Supply-Side Green Consumers

Consumption and Environment

I asked you all to read three pieces concerned with “consumption” and its relation to another concept “the environment.” This is to get you thinking away from individualistic notions of consumption – such as what you had for breakfast or how you’re consuming this post – to a broader and more collective focus that should get you thinking about how collectives of humans and non-humans form and are held together. In that sense, we really should be thinking more in the register of consuming rather than consumption as our world is made and remade through everyday practices of being in it and how the resultant environments or habitats enable and direct further consuming as a feature of life. All of our pieces, Brooks and Byrant in Death, Luke (1997) Chapter 6 and Luke (2019) Chapter 2, emphasize how “the environment” is an ensemble, or assemblage, of extractive and consumptive practices embodied through massive technical regimes run through individuals, and we should be careful in how we ascribe moral blame and praise based on these larger systems of global consumption. 

We’ve seen that commodities and their circulation partially make-up the features of our everyday lives, and that environs can be constructed for the purposes of making and extracting more commodities. The process of making something from a mix of labor and stock parts with the aim of bringing that combination to market such that it can be exchanged for money or other goods and services we called commodification. Commodification and commodity development, we’ve seen, has gone beyond the simple truck and barter economies of exchange that characterized Adam Smith’s day and have become decoupled from the local contexts to enter into massive systems of commodity chains that span the globe. As you may recall, the commodity can hide its destructive origins through a distancing effect such that you may not be aware of the ecological damage, or human suffering that went into the production and delivery of that commodity. In this way, the commodity offers us a nexus into the history of its development and thus a history of relations that went into its production and circulation. This, however, must be investigated by looking behind it, per se, and is not information floating on its surface. 

The commodity and commodification both hide and embed risk within their circulation and these risks are very rarely distributed evenly. A Chinese worker for Foxconn might be responsible for assembling your iPhone that you enjoy, but must assume the health risks of assembling that phone in exchange for some means of subsistence. You, sitting there looking at your iPhone, do not necessarily apprehend the conditions of the factory (some so miserable that massive nets have to be suspended between building to keep workers from killing themselves), and you probably aren’t wondering about the resources that make up its physicality or whether those resources were “ethically” sourced. I recap the above for two reasons: (1) is to display the uneven global distribution of risk through commodity development and circulation; and (2) because we’re going to update the above below through putting consumption in context. 

Point one has been covered in the past two weeks. In particular, I’ll remind you that the commodity and commodification as a process offer windows into human-environmental relations. Further, since at least Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics and governmentality, political theory and political ecology have recognized the circulation of commodities through environments as central to governing. Crisis can ensue when there is a slow-down in the circulation, and, indeed, I remember being told to go shop by the President of the United States after roughly 3000 people were murdered not much more than 50 miles from me one day in September, 2001. 

The act of consuming is something we must do in order to survive. Consumption, therefore, is central to understanding the relations among things within ecosystems and “the environment,” generally construed. This is exhibited in how society organizes consumption on mass scale as a mode of being and how objects are coded through and within environs. If one wishes to think in terms of class stratification, one can do so based on who consumes what and how. We live in consumptive environs built through price and purchasing systems mediated through the social phenomenon of money. Who has money and in what quantities partially determines their relationships to consumable (purchasable) objects flowing through our inter-linked environs. This is usually cashed out in terms of choice and opportunity within our consumptive ecosystems, however there is a quietly asserted form of bounded rationality in which decision-making is constrained by relations from outside any one agent. If you have the choice between buying a Maserati or a Kia, then this assumes that you have the opportunity to buy either and this is typically understood through both the proximity to the object one wishes to consume, and the individual abilities of that agent to consume it. Say you don’t have the cash or credit to buy the Maserati; your “choice” is then between the Kia, or nothing. If you must have a car, then your choices and rationalities are bound by that necessity as well as the price system that passively determines the distribution of commodities throughout environs based in capitalist economics. The simple example above gets more complicated when one considers things such as the intransitivity of preferences but it’ll get the ball rolling for us in the direction of the environment and how consumption is articulated within it.  

Brooks and Bryant do something rather interesting in the first few paragraphs that you should mind. They make a cut into consumption through a particular formulation of economics called ecological economics (Brooks and Bryant, in Death. p.72). I want you to be mindful of a distinction I’ll make quickly below, but if you have an interest in these areas, it will serve you well to keep ecological economics as distinct from environmental economics. The two are often conflated, but they are not the same and how they articulate “environment” and what they measure are quite different. I can’t go too deep into the distinction for brevity’s sake, but here’s a rough and ready distinction: Ecological economics is concerned with how things flow through an environment and how human, or social systems, are integrated into the patterns of those flows. This means that the objects of analysis within ecological econ are not necessarily things like money, or capital in general, but flows of water, energy distributions based on food webs, or biotic communities of humans and non-humans. 

Environmental economics is an attempt to incorporate what were considered “externalities” into mainstream economic analysis based on the exchange of money and fluctuations within price systems. It does not necessarily look at flows of water and solar energy as part of the bedrock of economic analysis and decision-making, but may try to attach a price to interrupting the flows of a stream, or the destruction of habitat across the Earth. In other words, environmental economics fails to take “Nature” as not only the very thing upon which the economies it examines are built, but as something external to human systems of consumption and flow that can be incorporated by giving them a price. Environmental econ, really, is concerned with the further production of commodities as part of an economic calculus rather than an actual attempt at understanding how things are distributed through organic economies of matter and energy that have formed life on Earth, including our species. 

If we look at ourselves and our societies through the prism of ecological economics we can better understand how flows of matter and energy form the basis of our artificial ecosystems. As you’ll recall, the commodity is something that is eventually consumed by an agent who may have had no hand in producing that thing and their circulation partially conditions and physically makes “the environment.” Where the commodities go, and who consumes them, should, in principle give you part of the picture of relations within an ecosystem. We need the other side of the equation – the side that displays the energy and matter that went into making and circulating that thing – to get a picture more appropriately in line with ecological econ. This picture would give you a better idea of the infrastructures in place that enable consumption and thus the larger social machinery involved in social reproduction through circulation and creation of commodities (Brooks and Bryant, in Death. p.72-73). Those commodities, thus, display relationships to the organic as they circulate through consumptive infrastructures, and those infrastructures create consumptive spaces and partially dictate who consumes what, when, and how as part of commodity circulation. 

