatively, hermetically-sealed individual body [Descartes’ ‘cogito ergo sum’] – is not, as was imagined by Enlightenment philosophers,  a universal feature of human nature. Elias referred to this modern self-perception as the ‘thinking statue’ image of the psyche. For most of human existence, consciousness was much less individuated, only marginally concerned with the idea of a self carving an individual path or a career through time, from past to future. This much more ‘we-mediated’ mode of thinking matched the totalizing experience of the hunter-gather band as the condition and conduit for living any kind of expression. As Walter Ong showed, it was only with mass literacy that the ‘interiorization’ of a self-reflective, introspective, individual, narrating consciousness of the kind we take for granted, was able to emerge.

Although it is invidious to compare such different ways of being, probably most people would consider this process of individuation a social advance – a kind of progress. After all, every significant aspect of social emancipation since the abolition of slavery has been framed and achieved traction on the back of the idea of individual human rights, proclaimed most cogently by Tom Paine and Mary Wolstonecraft.  Nevertheless, all of this progress doesn’t come without a cost.  I have written elsewhere about the ecological cost of the cultural complexity. But carried to its logical conclusion, there are other costs associated with this ‘society of individuals’ – pathologies relating initially to neurosis and mental health, but now spilling over into the spheres of politics and culture.

Adam Seligman distinguishes between ‘sincerity’ and ‘ritual’ as two ubiquitous modes of human symbolic interaction and expression. The trope of sincerity is predicated upon individual expression and behaviour as a true and unvarnished representation of an internal ‘self’, conceived of as  an essential  spiritual core. Ritual by contrast, involves conventional behaviour which is socially orientated to achieve results but makes no assumptions about any relation to an putative internal essence of self.  Ritual works by creating and recreating subjunctive ‘as if’ worlds, modes of engagement with other people that have much in common with play. According to Seligman, the sincerity trope emerged as a quintessential modern orientation to social action with the protestant reformation, and the idea of a relation between God and the individual, unmediated by the institutions and rituals of the Church. In the context of an expanding social division of  ‘free’ wage labour, the sincere, ‘rational’, mobile individual  relatively unhindered by attachments to place, community, tribe and even family,  has become the animating agent of every modern institution, from the courts, romantic love and education, to the economy and the institutions of electoral democracy. Rational choice theory in the social sciences and homo economicus  in economics are a reflection of this transformation and represent a warped reflection of reality. Such modern individuals habitually construe social interaction whether in Church or the market place, in terms of a sincere reflection of a unified and integral but bounded and separate self – the real ‘me’.  As George Fox would have said ”my word is my bond’.

For Seligman, the balance between sincerity and ritual has shifted too far towards the former. Sincerity is a trope shared by Jihadis and Christian fundamentalists. It makes rubbing along with people who hold different beliefs difficult and compromise often all but impossible. Ritual, by contrast has an important, but now largely unappreciated, role in managing difference and problem of co-existence, not by collapsing or eliminating incompatible categories or ways of thinking. But by playfully engendering temporary ‘as if’ modus operandi that allow life to carry on whilst minimizing conflict. Seligman’s message is simple. If you want a diverse multipolar, multicultural society to work, you need to bring back ritual and put sincerity back on a leash. Too much sincerity causes irreconcilable conflict. Ritual creates scope for people to grow together, unwittingly and unconsciously.

It is a great book and well worth reading. Once tuned into the tension between ritual and sincerity, you begin to see sincerity everywhere, and you see the damage it can do.  North American culture is famously concerned with ‘feelings’.  Where a BBC commentator will focus on some structural or dynamic feature of a topic (‘Who is suppling this rebel group in Somalia? Who did you talk to on the ground’), a CBC interviewer will quickly focus on the individual experience (‘How did it make you feel, to be in a war-zone?’). And of course identity politics is supremely concerned with experience and feelings – claims of white privilege, gender and racial experience, class authenticity, sexuality etc., all serve (i.) to establish an authentic and truthful expression of an essential self (a metonym for a a wider group or corporate self: ‘I’m a woman, and I can speak for women’) and (ii.) to establish an  hierarchy of inverted privilege that determines who should speak and be heard. I’m not of course making any claims about the veracity of oppression and inequality.  The issue is about the role of identity, the overarching concern with a highly interiorized and abstract sense of self together with a teleology of progress and perhaps even manifest destiny, all combine to guarantee polarization and conflict and preclude, perhaps, more practical and effective measures that might be worked out in the playful ‘as if’ spaces opened up by ritual.

More generally, in liberal and social democratic circles (for Europeans), online debate is becoming more and more concerned with symbolic political-philosophical ‘selfies’ — protestations of outrage, affiliation, identity that establish a boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and confirm, to all who will listen (as Peter Seeger once asked ) whose side we are on.

This on-line culture of virtue-signalling and political identity posturing is certainly sincere and heartfelt. That is the problem. It leaves no room for playful, hypothetic explorations of alternative political fault-lines, different coalitions of interest. It denies the possibility of growing together, unwittingly – an accidental rapprochement. Sincerely articulated political ‘positions’ become like World War One trenches. The only path forward is annihilation or total surrender and ‘transformation’. It is no accident that Protestantism  was  and is often associated with evangelical conversion. You can’t live with or alongside Pagans.

But the Facebook culture of liberals and cosmopolitans is becoming steadily less tolerant, more theological and more orthodox (doctrinaire as opposed to the looser habits of ‘orthopraxis’ – seeing what works).

