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.

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