Think of it like this: There are lots of ways to organize the production and sale of beef, but you, as a consumer, are presented with a limited range of opportunities and outlets to buy and consume beef. Taking one further step backwards, you, as a consumer, are presented with normalized routines, or practices that in some way delimit your range of options concerning what to consume and how. There are many fruits and vegetables to buy in the supermarket, but most times you, as a consumer, cannot dictate what Kroger buys directly. You might take your business elsewhere, but at each junction of decision-and-purchase, you are presented with a limited range of options concerning what you can and will consume. Delimited choice is merely a structural feature of opportunity but it is an environmental feature in that it is a limit placed on any one agent that occupies that space. Many of the choices you as a consumer are presented with at the store are the result of choices you did not make and are features of your operational context. Thus, these features in some way structure your behavior and limit your options just as a simple fact of being-in-an-environ. Moreover, how those options were produced is usually well away from your personal power and are typically historical manifestations of how some humans have related to the organic. One can consider massive feedlot operations or the genetic modification of the banana for more concrete examples of bounded rationality within consumptive environs. But, and in either case, you’ll find that the material history of our society is exhibited within and through the commodity of the cow and the banana as well as the decision-making regarding how those things are produced and brought to market.

I’ve been writing in a rather abstract way and this can give the illusion that this problem is, in fact, rather abstract. On the contrary, I think it is important to understand consumption as an historical phenomenon that is conditioned by the technical capabilities of some people over others and within the organic. This pattern of rule, that is, over the materials from which you build your identities and sustain the energy exchanges necessary for your cells to survive, gets to the depths of our everyday beings and displays how technological systems are integrated into your body as part of your daily activity that is mediated through those massive technological systems. I’ll put this a little more concretely: you didn’t build the concentrated feedlot operations that allow for the production and sale of beef globally. However, how you and millions of other people obtain beef is delimited by those systems that, at the very least, alters pricing for beef in its favor and aims at being the only game in town for obtaining beef. This system of beef distribution has real material components that must be regulated as technological systems to ensure business success necessary for reproductive viability within capitalist environs. These systems may grow in Texas, harvest and process in Omaha, distribute through Chicago, and turn up everywhere from Setauket, NY to Shanghai, China. These systems are managed, maintained and built through human and non-human labor reactive to effects both from within and outside of the commodity chain. 

A simple thing to remember that any engineer will tell you is that the larger the system, and the more components necessary for its functioning, the more mistakes are built into it. A Marxian technophilosopher would add that those mistakes arise as a result of the instrumental logic used to create the system itself and that those mistakes materialize as contradictions within those systems. Your reading on risk touched on this but it deserves to be spelled out: the risks inherent within technological systems are the result of the contradictions within those systems and, as a matter of security, those risks must be distributed away from the larger machinery necessary for systemic reproduction. This technical handling of risk and ensuring the machines run properly is the job of the technocrat, as discussed in the last post. The technocrat is responsible for continuing system viability of whatever machine to which they are assigned.

The bigger the system, the more mistakes are built into it. We’ve not seen the end of risk, and as our systems expand, so do the risks. More technology = more complexity = more risk.

Machines should not be thought of simply as mechanical things embodied in metal, here we can think of them as any organization of matter and energy purposefully constructed to automate the control and production of things. In this sense, the State appears as a machine for controlling the distribution of resources and power among a population as well as individuals within that population. We can think of algorithms, for example, as abstract calculational machines with an input-process-output schematic, or as logistical networks as being collections of machines and machinery for the distribution of things [think of how Amazon is a collection of algorithms connected to global logistical networks enabling remote consumption]. Each and every time you consume something within our society (more likely than not), you are connected, in some way, to a machine and thus the choices of a technocrat or collections of technocrats. Here, you’ll see that your choices within your environment concerning what to consume are technologically and economically bounded from the beginning simply based on the networks necessary for the production and distribution of things as a technological project, and conditioned by economic rules, formulated and advanced by only one way of understanding the economy, that partially produces your consumptive environs.

The Luke readings become a little more intuitive with the above in view. Puzzlingly, perhaps, Luke’s Chapter 6 in Ecocritique takes aim at the en vogue movement of Green consumerism. His critique can be paraphrased (faithfully enough I hope) as the hopeless naiveté of commodity fetishists and not a real solution to ecological degradation. Thus, green consumerism, as I’ll show below, is not an effective alternative to current socio-ecological despoilation of the Earth, but is, instead, just some nonsense hawked to people who can afford it. Those do-gooders, in other words, miss their target and do no good.

The do-gooders do no good because they rethread consumption and commodification back into their material practices (driving to the store, buying something, etc.,) as part of a strategy of resistance. Consumption and the modes of consumption including waste disposal and supply-chain practices are within the ambit of the green consumer’s critique. However, Luke’s critique is that the green consumer – as practiced and advised through the literature he reviews in Chapter 6 (1997) – fails to address the politics of production through a focus solely on the consumer. In other words, the green consumer has fallen prey to people who are more interested in selling lifestyles and books than actually helping to construct a more equitable and habitable Earth.

Politics and consumption get to the heart of who we are as people. What one adopts, consumes and repeats have real environmental effects as well as others exhibited through their subjectivities. Our environments are characterized by multiple lines of production stratified through prices if acquiring goods and services and these lines of production are the results of planning and production related to the material stuff that populates our environments. Who is producing what, for whom, is central within Luke’s critique, but you’ll notice that he isn’t telling anyone to go out and buy from some labels over another. He’s concerned with the labels themselves and what they denote, who consumes them and how they were produced. You’ll notice that he speaks of capital as an almost totalizing presence within environments to the point that escaping it might be impossible. This is because he’s articulating a theory of capitalist globalization couched in terms (though not in so many words) of monopoly capital

I can’t go too deep into the theory of monopoly capital but I can give you a synopsis and help you understand why Luke might be concerned with agents operating in its environs. Essentially one can recognize that capital has developed to the point that most avenues for production and consumption are connected to massive concentrations of it conceived as machinery that produces it – the modern corporation, and that concentrations of it have arisen in the productive systems such that economic competition is actually oligopolistic. Corporations have not always been our main methods for procuring goods and services and their growth has a definite and material history connected to the establishment of them as the modes of global commercial organization. It’s Paul Sweezy and Paul Barran who are credited with giving the phenomenon of growing corporate influence and structure in everyday life and Luke is quietly working with the premise that almost all consumptive outlets available to the average city-dweller are built from and for the operations of the abstract machines of capital. On can think of this through the infographic below concerning oligopolistic production, and, indeed it seems like oligopoly might be a better term for our purposes. 