We are becoming narcissistic, unhinged, egos floating around in a cartoon landscape of goodies and baddies; and by pointing at the silhouetted monster we can forget just how integrated we are into every bit of this system. Greens lambast consumer culture on uber-smart MacBook Pros (that’s me by the way); feminists demand free childcare on demand, but ignore the ecological costs of economic growth that is necessary to generate the fiscal transfers to pay for it; they ignore also very real evidence as to the importance of parent/mother-child attachment during the early years – and the possibility that working motherhood might be a zero-sum game; cosmopolitan liberals attack the stupidity of the masses as they trip and skip up the dark mountain of populism, whilst ignoring the very real differences between the winners and losers of globalization…I could go on, and this is a self-critique as much as an attack on liberal-left culture. It is easier to point at a baddie and signal our own virtue than to really acknowledge our embeddedness  in the system – the small child-slaves mining cobalt in African to power our smart phones.

But this is definitely not about hypocrisy. That is another ‘sincerity trope’. Facebook is the uber-vehicle for sincerity. The pub is a vehicle for ritual togetherness. Conversations that you can have in a pub in which context, nuance, body language and self-deprecating honesty and a practical need to rub along, all take the edge off mutual antagonism, differences of interest and perspective. The digital version is devoid of irony, paradox ….and often, of humanity (even when the finger pointing and accusations are in the name of that elusive relationship). ‘You’re a  bastard [fascist/liberal/man/deviant/white/immigrant]…and I’m ok’.  Hence the unconsciously ‘self-serving’ nature of moral outrage.

There is a psychoanalytical framework we work with at Waterloo called ‘terror management theory’. It stems from the work of Ernest Becker and is pretty well substantiated in experimental psychology.  A major finding /theme is that if you put the thought of ‘death’ into someone’s mind (‘a death prime’), they will, more often than not, become more defensive of their in-group and worldview, more hostile to out-group/other world views. Christians become more Christian; Muslims more Muslim; greens more green; consumers more likely to consume; liberals more hostile to conservatives etc. In TMT language, a death prime leads people to become more engaged with their existing hero/immortality protects i.e. the culturally sanctioned activities and beliefs through which all people accrue social prestige, feelings of self-worth, the sense that the cosmos is meaningful and either literal immortality (e.g. the Christian afterlife) or symbolic immortality – achieved by psychoanalytical projection onto an ‘immortal’ corporate self [‘Manchester United’] or the creation of legacy projects (e.g. Trump Tower).

The Rothschild and Keefer study referred to above (‘Moral Outrage is Self-serving’) fits very well with hundreds of TMT studies. Given that the virtual world lowers the transaction costs associated with dissing the opposition and increases the relative costs of real-time, real world interaction /exchange ….it points to a future of exponentially increasing, self-serving moral outrage; collapsing shared norms and political consensus; increasingly severe legitimation crises; conflict and eventually violence.  The funny thing is that in numerous media presentations of TMT over the last year, they invariably show someone with a Nazi flag, as if this stuff only applies to populists and fascists. It absolutely doesn’t. It applies just as much to liberals and people who pride themselves on a kind of even-tempered rational problem solving approach to politics. Liberals are increasingly just as intolerant as conservatives. In my own domain, you will get endless forms of diversity paraded on university campuses as a testament to free-will and tolerance – except diversity of perspective. You will find almost no conservatives – whether theological, free-market, Burkean ….whatever brand; very few ‘out’ Christians.  And I think compared even to when we were undergraduates,  conversation /debate across very real intellectual-political silos is almost non-existent.  It will end in tears…More tears I should say.

There is something that we can do about it however. We can go to the pub (or the Church/Mosque). We can talk and interact with people and suspend judgement and try to ritualize forms of engagement that place much less emphasis on sincerity and the ubiquity of the endless self-narrating, authentic individual who is consistent, articulate, and coherent. Instead we could try to create social contexts in which it is taken for granted that people are chaotic, incoherent, inconsistent and often discontinuous. Our verbal expressions and states of mind are often defined by the social-psychological situation, as much or more than by some preconceived ideological outlook. We are different people with wives, husbands, grannies, kids, strangers.  We need less to look for sincerity and more to look for playful joie de vivre – not an intellectual habit of mind or an ideological position, but an emotional habit of humour and good nature.  Most people are good, and better in some contexts than others. Like horse whispering or dog training, the secret to success is leading the mind through the body – or rather through the contiguities of bodies in social contexts which are not about sincere linguistic expressions of self but somatic evocations of our underlying good nature as human beings. Break bread, walk along-side, drink with……make love to….but [note to self] don’t look to be right, to agree, to win an argument.

Becker, E. (1997) The denial of death. 1973. New York: Free Press

Dickinson, J. (2009) ‘The people paradox: Self-esteem striving, immortality ideologies, and human response to climate change’ Ecology and Society14(1). THIS HAS A GREAT SHORT REVIEW OF TMT and available here:

Elias, N. (1991) The Society of Individuals, edited by Michael Schröter translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York & London: Basil Blaekwell, 182.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and literacy. Routledge, 2013.

Polanyi, K. (1944). The great transformation: Economic and political origins of our time. Rinehart, New York.

Seligman, A. B., Weller, R. P., & Michael, J. (2008). Ritual and its consequences: An essay on the limits of sincerity. Oxford University Press.

Rothschild, Z.K. & Keefer, L.A. ‘A cleansing fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity’ in Motivation and Emotions (2017). doi:10.1007/s11031-017-9601-2 – available with google I think

Mash-up modernity:  The meaning of life, political economy and disruptive technology  


This is a draft of something we may be offering at the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics (CANSEE) in the Autumn. It’s effectively my summary of the relationship between the three strands in our political ecology i.e. ontology and meaning frameworks; alternative political economy; and technology/innovation.  What it boils down to is the proposition that if there is a way out of the mess, if we are to find some ‘sweet spot’, it will be a hidden, overlooked valley in the landscape of possible societal configurations. Occupying this valley would certainly mean trade offs, and relinquishing some cherished features of our liberal society.  There may be some benefits along the way. But getting there won’t be incremental or gradual. It will be a crazy non-linear rollercoaster.  Anyway, this is our starting point. I will make changes and extend over the next couple of weeks