Luke’s critique is that it is the demands and operations of capital run through that sort of abstract business machinery that is responsible for ecological despoilation. As green consumerism is concerned with a critique of ecological despoilation, their practices must be seen in the light of monopoly capital and the environments it creates. It is here that Luke nails the line item green consumer for looking to a solution to the global overconsumption of some against the impoverished many by further consumption. Not only does this seem self-contradictory, but Luke is also critiquing the practice of constructing those markets necessary to feed a growing green consumer audience that involves subtle adjustments to how things are perceived (think ‘fair trade’ labels, Save the Waves programs by cruise lines, designer, ethically sourced chocolate) and that this recasts the collective problems of global environmental degradation through an individualizing ethos and narrative pitched to the Earth’s richest.

Further, Luke is uncomfortable with how the blame and responsibility for ecological destruction is forked onto the people consuming products that they didn’t make, didn’t sell or advertise, and maybe didn’t ask for. The problem has to do with some historical shifts in US production after the Great Depression leading to the Washington Consensus that is largely regarded as a shift within economic policy-making from demand-side production and social support, to supply-side production and inflation controls through monetarism. Without dipping too deep into economic history, the Washington Consensus, as it was known shifted economic power and focus away from your usual supply and demand thinking where demand is the motive force in an economy, to the production of economic oversupply to maintain a mobilized economy based on the desires of employers and corporate producers. This means that in times of economic downturn, the economic and financial support from the state is concentrated (with shades and degrees) mostly on the side of corporations deemed vital to the functioning of the American economy cashed in terms of GDP, currency value, and GNP rather than the overall health of employment and employees. 

The above economic shift solidly grounds a critique of consumption that shows you why “the law of supply and demand” has become perverted by a constant emphasis on corporate viability and not necessarily the demands of the populace. The supply-side economy I’m referring to (and idealizing) is one in which products are marketed before their markets are created. This is because responding to demand (as in the demand-side scheme mistaught in high schools) is not only difficult when consumers can only “vote with their dollars” but also because marketing research has evolved to the point of predictive analytics through massive information gathering. This means that a company can develop a product and then try to advertise it and still make money. Oftentimes this sort of marketing and advertising is for stuff you didn’t know you needed, probably don’t need, and might not solve the problem it creates. One can think of zit commercials and advertising that is meant to make you feel bad about something, and then, the product is presented as a miraculous solution! This is only one small example, but it is played across consumptive sectors within our broader global economy as products are made and marketed to everyone who could receive the advertising. This system, Luke says, is hugely wasteful and ecologically damaging (just think about how much food is thrown away at the grocery store) and that the sort of lifestyles that are being sold to green consumers do nothing to combat the wasteful system itself. It might make people feel better. It might even help some more than if the status quo were to continue, but ultimately it has a depoliticizing effect.

Green consumerism has a depoliticizing effect because it reduces the massively complicated problems of global environmental change to that of technical practices. If we can buy and eat, and travel in the right way, listening to the right people, then the consumer can grab the wheel on climate change, and the global top 20% of people in the richest countries will lead the way to a sparkling green future. This language totally ignores that there are many who cannot contribute to or buy into the green economy with its expensive products and wasteful practices. This means that within the subject herself, the problem has been defined as something to do individually and leaves the outrage at the interpersonal level for people to disagree over plastic straws. It fails to end, politically, the production of plastics, the extractive economies and practices of synthetic materials manufacturing, and fails, in the short, mid, and long-term to lay blame at the feet of the actual actors responsible. 

Branding and rebranding are constant activities for modern corporations. Above is Dow’s “the human element” commercial. I find this hilarious because the U.S. Government murdered protesting students with the National Guard at the Kent State Massacre who were objecting to the role Dow Chemical played in their campus environment and the Vietnam War effort. Most notably, Dow should know just how important the “human element” is in their chemistry because they made money from combing napalm with people during the Vietnam War.

Until we name names, organize, and force the despoilers to reckon with their actions, we are only shouting into the void. It might make you feel better, but this is just an effect of the commodity fetish as more brands, goods and consumptive communities are created for rich suburbanites who have failed to understand the foundations of their material cultures and their place in ‘the environment.’ If we allow “the environment” to be reduced to a merely technical problem, then we hand the keys back to those who have created the material conditions in which we find ourselves, and once more, we will have to fight for control against the logic of the machines themselves as they recreate the world in their image and usher new material organizations only responsive to environmental demands rather than produce a less demanding environment for all.

Lyrics and video are important for this one. “For example, what does the billboard say? Come and play. Come and play. Forget about the movement.”

Risk and Environment

The readings from week 3 bring up some interesting points throughout their respective chapters. We are primarily concerned with Risk as a structural feature of environment and a component in environmental construction and governance. As a reminder, we’re not so much interested in “the environment,” as a “natural” setting but as something that is manifested from the components that make it up. In this sense, humans and human society do not exist independently from “nature” nor is “the environment,” simply something “out there.” It is something that is both larger than its individual components and exhibits their behavior within and through it. The Luke chapters will give a little more flesh to the concerns within the Pellizzoni chapter in the Death reader, but I will spend less time on Pellizzoni than might be expected. 

We are not interested in a definition of risk in the sense that it could be applied within analyses of it. There has been plenty of ink used in ferreting out those questions, and you’ll notice that Pellizzoni has some recommendations for further understanding risk in environment. His recommendations following his chapter will be useful for anyone wishing to write their portfolios on risk and you may incorporate them into your independent reading portfolios if you wish. I am, instead, pointing out how risk is connected to management and how management is connected to capital, or perhaps more concretely, commodification as we discussed last week.