Nb: Katie Kish told me the term ‘steam punk’ was passe and nerdish and not one to use – something to do with ‘Will Smith’ who ever he is. This is a shame because it does capture very well the idea of paradoxical ‘out of time’ recombinations. In evolutionary ecology, recombination of existing genes, traits or genetic possibilities often provides a vehicle for flexible adaptation to new circumstances. The process of ‘neotenization’ used the retention of juvenile characteristics as a source of speedy flexible behavioural adaptation during the Pleistocene. Neoteny is a feature of all domesticates including human beings; and the circumstances that evoked it were the  empty and opportunity-rich landscapes that opened in the wake of periodically retreating ice-sheets. Evolution is slow. The speediness derived from the fact that the novelty consisted of elaborating and extending behavioural and physiological features already present during the usually temporary youthful stage of development i.e. using changes and possibilities already present in the ontogenetic development ‘programme’ in new ways by tweaking their timing and duration. Dogs are sexually precocious wolf-puppies, just as humans are Peter Pan derivates of ancestral hominids. In a similar sense, steam punk envisages the  ‘out of sync’ recombination of social and technological features derived from different societal-technical phases of development: think Internet with permaculture; BitCoin with a re-emerging gift economy; high speed rail with electric bikes; continuing medical innovation with a re-acceptance of aging and death; scientific method and modelling with ritual, ceremony and a resurgent belief in fairies.  Steam punk futures are less onward and upward, and more a simultaneous movement into the future, the past and strange lateral or counterfactual presents. This is really what we are interested in. Can a post-consumer, more place-bound, more enchanted, more bioregional form of society find ways to sustain high-tech innovation, medicine, global integration and social diversity, albeit in more limited forms and with a massive reduction in the associated ecological footprint?

Anyway apparently, I’m not allowed to say ‘steam punk’, so I need a new metaphor. Answers on a digital postcard (get it?).


Taking both complexity and biophysical limits seriously presents enormous challenges to established, taken-for-granted ethical systems and political assumptions. Unlike mainstream approaches to sustainable development, limits thinking precludes any future predicated upon ongoing growth.  At the same time, the recognition of society as a complex social-ecological  system, does not sit easily with the central trope of ecological economics – the steady state economy (Victor 2008; Daly ****; Jackson 2009). Because complex systems exhibit threshold effects and engender rapid, non-linear transformations (REF), any political process or project of transformation (including the project of environmental politics) is unlikely  to be characterised by incremental, rational problem-solving.  The political impact of systemic growth problems in Europe intimate the kind of instabilities that should be expected. At the same time, the ‘destination’ is also unlikely to exhibit the kind of stability evoked by the term ‘steady state’. This is true of all natural systems, but more so with human culture which through disruptive innovation and what Marx and Schumpeter referred to as ‘creative destruction’ constantly generates ‘contradictions’ – or a tendency towards non-linear upheaval. In this session, we seek to explore the parameters of a possible trajectory of transformation that is obscured by taken-for-granted assumptions about: (i) the relation between science and ontology (meaning); (ii) the relation between the market-state continuum on the one hand and the anachronistic domain of livelihood, reciprocity and gift exchange on the other; and (iii.) the dangerous and potentially liberating potential for new technology to undermine the formal, transactional domains of both the state and market.

  • Ontology and meaning: As Weber demonstrated, disenchantment, rationalization, individualization and secularization have been the handmaidens of modernization. The price for achieving a broadly scientific worldview (logos) as an incredibly effective and powerful ‘means of orientation’ has been a loss of meaning (mythos). The corrosive rationalization of social life has seen a loss of substantive rationality and a reduced capacity for society to generate shared values. The dominance of instrumental ‘means’ over ‘ends’ makes it difficult to engage in the kind of intentional conscience formation and value/behavioural change intimated by the project of sustainability. Science allows us to chart in ever greater detail how we are damaging the biosphere. But it also undermines our capacity for mythos-making i.e for answering ‘why’ questions in  ways that ground behavioural taboos and mandate forms of behaviour that prioritise the ecological commons over individual interests.  The central question facing human beings is whether we can retain a scientific worldview whilst at the same time re-animating our conception of nature and re-enchanting our relation with the Earth.  The discussion will explore the possible role of ritual, cognitive dissonance and earth-based spiritualities to explore whether it is possible to be scientifically literate and to operate within a pragmatic problem-solving worldview whilst at the same time ‘believing in fairies’.
  • Political economy: Taking our cue from Karl Polanyi, capitalist modernization is seen primarily as a process of ‘disembedding’ i.e. the emergence of a transactional economy of increasingly instrumental rational individuals in the context of mutually dependent institutions of state and market. Over the last century, the competing political economies of left and right have taken for granted this landscape – with the focus for contestation being the boundary between the market and the state. A premise of the putative ‘third basin of attraction’ is that the re-emergence of the domain of livelihood – self-sufficient provisioning, maintaining of body and soul in the context of extended family, community and on the basis of gift exchange, reciprocity and ‘barn raising’ – might open new ways for security, welfare and livelihood to be achieved without the continual expansion of the state-market society. Such a project resonates with green visions of bioregionalism, anarchist and libertarian visions of the state-less society and social-catholic project of distributism. But by taking Polanyi as a point of departure, this framework describes a region of the ‘state space’ as a flexible and negotiable balance between state, market and livelihood.