Having an understanding of risk management within environmental construction can point you towards ecocritiques that expose structural inequalities that, to a degree, are purposefully created, or otherwise “accidentally” exacerbated. This has import into studies that would concern environmental racism as a structural feature of coloniality, capitalism, fascism, or other forms of governance. It is also something to consider when analyzing relationships of subject and state, capital and labor, upper class and underclasses, and global distributions of risk inherited from the history of territorial and state development. In a banal (but not so banal) way, risk can be understood by looking at how a society delegates responsibility – such as who takes the leadership position during a pandemic, and the measures that are in place for crisis (Pellizzoni, in Death, p.206) – as in how the U.S. has a health insurance industry built on actuaries who assess and delegate risk relative to the company’s profitability, while the U.K. has the National Health Service offering healthcare to all with triage measures in place for assessing risk relative to organizational operational capacity. 

The important thing to notice in analyses using risk, is who benefits from not assuming risk, and to whose detriment it is who must assume that risk. For example, in the production of neoprene – a polymer used in things like sports knee-wraps; who is it that gets to enjoy the products without having to assume the risk of toxic air, soil, and water contamination? More to our class’s focus; why is it that some people have to live with environmental risk and others don’t? Our readings for the week show more than tell how risk is a structural feature of the environment and below I point out a few places of interest. 

Luke’s Chapter 5: Environmental Emulations (1997) shows us how risk can be written or inscribed into an environment. As you’ll recall, this chapter dealt with a rather strange but illuminating experiment carried out as the Biosphere 2 project in the Arizona desert. Biosphere 2, a massive geodesic dome structure, was built for the purposes of replicating the functions and workings of Biosphere 1 – the Earth – at a micro-scale in a hermetically sealed enclosure. This is almost a perfect example of what we mean by environ in our course. It’s purpose was to suss out the possibilities and problems that may come from building similar environs in extraterrestrial environments and exhibits a process called terraformation – or earth shaping. The experiment became a media spectacle as researchers were enclosed in Biosphere 2 to study the movements of a simulated environment. As you’ll recall, the “oceans,” agricultural zones, desert environ, jungle enclosure, and living space were all placed together in an attempt at creating an operating ecosystem. The environ of Biosphere 2 did not include large predators, germs or novel Coronaviruses, and was built to serve its human inhabitants as a closed system. It was not a closed system in any real sense as the experiment needed input from outside its environs to insure human survival – most notably food and oxygen (Luke, 1997, p.99)! 

The experiment was funded almost entirely by private investments and these were generated through creating speculations concerning the usefulness and marketability of any findings coming out of Biosphere 2. You should notice a few things about its history: One, the experiment needed to attract capital and did this through promising a return on investment through the sale of information rendered from the experiment (this is a common practice and places like VT do this all the time) (Luke, 1997, p.98); two, this created a speculative bubble that burst in the first run of the experiment causing a change in leadership; three, the leadership change involved a reshuffling of responsibility that landed on VT UAP graduate and the architect of the Trump 2016 campaign, Stephen K. Bannon (Luke, 1997, p.99). These points taken together show that Biosphere 2, though purportedly to the benefit of “all humankind” was, in fact, a commodity complex that brought together tools for creating new knowledge commodities that could then be marketed (Luke, 1997 p.102). 

At the helm of this commodity complex was not the scientists, technicians, and engineers who were living in and through the experiment, but a manager, or group of managers responsible for channeling capital, in the form of money and supplies, to the environ, that was then sending informational commodities (or the raw resources for them) back to the managerial team that would then disperse those informational products to potential buyers. This shows a commodity circuit connected to the labor of the scientists and engineers who receive wages for their labor while creating informational capital that could then be used to write further environs. In this sense, the enclosure of Biosphere 2 is both a commodity (its functioning is imperative to experimental success) and a site of commodity production (the things coming out of it as information become commodities when an exchange-value is attached to them). It is here that we can see a self-expanding system of informational extraction based on technological instrumentation and also the delegation of risk within a commodity circuit. 

 The only risk capital must assume in Biosphere 2 appears to be whether there will be a return on investment. Luke does not mention whether the experiment was a success in that way, but looks at it as a monument to a way of thinking and articulating “the environment;” or, more adroitly, a manifestation of instrumental logic that shows Biosphere 2 as an engineering marvel of the movements of capital itself. Its technological edifice is exhibited in the combination of humanity, machinery, and the bios in an attempted replication of our planet and its ecosystems. However, as Luke says, the actual relationship to the technological system of Biosphere 2 and the relationship of capital to Biosphere 1, is rather confused. The extraction involved in the production of capital through activities such as mining, or drilling, is an intensive input into a system that then draws out resources necessary to make or become commodities while despoiling the earth as a byproduct. In Biosphere 2 the direction is supposed to be reversed and new information coming out of the project is directed through commodity circuits to become a sort of “green capital.” Capital intensivity is still exhibited in the flows of services and supplies going to Biosphere 2 to support the environ itself, but the experiment was supposed to be “self-sustaining” and operated as a stand-alone system. However, the Biosphere 2 enclosure more adequately reflected the real processes of terraformaiton through the advance of technological systems that attempt to subsume the biological and organic into synthetic artifice. 

One should notice that the systems embodied in the “ocean” ecosystem of Biosphere 2 contained no megafauna such as whales or sharks and had those risks taken out of the design. The systems and subsystems of Biosphere 2, therefore, do not replicate Biosphere 1 as it occurs through its novelties and creative energies, but is, instead, the manifestation and embodiment of a way of thinking about Biosphere 1’s conveniences and inconveniences. In other words, Biosphere 2 is a designer, a boutique system that does not replicate the magic of Biosphere 1, but only imitates or emulates the parts which were found desirable by design. The information arising from that environ is simultaneously disembedded from its conditions of discovery embodied by the humming of the technological systems that make up Biosphere 2, and only alludes to the environments of Biosphere 1 as it is purposefully designed and controlled as an enclosure that produces commodities for speculative capital. 