  • Steampunk tech: Marx identified disruptive innovation as the central driver of capitalist modernization. Since the Second World War, mass production has been linked systemically to mass consumption. Consumerism and market-led innovation have become tied umbilically to the Promethean pace of technological progress.  New technological developments now threaten to unravel this growth dynamic.  Micro-process technology, miniaturisation and developments such as 3D printing are making it conceivable to bring much manufacture back into domestic and community settings – effectively reversing the process of centralization that started with modern factories and giving rise to a renaissance of cottage industry. In some ways this could be very positive, putting the means of livelihood back into the hands of ordinary people for the first time since the 18th But there are also real dangers. The informalization of the economy in this way could strip out enormous ecological waste – not only in relation to packaging and transport, but in the emergence of peer-to-peer production models that privilege design for infinite repair, maintenance and longevity.  But informal production is by definition invisible to the state – and non-taxable. Informalization on any scale would rapidly generate a fiscal crisis and erode all kinds of publically-funded infrastructures, from schools, hospitals and roads to the military. Such steam-punk technological innovation will necessarily lead to the informalization of public infrastructure provision. Whether such a process is experienced as emanicipatory or progressive will depend very much on the terms upon which this process takes place.

Guest Blog: Jack Lovell — ‘Do Earth-based spiritualities belong in Modernity?’

Do Earth-based spiritualities belong in Modernity?

It’s a little disturbing watching the news these days. Dominated by reports of the new president Donald Trump, and his coterie of climate change deniers and fossil fuel executives,  it causes me to pause and reflect about kind of future that lies ahead for my sons. But to be fair, the serious environmental problems likely to associated with the new Trump regime are not so new. They actually began long before this past American election. The existential problem faced by humanity, and indeed all life-forms on Earth, can really be traced back at least two hundred years to the Industrial Revolution, and perhaps even further back still, to the forced imposition of Christianity onto my own Indigenous Northern European ancestors at the point of Roman swords. These events inaugurated a process which has completely changed humanity’s relationship with the biosphere. Centuries of intolerance, church-sponsored violence, inquisition and murder of those who practiced the ancient knowledge of the forest, nearly ended the time-less wisdom of European indigenous ancestors and their integral relationship to the natural world — a magical cosmology into which humans were immersed both materially and spiritually for untold millenia. Well, I did say ‘nearly’.  Across the Western world, re-constructed nature-based religions such as Druidism and Wicca, (lumped together as Paganism) have experienced a dramatic resurgence, particularly in Britain since the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951.
In a September, 2010 a landmark decision made by the Charity Commission for England and Wales granted legal charitable status and constitution of the Druid Network. For the first time in Britain’s history, legal status was granted to a Pagan organisation, the Druid Network. The Charity Commission accepted the constitution of the Druid Network organization that, among other things, construed Druidry as a religion. Here are two key statements taken from Annex 1, page 17, describing both the definition of Druidry and key attributes of indigenous British spirituality as articulated by the Druid Network:
1. Druidry was the native spiritual tradition of the peoples who inhabited the islands of Britain and Ireland, spreading through much of Europe. It is increasingly understood, and within the Network acknowledged, to be of an older indigenous, ever-evolving religion sourced within these islands.
2. As an ancient pagan religion, Druidry is based upon the reverential, sacred and honourable relationship between the people and the land. In its personal expression, modern Druidry is the spiritual interaction between an individual and the spirits of nature, including those of ancestry, together with the continuities of spiritual, literary and cultural heritage.

The document granting legal recognition of the Druid Network provided a foundational definition of Druidry, while rejecting the popular misconceptions of Druid involvement in ritual murder and Satanism, as importantly critical points in the Commissions decision. However, as much as change in the nature of religion seems inevitable, the line which once separated mainstream institutional religion and Earth-based spirituality appears to be an inconsistent and opaque one. Among the foremost academic authorities on pre-Christian religion in both modern and ancient Britain, historian Professor Ronald Hutton points to the inconsistencies around mainstream Christian religion in recent times stating:
“In practice a Druid component functioned as an expression of modern Welsh Christianity. Most of its Arch druids in the early and mid twentieth century were clergy including Methodists, Congregationalists, a Baptist and a Church of Wales minister. It was entirely in accordance with this tradition that the Welshman Rowan Williams was initiated as an honorary Druid in 2002, with the name Rowan ap Neirin, after being made Archbishop of Canterbury” (Hutton, 2010).

But I wonder if the nature of this change could take the form of a melding between an, ‘institutional’ and ‘non-institutional’ world-view in the genesis of a new form of social hierarchy — a melding that that rejects the mass-socialisation of dominant neoliberal doctrines so firmly entrenched within modern economic theory? Can Earth-based religion re-invigorate modern imaginations and spirituality, from the timeless self-perpetuating wonders constituting our natural ecology, from the planetary movement of the Sun, Moon and planets? It would seem so, at least to some extent, as the comeback of indigenous Earth based spiritualities seems to represent a viable spiritual alternative to growing numbers of people. These are people perceiving the spectre of imminent and suicidal degradation of our finite biosphere by the dominant institutionalised forces of capitalism, and who seek to find meaning in their lives outside of captive consumer cultures. English anthropologist Dr. Susan Greenwood points out that it was Darwin himself, who restored the idea that human beings are part of a totality, that we are part of nature Greenwood (2005), in her essay “Of Worms, Snakes and Dragons”, she suggests religion has an omnipresent existence in humanity, and that the nature of and substance of religion is in a state of constant evolution.

The epistemological conceptions of Druidism, as with all Earth-based spiritualities, may appear ‘radical.’ But provide a framework and foundation that could, perhaps, help catalyse future socio-economic alternatives to re-dress some of the worst excesses of rampant consumerism, as just one hallmark of Western industrial society.
Conceptually, Earth-based spiritualities may actually facilitate new and innovative socio-economic human pathways by viewing Earth’s research rich ecology and less as a commodity, and more as shared community space. Such a space might be enriched by an infinite variety of goods made (once again) by small-scale crafts people building their housing, food, and livelihoods from materials local to their region. The continuing world-wide growth of Earth-based, animistic spiritualities may help bring about real change to a failing Eurocentric socio-economic narrative, by catalysing an enriching alternative to the monotheism of ‘progress’ and neoliberal globalism. Perhaps humanity can have the best of repairable technology while finding its back towards renewed notions of community and oneness contained within it. In the face of climate change, growing resource scarcity we must ask ourselves the serious question if religion will return again to its ancient, but universal earth-based roots, in time?
J. Lovell END 983 words.

Does God suffer from stomach ulcers: When talking becomes impossible

Trump versus Clinton; Brexit; migration; European populism – things are getting more than a little tetchy right now. I don’t think I can remember a time when western societies were so polarised – even in the 1970s. I can’t remember a time when even good friends, lovers, spouses were avoiding certain conversations, having lost the capacity to have a frank exchange of views without the danger of lasting damage to the relationship. What is clear from both Brexit and the Trump/Clinton campaign, is that it is becoming a collision of different cognitive realities. There seems now no basis for even the most minimal level of mutual comprehension that one would need for a conversation. In the old days, Marxists and Popperian/Hayekian liberals were at least intelligible to each other. They argued about capitalism and the nature of history and human rationality. Now I think you would have a better chance at a reasonable exchange of views between a clown fish and a gut bacterium in a camel. Living in such different circumstances and experiencing the world in such different ways, there would be very little chance of these interlocutors, coming to understand that the coral reef and the small intestine of a camel in the Sahara desert … are in fact part of the same universe and subject to the same basic laws. But following from this, perhaps a stranger thought is that actually to have an insight into both of these worlds, and indeed to have friends in both worlds – one might expect to have a God-like experience of omnipotent understanding. To understand both the coral reef and the camel’s intestine; and also to have some kind of picture of their position and interrelation within the encompassing system of the biosphere – well surely this should at least give a person the frisson of the All-father. But in fact, such a wide vision induces instead a feeling of abject futility –because you know that bacteria and clown fish will never see the world through the same eyes. The bacterium of course doesn’t even have eyes. Anyway I was thinking about this, and it suddenly struck me that God must be so gut wrenchingly stressed and pissed off –all the time. S/he must have very bad ulcers – because that’s God’s multiple reality: to know the world of the bacterium and the clownfish, the camel and the coral, and a zillion others – and to know also that they will never be able to talk to each other. Like organising a party in a 100 different dimensions and inviting one guest from each dimension only – and being the only person in the room who can see all the others. I wouldn’t want that job.

Identity politics, community, state formation and modernity in Europe and America: Some basic propositions

What does the long arc of human development tell us about the current disarray of liberal societies on both sides of the Atlantic?  Here are a number of observations and propositions that draw upon work by Max Weber, Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi, Norbert Elias, Johan Goudsblom, Ernest Gellner, William Ophuls, Benedict Anderson and others. My aim is to condense some very basic ‘ground rules’ for thinking about liberal politics in an era of limits.  So first of all, here are some guiding propositions:

  1. For most of human history people lived in small communities attached to particular places. In these basic survival units, the ‘we’ dominated the ‘I’. Individuals literally didn’t understand themselves as the kind of separate egos that every single one of us living in a complex industrial society experiences as a normal frame of reference. As anthropologists discovered, it is very hard for people in modern societies to really understand how people in such pre-modern, we-dominated societies saw the world.

2. Democratic liberal states are synonymous with a ‘society of individuals.’

  • Societies of individuals are not natural. Nor are they universal. They are historically very specific forms that emerged first of all in the process of European state-formation.

3. Nation-state formation is a process that invariably involved/involves the violent suppression of alternative (family, tribe, place, linguistic – based) forms of association and identity.

4. Liberal societies are rarely if ever produced by liberal means. They depend not only upon this ‘original sin’ – but on the continuing (and periodically exercised) monopoly of violence.

5. Failed states in areas such as the Middle East often reflect the failure to complete or even start this coercive process of individualization. There may be a great deal of violence – but it has not been directed towards the creation of a society of individuals.

6. Post-1989, the hubris and naivety of western policy was often to imagine that a society of individuals could be created by diktat, as an effect of the idea itself and without an extended process of coercion. In the absence of such a society of individuals, the institutions of liberal democracy at best provide a gloss for existing power relations between sub-national (tribal, ethnic, religious) we-groupings.

7. In such a situation, as a Chinese student once observed ‘democracy is unfair because big families get more votes’.

8. All forms of citizenship must be exclusive. Citizens are defined by rights and obligations not available to or incumbent upon non-citizens. In western countries, welfare states depend absolutely upon the state’s capacity to limit entitlement. Welfare states are by definition forms of exclusive solidarity. No exclusion, no solidarity, no social compact.

9. Modern citizenship is defined by the subsequent relationship between the imagined or (symbolically consanguineous) community of the nation-state (‘family’) and the individual. Every modern institution is predicated on this dyadic relation between individual and state.

10. Such ‘imagined communities’ (the term is Benedict Anderson’s) are not rooted in empirical truths, nor ethically consistent narratives of social justice. The clue is in the name. They are ‘imagined’. But they work. They function and they are necessary prerequisites for social solidarity.

11. This relationship between citizenship, the imagined national community and individual identity has really significant implications for both the prospects for the European Union and the possibility of progressive politics.

12. States are jealous gods: The EU cannot become a state nor European identity an effective basis for citizenship, without dismantling competing national forms of identity.

13. Within states, social homogeneity makes it easier to secure social cohesion through a social compact i.e. generous redistribution through the fiscal-welfare system. Greater diversity (though good for growth and innovation) makes such a social compact harder to sustain. Fiscal transfers between non-mutually-identifying groups are likely to be seen as less legitimate.

14. Foregrounding class-based politics is more likely to provide the basis for a solidaristic social compact. By drawing attention to unbridgeable differences, the foregrounding of identity politics is likely to undermine a broader social compact.