The design, presentation and operation of Biosphere 2 exhibits a dynamic important for the arc of the course. It shows the mobilization and operation of technocrats – a sort of manager – in the production, design, and distribution of commodities that have the potential to re-write the environment in the image of capital as well as accidentally embed more risks into the supermassive technological ecosystem of the Earth itself (Luke, 1997, p.111-114; Luke, 2019, p.28-38; Pellizzoni, in Death, p.199-200, 204-205). Luke makes the point that the only thing Biosphere 2 emulated really was a process of environing that removed “undesirable” parts from existence within it as much of planet Earth has suffered in the name of product development, risk and operational convenience. 

We build massive technological systems that envelop us in settled society, and in the U.S., UK, EU, Japan, China, Korea, India, etc.,. In almost any and every sense, a “settled society” is one that exists through and because of an arrangement of technologies into systems. How those systems are arranged, and what they’re made of exhibits how subjects – people, for example – relate to each other, their technologies and environment. We are so deeply embedded in our technological systems that their multiple and interlocking interstices create liminal spaces of uncertainty that embed risk within our daily lives. Car accidents, nuclear meltdowns, acid rain, ocean acidification, coral reef die-off, accelerated species extinction, are all risks embedded within the supermassive environ of planet Earth that can be attributed to the operation of social-technological systems that draw in the life and living of Biosphere 1. We, to my mind, in the global North are entirely reliant on the circulation, use and expenditure of hydrocarbons to power our societies. As you read this, take a look around and see what in your immediate surroundings can be attributed to the extraction, refinement, and circulation of commodities such as oil. You’re most likely sitting on polyester, if not wearing it, and this is an oil derivative! The synthetic revolution that occurred contemporaneously with the full employment of oil and coal as the bedrock of industrial power has created a myriad of things you use everyday that are derived from some sort of hydrocarbon. The circulation of hydrocarbons – plastic for example – leeches from both the “organic” environment of Biosphere 1 through mass-scale extractive activity, and becomes part of both “settled society,” and novel ecosystems represented by massive trash islands, in this case. The novel ecosystems generated by the interaction of organic flows (say ocean currents and their collection points) and the commodities generated through industrial activity (like plastic) exhibit in their being, the interaction technological commodity production and organic economies of matter and energy that make the planet work. What we’re witnessing is the formation of new habitats for both humans and non-humans that are and will have novel effects within the biosphere. That is, the exhibition of novel systems composed of social-technological activity, and biospheric function. The risk embedded in these novel combinations is a result of both technological activity and the economies of energy and matter that exhibit social intervention within them. Plastic straws might not be risky for Texans but apparently they’re not good for sea turtles.

Recall from last week that the commodity form is an ever present way of understanding oneself in relation to others and to “nature.” It is a way of perceiving conditioning one’s judgment within interaction. It is a fairly easy jump to assert that Biosphere 2 is an artefact of commodity form thinking in how it was articulated technologically as a simulation designed to produce further commodities. These commodities were supposedly in response to “market desires” for technological fixes to environmental problems threaded within living spaces as risk inherited from industrial technological externalities and capital development. You’ll notice that the core of Luke’s ecocritique in Chapter 5 is “At the end of the  day, Biosphere 2 appears in many ways to be an attempt to replicate technologically a naive anthropocentrism as the  fundamental design rule for operating the earth’s biosphere rather than a new collective defense technology for guarding Nature from further ecological degradation. (p.96)” The simulation of Biosphere 2, it would appear, is yoked to a “business-as-usual” logic masquerading as environmentalism that has created and exacerbated environmental risk for some over others rather than environmental risk for all

The purposeful creation and management of an environ we will call environmentality. We will flesh out the meaning of environmentality and you’ll see how it fits into ecocritique in the coming weeks. For now, however, Biosphere 2 exhibits an environmentality in its being and day-to-day function. In the above quotation, the environmentality displayed by Biosphere 2 is characterized by anthropocentric thinking regarding the role of the living within technological systems; an environ that supports technoscientific development of commodities; and an environ that is reliant on capital inputs channeled through managers that attract speculative capital and alienate the information produced through the environ through commodification. The environ of Biosphere 2, thus, is conditioned by the commodity form in its construction and operation and its day-to-day functioning, being, and operational mission all decenter any humanistic scientific project in the service of capital. The environ, the lived territory of Biosphere 2, exhibits a managerial approach to “nature” that treats it as a space and thing of inertia to be controlled through enrolling it in technological systems that embed structural risk in the worlds of the humans and non-humans that are its populations.    

Gardens by the Bay is an excellent (and possibly updated) example of biospheric mimesis. I can speak from experience that its enclosures direct the attention of its tourists to the delegation of risk away from repsonsible parties and down to the individual. Singapore is around the size of L.A. and is the 25th largest carbon emitter in the world, and handles nearly a quarter of all global trade through its port based solidly in the hydrocarbon complex at the heart of global civilization. Don’t believe the hype, but definitely go there if you get the chance. It is a massive commodity complex that cost Singapore around $1.5 billion to construct and forms a crown jewel in the City in the Garden development strategy.

Risk must be managed for the production and expansion of capital through the circulation of commodities (Pellizzoni, in Death, p.203-204). Capital prefers predictability and control within its attendant economies as a matter of creating and conditioning certainty (Pellizzoni, in Death, p.198-200). Uncertainty and risk can and must be managed psychologically and materially to ensure organizational viability and as a function of systemic security. This means that environs must be written and structured in a way as to deflect or down-play systemic risks that are embedded within technological systems as a result of the inherited blindness of instrumental reason used to organize matter and energy into the systems necessary for social reproduction and population viability. This means that risk is an object of management and this implies that management is, in some way, threaded into “the environment,” itself. Consider this before I lose my job for writing this on here: 

Virginia Tech, the Blacksburg campus, makes an environ that is used both as a site of education and the development of human capital (you guys, your training and the degrees that signify satisfactory competence in that which is deemed important by those training you) and also a site for extracting capital (your cash, your guardian’s cash, student loan cash, informational products, and physical inventions brought to market). This environment is made up of interlocking technological systems designed to solve certain problems and they work with variations between them. Campus housing, transportation, dining, entertainment, and health services, for example, all have separate bureaucracies tasked with doing different things, but they are all reliant on the movement and placing of students within the campus environ. All of these attendant systems that make up VT require capital inputs – people need to pay for beds and meal plans for the housing and dining systems to work, for example, and VT, as a space and organization that transforms capital through its movements, needs students to be at the physical site in Blacksburg [for now and probably forever]. All of this bureaucracy is wrapped up into the commodity package of an “educational experience” bought by and sold to you, the consumer. If these systems are interrupted in their function by hiccups in capital flows, the university (read; the commodity complex) suffers and has trouble functioning. 