15. All of this goes a long way to explaining what is going on in both Europe and the United States. In Europe the misadventure of the Eurozone, free movement of labour and the migrant crisis have combined to wrench apart the social compact between citizens and the state, undermining the both the state’s capacity to redistribute through the fiscal-welfare system whilst at the same time blurring the basis of entitlement and the boundary upon which the exclusive solidarity has always been based. With the emergence of identity politics, tensions around the binary basis of citizenship have spilled over into the internal political landscape.

16. In the United States, ethnic and religious diversity and the historical legacy with respect to slavery and colonization, have always weakened the possibility for a redistributive social compact (compare Sweden in the 1970s). But economic crisis combined, the absolute failure of Democratic presidencies to tackle class-based inequality and create an enduring social compact and now with the re-racialization of American politics

And on this basis, what tentative conclusions may be drawn about our present predicament?

Assuming for a moment, the continuing viability of liberal growth societies:

  1. Identity politics is killing the left, making liberal pluralism untenable, undermining the legitimacy of the redistributive social compact and opening up opportunities for right wing populists to develop an agenda around welfare and a different kind of social compact. It is having this effect because it inevitably draws a ring around and validates intermediate we-groupings that contravene the relationship between state and individual.
  2. A discourse of ‘white privilege’ can only create an essential division – because it relates to a historical narrative of ‘sins of fathers’. Its embrace on campus gives a misleading impression of its effects and consequences in society – because, by definition, it makes a solidaristic cross-class, cross-racial imagined community impossible.
  • Black pride, must evoke white pride.
  • Scottish nationalism, pushed far enough will evoke English nationalism – such that the ‘Barnett formula’ that secures disproportionate fiscal transfers between southern England and Scotland (‘we are all British after all’), breaks down (‘why are English taxpayers funding Scottish unemployment?’) .

3. Class politics has a more muted impact in this regard because class identity is not essential and can in principle bring the great mass of the population into a symbolically consanguineous national family (as in 1970s Sweden or Norway).

4. But we also need to ensure social-cohesion and national ‘we identities’. The multiculturalist world of infinitely spiralling differences and identities – has either failed or is becoming frail, and certainly continues to undermine our collective capacities to solve problems and look after each other. This is because collective action problems hinge on trust, confidence and mutual understanding.

5. At the very least, this implies that for a social compact to function, there needs to be universal access to a common language. Left-liberal unease with coercive link between social citizenship and language learning fails to recognise the sociological basis of solidarity in mutual identification. The latter is not a rational choice made by ethically progressive (or not) individuals. It is a pre-cognitive affective-emotional function of culture and psychology. Separate language groups are incompatible with the society of individuals.

Breaking with the assumption of business as usual and recognising biophysical limits to growth, the background assumption of a society of individuals – and therefore the functioning of liberal /democratic societies – becomes problematic.

6. Left/liberal progressives and free market conservatives understand the world in terms of a series of binary oppositions between left/right, market/state. Problems of ecology and the resurgent small ‘c’ conservative understanding of community, sufficiency and virtue (e.g. associated with the social catholic tradition of Distributism) open up all sorts of different possibilities and combinations. The left has been much slower in recognising these possibilities than the right.

7. You can’t have everything. Finger-pointing, ad hominem attacks on identifiable baddies, obscure the need for very difficult trade-offs, compromises and wicked tensions. So for instance:

  • There is a real tension between the exclusive solidarity of a national society of individuals on the one hand, and diversity and mass migration on the other.
  • There is equally a tension between the fiscal transfers that underpin the social compact of capitalist welfare states (and so social cohesion and political stability) and the integrity of the biosphere.
  • Migration and diversity promote growth: bad for the environment/good for social cohesion.
  • Conditions of greater diversity require greater social expenditures to secure social cohesion (e.g. 250 languages spoken in London, require enormous expenditures in translation services to secure a minimally functioning legal system in which individuals are equal under the law).

8 .In an ecologically-constrained post-capitalist world, we probably need less state and more community, less corporate monopoly and more small scale, place-bound livelihood, less global Market and more local markets.

9. But this intimates a real tension with the society of individuals as local, place, familial and community affiliations disrupt the unitary relation between individual and state.

10. A viable future is likely to be more communitarian: We need less emphasis on rights and more on obligations. Individuals can’t and shouldn’t escape from the duty of care to each other, to families, to communities, to children – but that care can’t be routinely outsourced to either the market or the state. A viable future will involve much more breaking bread, reciprocity and mutual obligation – but much less expansion of welfare services provided by the state. The expansion of childcare, social services, disability services – can’t be guaranteed, should not be expected and certainly should not become the over-arching focus for progressive politics. If gender equality in both the labour market and the household, are priorities, we need to find other ways to secure these objectives – ways that don’t lean so heavily on fiscal transfers from a growing economy.

11. Spirituality and re-enchantment are vital for any kind of sane relationship with the biosphere. The individualization and rationalization of motivation and behaviour have been a hallmark of modernity. But an economy and society premised upon preference seeking individual rationality provide little basis for self-restraint. It is an open question as to whether re-discovering the technics of ritual, embracing the narrative of ‘Big History’ and finding some positive way to accommodate cognitive dissonance, the ‘re-enchantment of the world’ can be reconciled with a broadly scientific worldview.

Masters and Ph.D Opportunities

Masters and Ph.D. Opportunities

School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS), Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo

Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR)


BREAKING NEWS:  Full funding for one Ph.D 

 Looking for students interested in working on projects relating to environmental politics and either paganism/heathenry or preppers and off-grid survivalism (with fieldwork on the American Redoubt movement). I would also be interested in hearing from students with an interest in the Canadian fiddle music and step dancing and the political sociology of class, rurality, pioneering/settlement and First Nations in the national self-identity.