COVID-19 emerged from an environment constructed by the interaction of humans, machines, and non-human commodities. Its virulence – it’s a damn cold virus for the love of God – is accelerated by clustering humans together in and through space within the presence of a vector. As vectors are, oftentimes and in this case, known-unknowns, this means that risk of infection is part and parcel of uncertainty in everyday life and individual agents are constrained by the structural features of the environs in which they live out those lives. VT needed to bring you back to Blacksburg and ran risk models (oh boy, more models because that worked well with campus population growth and housing!) to assess whether the costs of running the campus environ could be justified against the risk of human mortality from COVID-19 within their populations. The influx of students into Blacksburg based on economies reliant on the movement of specific bodies, in specific space, and at specific times represents an influx of risk within the locality of Blacksburg and its surrounding territories and populations. This means that risk is being pushed down to the level of individual students, and individual bodies as students arrive from urban centers such as NOVA, VA Beach, and New Jersey that then influences the function of the commodity complex of VT’s campus. This whole process may not happen without the assistance of informational production that is then fed into risk-reward analyses based on “models” that are then fed into the university decision-making apparatus populated by technocrats. This means that the functioning of the environs of Blacksburg and the NRV are attached materially to the decision-making apparatus of VT and that apparatus chose, based on how it generates and articulates knowledge, to rethread mortal risk into those environs (don’t panic, you’ll be just fine) in the pursuit of capital. This is part of VT’s environmentality whether they’re conscious of what they’re doing or not.  

 The dreams of a placeless (fully online and nearly fully automated) university are a technological fantasy that would, we’re told, weedout structural risks inherent in bringing tens of thousands of people to a specific location as bricks-and-mortar universities must. This has been a dream in the ether for decades, if not longer, as Luke discusses in Chapter 2: Informationalism and Ecology (2019). You should notice that this chapter was written and published in 1983, and he’s watching the transformations in industrial modes of production wrought by the realizations of computing (Luke, 2019, 25-26). We can apply this to the case above by recognizing that participation within the attendant systems of online education (Canvas, Zoom, Brain Clutter, etc.,) means that one participates in a flow of information connected to the functioning of a commodity complex – VT. Let’s imagine that they pull it off and VT is fully online and the “educational experience,” that was packaged and sold as part of actually being at VT is decoupled from its material conditions and repackaged through online ed. Each and every class you participate in will engage in extracting information from you regarding product development and delivery, from me and any of your professors in how we manage that information and “create” an “educational experience,” and will be channeled through networks that are owned and surveilled by neither party. The networks might be owned by VT, a private corporation (a concentration and machine of capital) or jointly owned but you, and me do not write the rules for their use, but may enforce their standards and rules through our actions within those networks. In this sense, we both will have become decoupled from our physical beings through participation in online education as we are rearticulated through those technological networks as information. 

This is an instance of environmental construction, and governance related to the production of risk within “the environment,” generally construed. Supposedly, an online university would mitigate the risks inherent in face-to-face learning such as COVID-19 infections. However, these environs would not be without their environmental impacts (look at energy use relative to digitization over the past 40 years), and would not be without their structural risks as well. Mass scale information gathering on you already includes the risk that some undesirable entity might use that information for nefarious ends. Maybe President #45 doesn’t like what I have to say and I end up on a blacklist. Maybe you accidentally plagiarize something, but the informational scanner doesn’t understand this and this creates a problem for you. Maybe an EMP generated by some SNAFU in an energy grid knocks out communications for a while and your money is totally wasted because VT already has it and doesn’t care that you experienced difficulties wrought by some other technocracy and apparatus. Due to how the commodity form conditions thinking and can structure environs, it seems likely that any technocrat will err on the side of their machines working rather than the livability within the habitats they create and administer as a consequence of technological necessity rather than a valuation of life and the living (Luke, 1997, 97-99, 104-109; Luke, 2019, p.33; Pellizzoni, in Death, p.202-204). 

In this way and the ways above, we can see the operation of risk as a structural feature of environments. As we exist in and through technological networks coupled with and articulated through organic economies that display the synthesis of technological deployments within those economies in the pursuit of commodity development and circulation; and as those massive technological systems contain risks inherited from this coupling, we can assert that risks in “the environment,” are partially anthropogenic and thus conditioned by human decision-making and technological operation. The logic and operations of technocrats are conditioned by the economic imperatives of capital for continued maintenance and expansion and it is those technocrats who are at the helm of massive technological apparatuses such as VT. Technocrats are chiefly responsible for constructing and administering environs and thus, will create environs from which they can extract capital by writing the rules of conduct into those environs either materially or through instruments such as policies that then exert a material influence. Therefore, it is fair to assert that the articulation of risk within environs as they stand currently is inherited from the logic of capital itself and the actions of technocrats in service to capital and its development through technological systems. Therefore, environmental risk, as it stands as a structural feature of “the environment” is partially inherited from the production and circulation of commodities channeled through industrial decision-making apparatuses populated by technocrats. For now, the technocrats responsible for environmental production and reproduction are human, and we have an ability (though not usually the opportunity) to talk them out of environmental construction in service to the commodity form and technological fetishist pathologies. But what would an environ run by a non-human look like? What are the possibilities of resisting un-democratic technological environmental construction if the whole lifeworld becomes one massive technology run by the imperatives and logic of technology itself? 

Kubrick was brilliant for making this film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Commodification and Post-Naturalism

How much is “The World,” worth to you?

Paterson. Death ed., Chapter 1; Luke, 2019, Chapter 1; Luke 1997, Chapter 3

I asked you to read three pieces this week that together demonstrate and animate the spirit of ecocritiques. We’re diving into ecocritiques as a form of writing and this can often become muddied by the dense resources mobilized to construct one. They often take a piece of the world and subject it to rigorous examination by running it through cultural, social, political and economic frameworks to exhibit connections between that part and its consequences. For example, Luke in Ecocrtitque selects a seemingly benign or culturally accepted organization, The Nature Conservancy, and examines their practices from their marketing and psychodemographic targeting campaigns to their on-the-ground conservation practices. The results of his analysis are informed by both his theoretical and philosophical commitments, as well as his political economic methodology. In this way, his chapters show us a few things: It is important to have philosophical and theoretical commitments not only for site selection, but also to guide the arc of critique; and reflecting on the larger conditions of one’s existence is necessary to construct a global understanding of the self-in-the-world as well as the interconnections that exist as a part of global social infrastructure. I’ll unpack the above as follows: first, I’ll show you why I selected the readings and why they’re helpful for understanding ecocritiques; a discussion of theoretical and methodological selection follows; and third, how we can go from local to global considerations through political economics as an orientation.

Firstly, I selected Paterson’s chapter from the Death reader as a conceptual introduction to a central consideration within political ecology and environmental studies – commodification. The Death reader is a useful book to keep at hand because it can be used as a sort of advanced glossary or encyclopedia for doing environmental politics. The concepts examined throughout the book – an anthology of different authors and experts in the field – are useful depending on the framework you, as an analyst, are adopting. Some concepts work better in some frameworks over others and it is important to understand how different schools of thought deploy their analytic frames within their research. Some schools, for example, emphasize hybridity and interconnections of technology in understanding the social, and the natural; others don’t have a Natural/Social division and favor nature-cultures, or technoculture, or socio-nature as part of their analytic toolbox; still others, like Paterson, prefer language inherited from political economics as a field and see the circulation of things as central to environmental construction.

None of the above is to say that different schools can’t be mixed and matched or that every concept has to pay homage to its origins. Part of the fun of theorizing is coming up with new combinations of terms to help flesh out analyses and give some order to one’s perceptions. My preferences fall in the Neo-Marxist camp and I arrived at these considerations in language and analysis over a period of time and philosophical reflection. My thoughts tend toward thinking about the environment through assemblages, commodities, and technologies and this trifecta points me in the direction of social complexity theory, Marxism, Anarchism, the philosophy of science, philosophy of technology and postphenomenology. These are big terms and there’s a lot more than an encyclopedia article can explain for understanding the traditions and arguments that are behind them. As a general rule, however, one can learn almost anything simply by understanding terms and vocabulary used within the subject of study. One must, of course, strive to be a practitioner of their subjects and this points to different forms of knowledge than simply know-that gleaned from understanding terms and how they operate to produce a theoretical framework. One should cultivate some other forms of knowledge such as do-how – a knowledge of how to do something, or know-how – a form of knowledge concerning the production and impetus of knowledgeable action. Mastering oneself can be done through the practice of self-discipline and it’s important to hear “disciple” in discipline as one cultivates an interest in one’s subject area. 

Rick Roderick delivers a lecture on the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse and the internal contractions of modernity and the modernizing process. If you’re looking for a project for this course, try to identify an irony or a contradiction and dial in on it. More often than not, you’re putting your finger on something that can be eco-critiqued.

 I arrived at Neo-Marxism after nearly a decade of attempting to reject it through more traditional forms of liberal thought. “Liberal,” here does not refer to Democrat, or the largely incorrect and obfuscating left-right distinction one hears from the crypto-fascists on the news. It was Luke’s Chapter 3 on TNC that was the final coffin nail on my largely John Rawls infused philosophical and theoretical orientations. When Luke critiques “liberals,” he’s speaking to a philosophical tradition that has informed the formation of the U.S. and other countries. A rough and ready but all-too violent characterization of liberal and liberalism is one that adopts both a “rule of the people,” as in democracies and representative republics such as our own; as well as “free” market principles and separates (typically) Nature and Society, and Public and Private spheres conceptually and operationally (as in laws and other practices). People from “left” to “right” in the U.S. fit under liberalism as a political discourse whether or not they’re conscious of it, and one can argue that everyone from [some] Democratic Socialists to [some] “free-market” libertarians are types of “liberals” with some misgivings. In many ways, and again this is rather quick, liberalism is concerned with the balance of two ideals that are in tension with one another: definitions of “equality;” and definitions of “freedom.”

Without spending too much time on the fundamental tension in Liberalism, one can readily grasp the arc of the discussion by reflecting on how different definitions of equality and freedom circulate in our society. The tension is exhibited best in how U.S. political discourse circulates representations of freedom. More often than not, they depict definitions of freedom that also seem in tension with one another. The theorist, Isaiah Berlin split “freedom” as a term into at least two operational definitions: freedom-to, or positive freedoms; and freedom-from or negative freedoms. Positive freedoms might be something like the “right to bear arms,” or the right to assemble. If you’re in the UK, or other countries that still have an understanding of society, then you have the freedom to affordable, or tax-funded healthcare. On the flip-side, and they’re often two sides of the same coin, you have the freedom from unlawful search and seizure – at least formally, or the freedom from debtor’s prison – again, probably only formally and we’ll see how this goes when the student debt bubble explodes. 

One can witness the results of how “freedom” is operationalized within the environment by examining the differences in how society delegates and distributes power and capital. Corporations were defined, conceptualized and discussed as people earlier than black slaves and this shows an orientation not only to the notion of people or person but the networks of terms in which they are embedded. Persons are rights-bearing agents in U.S. philosophical and legal frameworks while slaves are regarded as property and are thus subject to rights-bearing agents as objects. This exhibits a tension between “freedom” and “equality” as the states argued over the status of black slaves in the U.S. slave-economies operating across the expanding nation. One can see, rather easily I think, that much of the arguments spun around whether whites had the freedom-to own black slaves, positing a freedom-from Federal intervention that would have slaves recognized as equals formally in U.S. law. Equality, in the above, suffers as a concept and practice under the governing frameworks of slave-states and it isn’t a big leap to understand how a slave-state – say Virginia – had an environment that immobilized the black body and fed it into whole living economies of governance, representation, and commodity production. The fight for “equality” through abolitionism was a fight for slaves to be recognized as people, and not property, and thus become rights-bearing agents capable of exercising “freedom” in any of its forms. Economically, the body of the black slave served as a foundation for slave economies that operated internationally as well as in the United States and the argument over “states rights” can be cashed out as states arguing for the freedom-to own people through an argument for freedom-from Federal regulations and discourses that treated the black slave as an equal, rights-bearing agent. 