Topics: Limits to Growth, Political Economy, Spirituality & Radical Ontologies, Environmental Politics, Energy/Complexity, Indigenous Politics, Resources, reMaker society, Open-source Economics, Distributism, Transition, Degrowth, neo-Paganism, preppers and prepping

Disciplinary background:  historical sociology, social/analytical psychology, social anthropology, ecological economics, history, human ecology, pagan studies, environmental studies, radical geography, Big History

For further details contact:  Dr Stephen Quilley



Academic papers:


 Biophysical limits to growth are back on the agenda – whether under the guise of ‘planetary boundaries’ (Rockstrom et al 2009) or the possibility of global economic collapse (Turner 2014), worst-case climate scenarios (Barnofsky and Hadley 2012) and environment-related geo-political crises resulting in regional wars, mass migration and political disorder. Mainstream approaches to sustainable development (‘smart growth’, ‘ecological modernization’, ‘green-tech’, ‘social-ecological innovation’, ‘environmental governance’) have not delivered the promised paradigmatic transformation of behaviour, institutions, economic systems and values. The discourse of resilience together with the concept of the Anthropocene underline a dramatic sea-change in the ethos of modern societies. Although ‘business as usual’ continues to provide the default setting, the unthinking assumption of socio-economic progress is giving way to a growing insecurity at the level of both individuals and societies.

Applying the insights of complex systems, we use the heuristic of a gravitational landscape metaphor. Global capitalism, the consumer society and growth-driven modernization has proved to be phenomenally deep and resilient ‘basin of attraction’.  Limits to growth and climate change are making this basin shallower and less resilient. Non-linear system change may result in systemic collapse. But it may also engender a shift to more communitarian, post-capitalist, alternative forms of modernity. We are interested in developing projects that explore the latter. Specific areas of interest include:

  • The economic anthropology of Karl Polanyi: the concept of dis- (re)embedding, modernization and the relationship between state/market and individualization
  • Norbert Elias & ecological civilizing processes
  • Ernest Becker, ‘terror management theory’ and green hero/immortality projects
  • Radical ontologies, neo-paganism and ritual – and environmental politics
  • Open-source economics, craft and the Maker movement
  • T Odum, energy, complexity and civilization
  • Environmental politics and limits to growth
  • Migration, diversity and the wicked dilemmas of low energy cosmopolitan/liberal societies
  • Indigenous politics, limits to growth and an ‘alternative modernity’
  • The politics and political economy or degrowth, Transition towns
  • Environmental politics and the prepper movement
  • Radical political economy – theory and social history (guilds, Social Credit, basic income, William Morris, Chester-Belloc, Henry George….to Andre Gorz, regulation theory, anarchism, Libertarianism, Frankfurt School)
  • Social Innovation: theory and strategies for rapid cross-scale change
  • Environmental politics and non-linear change in complex systems
  • Distributism and the ‘Third Way’
  • Permaculture
  • Big History and ontological /epistemological change

 Current student projects

 Katie Kish: Wicked dilemmas of modernity and ecological economics. Katie’s research focuses on the future of modern livelihood with case studies on preppers, makers, and homesteaders.




Perin Ruttonsha: Sustainability Transition within Complex Adaptive Systems:  In her doctoral research, Perin applies concepts from complexity, socio-ecological resilience, social innovation, systemic design, limits to growth, and biomimicry discourses in considering opportunities for systems transformation along sustainability pathways. Central to her work is a process-oriented, relational, multi-layered approach to transition, which iteratively navigates conceptual, technological, and political factors. She is particularly interested in the human dimensions of change and the scaling of complexity through innovation. Website:

 Barb DavyContemporary Paganism and Environmental Politics:  Barb is interested in the role of non-rational drivers in institutional and behavioural change and ecological conscience formation. This involves a critique of the ontological and moral individualism that underlies many otherwise competing political and philosophical perspectives. The project investigates the potential of ritual and processes of re-enchantment in social-ecological transformation.  Points of departure include Turner’s concept of ‘communitas’, the political economy Karl Polanyi and Graham Harvey’s anthropology of the ‘New Animism’.


 Clay Dasilva: Anthropic Imaginaries & Biospheric Realities: Analyzing the Ontology and Normativity of Growth vis-à-vis The Natural Environment

Clay is exploring the range of different perspectives/worldviews with regard to the relationship between human activity, economic growth and the biosphere. Questions include: (1) What are the ontological and politico-normative commitments & assumptions associated with such perspectives (2) To what extent are such ontological commitments and assumptions tenable and evidence-based? (3) How do individuals and groups understand the directions in which society (variously) could, should and cannot go in light of such ontological commitments and worldviews?



Katharine Zywert: Limits to growth, health systems and an alternative modernity: Katharine’s research investigates functional models for health systems in an era of constrained economic growth and social-ecological instability. In the Anthropocene, trends such as declining resource and energy flows, fiscal constraints, the extinction of medicinal plant species, changing ecologies of disease, and aging demographics are converging to transform health and medicine. Using ethnographic methods, I aim to identify social arrangements for health systems that can secure both human wellbeing and environmental sustainability over the long-term.




Some Points of Departure  


An era of limits:

Barnofsky A.D. & Hadly E.A. et al (2012) ‘Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere’ Nature 486, 52–58 (07 June 2012) doi:10.1038/nature11018

Greer, J.M. (2009) The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a post-peak world (New Society Publishers)

Rockström, J., et al. “A safe operating space for humanity.” Nature 461.7263 (2009): 472-475

Tainter, J. (1990). The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge University Press.

Turner, G. (2014) ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’, MSSI Research Paper No. 4, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.

The state, the market, the ‘I’ and the ‘We’

Polanyi, K. [Dalton, G. Ed. ] (1968). Primitive, archaic, and modern economies: essays of Karl Polanyi (pp. 9-54). New York: Anchor Books.

Elias, N. (1991) The Society of Individuals (Blackwell)

Bauman, Z. (1991) Modernity and Ambivalence (Polity)

Scott, J. (1998) Seeing like a State:  How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed (Yale)

Ontology and non-rational drivers of behavior

Becker, E. (1973) The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press Paperbacks

Turner, E. (2012). Communitas: The anthropology of collective joy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Turner, V. (1995). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Transaction Publishers

Whitehouse, H. (2004). Modes of religiosity: A cognitive theory of religious transmission. Rowman Altamira.

Whitehouse, H., & Lanman, J. A. (2014). The Ties That Bind Us. Current Anthropology, 55(6), 674-695.

Harvey, G. (2005). Animism: Respecting the living world. Wakefield Press.

Radical political economy

Carson, K. (2010) The Homebrew Industrial Revolution (

Pope Francis, (2015) Enciclica Laudato Si  —

Open Source Ecology (2015) ‘Distributive Economics.’ Available at – Accessed 1st Jan 2015.

Polanyi, K. 1944. The Great Transformation (Beacon)


Energy and civilization

Quilley, S. (2011) ‘Entropy, the Anthroposphere and the Ecology of  Civilization: An Essay on the Problem of ‘liberalism in One Village’ in the Long View’ The Sociological Review 59 (June): 65–90. doi:10.1111/j.1467-954X.2011.01979.x.

Environmental politics

Quilley, S.  (2013) ‘De-Growth Is Not a Liberal Agenda: Relocalisation and the Limits to Low Energy Cosmopolitanism’  Environmental Values 22 (2): 261–85.

— (2012). Resilience Through Relocalization: Ecocultures of Transition. Ecocultures Working Paper: 2012–1, University of Essex.

— (2012). System Innovation and a New ‘Great Transformation’: Re-embedding Economic Life in the Context of ‘De-Growth’. Journal of Social Entrepreneurship, 3(2), 206-229.

Ophuls, William. (2011) Plato’s revenge: politics in the age of ecology (MIT Press)

Complexity and the Global Food System

Usually, our papers are written from the premise that in an era of limits, in the Anthropocene, the arc of complexification is unsustainable and thus humanity is presented with a wicked dilemma, namely:

What is the smallest metabolic scale (i.e. the flows of energy and materials sustaining society) and ecological footprint necessary to support a globally integrated, cosmopolitan, liberal-democratic, science-based and technologically progressive civilization?

We use this question repeatedly to explore the implications that our environmental choices have in relation to political economy, culture, and personality structures. If there are indeed limits to complexity (and thus growth), where should we concentrate our efforts and in what areas might we be willing to (or be forced to) change, relinquishing orders of complexity. This raises very difficult questions with regard to many cherished norms and systems in our society such as social cohesion, distribution of wealth, healthcare systems, and personal freedoms.

From a limits perspective the growth in the scale and complexity of human activities is as astonishing as it is unsustainable. At the dawn of the human Odyssey, the human brain itself was possibly the most complex entity in the universe (Chaisson 2001:139). Using a measure of ‘free energy rate density’ measured in ERGS per gramme per second, Chaisson contrasts the complexity of a galaxy (0.5), a planet (75), a typical plant (900), an animal body (20,000), a human brain (150,000) and modern society (500,000). ‘Not surprisingly a group of brainy organisms working collectively is even more complex than the totality of its individual components’ (Chaisson 2001:139). With language and culture the network of connected brains engendered a step change in complexity, in turn accelerated by writing and the integration of human societies across the planet. The connectivity of the Internet represents yet another order of magnitude increase in complexity (McNeill and McNeill 2003, Christian 2005).

What we suggest is that our capacity to manage global life support systems depends upon limiting (see: Peter Victor and Tim Jackson‘s work on ecological economics) or even reversing (see: DeGrowth movement) economic growth, either of which would require limiting the scale of human complexity. The global food system provides some useful examples of what a ‘degrowth’ economy, might involve:

Food systems have always been a significant focus for complexification during the course of human development. At each stage – from hunter-gathering, through simple horticulture, agrarianzation, the development of food markets and food processing, right through to the global agribusiness and food commodity markets – the system-wide embedded energy or ‘transformity’ (Odum 2013) associated with average food items has been rising steadily (Transformity is a measure of energy of one kind needed to make one unit of energy of another kind. It provides a way to conceive the unit energy embedded and transformed across multiple biological and cultural systems and scales in (re)production of a given order of complexity.). This is very clear if one considers the entropic cost associated with rising number of processes involved in production, processing, packaging storage, transportation and consumption of food i.e. the number of people, the quantity of materials, the complexity of the logistics – all of which have to be sustained by flows of energy. Reducing the entropy-cost of food, would in principle, increase the ecological space available for the biosphere and/or other societal functions (perhaps sustaining an Internet). At least conceptually, reducing the cost of complexity in the food system is not difficult to imagine. Such a process might involve variously:

·         reversing the globalization and even the regionalization of production and supply chains

·         a concerted re-localization of not only of food production but of the culture of consumption (including recipes, social contexts, cultural meaning etc)

·         reducing or eliminating secondary processing and packaging

·         changing the mix of vegetable, cereals and meat towards the former

·         changing the types and quantities of meat consumed as well as the manner of consumption

·         reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers and the recovery or organic, rotational and permacultural production systems.

·         eliminating the use of processed sugar

·         the ‘re-embedding’ of food supply into cultural, social and spiritual/religious life i.e. a reduction in the role of both state and market in food production and a recovery of household/community production systems rooted in the principle of reciprocity (in the sense of Karl Polanyi 1944, 1968; Quilley 2012).

The social and economic impacts of a degrowth food systems would be diverse. There would be a number of benefits (public health, community engagement) but also problematic consequences (more time devoted to food production, job loss in the food sector). These changes would amount to a system wide loss of complexity and a decline in global productivity. Extending this to the Greens’ idea of ‘trivial consumption’, from a systems perspective there is no ‘trivial consumption’, it all contributes to the overall function of the global system. Simplification of whole sectors of the economy would have unintended and difficult to predict feedback effects on all other areas of economy and society.