The above beares on our readings from this week because Paterson starts us off with commodification – that is, the process that makes something into a tradeable object that has exchange-value – or, a commodity. Notice here that we’re concerned with the process of something becoming a commodity and not the individual commodity itself. In the above, one can think of the black body becoming commodified on the auction blocks in Richmond as buyers bid for slaves. On the flip side, the body of a particular black person within governing frameworks that posit the black body as property is a commodity to a slave master. How commodities circulate and what they are helps focus analyses of society and we can see how society pulls-in what you might call “Nature” through commodification. One can think of this clearly by recognizing that the computer you’re using to view this post is a composite (we’ll use assemblage in this course) of “natural” elements – metals, plastics derived from hydrocarbons, etc., – organized toward some “social” end – communication between peoples, education. The computer, bought and traded as it is, allows or enables this sort of social behavior and thus rethreads the need for “natural resources” – coltan is one to watch – within and through patterns of extraction all connected to the production of that computer. The computer itself is useful in that it amplifies certain desirable abilities over others, but this use-value is conditioned by the social networks that value those abilities. Regardless of who decides what attributes and abilities to value, the computer in your hands, on your desk, or in your lap holds a socially conditioned exchange-value typically represented in monetary denominations that allow for its circulation within and through social networks. 

Think of it this way: money is a social grease. It gets the gears turning and impells actions that might not otherwise be committed. It exercises a coercive and persuasive influence in our social organization and a lot of people – mistakenly – cashout happiness in terms of cash acquisition. It’s a motive force in our environments and many an environ is designed to generate, capture and channel money – just look at Land Grant Universities. Money, however, is nothing but a representation and an abstraction attached to things by people. Those things to which it is attached are commodities and concentrations of money attract and are constitutive of concentrations of things. Think of the material networks necessary for a gold mine to operate – the discovery of gold, the organization of labor to extract it, the machinery to aid in its extraction, the melting and smelting facilities and all the attendant knowledges used in the extraction of gold. All of that activity, the material changes to landscape, the carbon outputs that circulate globally, and the global draw of people and materials to a place – a mine – already shows networks interested in dragging the stuff from the ground so that it can circulate in social environs like New York’s Diamond District as rings, and other material used in the construction of more commodities. 

Luke in his chapter from Ecocritique recognizes a sort of commodification occurring through the conservation actions of The Nature Conservancy. Commodification occurs within circuits (Paterson, Death ed. p.54) and these circuits are assemblages of people, and things that interact to produce objects that are then sold for an abstract representation. This process of commodification contains the process of abstraction that underwrites a notion of equivalence among objects and buyers. This is usually, as we see it now, run through a brand that is used to condition the expectations of consumers. I have been all over the world and have had many excellent coffees but sometimes I didn’t know what I’d be getting if I went to a local coffee shop. Some coffees are terrible – a travesty against God and legumes – and, being the consumer that I am, I try to avoid the terrible ones and buy things that satisfy expectations. I’m usually never in the place unless I’m running late or road tripping but Starbucks can be a welcome sight in a foreign land because they train and regulate their supply-chains according to company procedures to produce a reliable source of caffeine and enjoyment. I don’t know whether I’ll get a good coffee in any particular Starbucks, but generally speaking, I can trust the brand to produce palatable espresso – if but too little in their servings. One can zoom out and see Starbucks traded on the New York Stock Exchange and realize that no one is buying a cup of coffee when they trade the “SBUX” ticker, but “SBUX” has a value relative to the belief that money invested in the company will have a “return-on-investment” much the same way Virginia Tech implores prospective students to consider going into debt in the hope of a good paying job and fulfilling career after graduation [Hint: you’re more commodity than you realize]. 

We’re often so bound up in commodity networks that the notions of “choice+freedom” circulates to an accelerated absurdity. Escaping the commodity nexus of society is often through a rejection of what it means to be a human and a member of society. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting probes one alternative and the notion of “freedom.” What does it mean to be free when all the world is a commodity?

We can see, in the above, that commodification often requires some sort of material input that mixes with labor to produce a tradable object. In the case of Starbucks, I can trust that I’ll get a decent coffee because the brand signifies a particular admixture of labor and resources that are guided through labor practices to produce a Starbucks coffee. In their Pike Place roast, for example, the barista chars the beans before grinding them together with old cigarette butts and hamster-cage newspaper lining before placing them into a coffee urn where nothing but the freshest tap water percolates through the urn and into a cup that is a standardized measurement necessary for grounding a sense of equivalence among particular coffees. Notice that I, as a consumer, am almost nowhere in the above example. I don’t participate in collecting the coffee beans, I don’t know where they’re coming from and I really do nothing but issue a request to the barista and then give them some numbers representing debt owed to me that I’ve accumulated throughout the course of my labor and life. In this way, one can see how commodities and commodity chains produce a sense of distance between consumers, labor and capital as I am typically ignorant of the whole story of the commodity I buy and consume except for its excretion (Paterson, Death, ed. p.54). 

This expose by The Guardian – the only news source trusted by George Orwell – traces slavery through global supply chains of shrimp (prawns in the video). Slavery, the commodification of people and the theft of their lives is still alive and well, and maybe you eat it every day. Unless you do the work, the commodity will never tell you where it comes from.

Notice how Luke applies his theoretical and methodological commitments in his chapter on TNC. He dives into their actual material practices rather than merely their ecological lip service by focusing on a commodity and the network that produces it. He’s thinking about how TNC commodifies land and the processes, and considerations that go into making land tradeable and in that sense, commodities. Again, consider that commodities are a mix of resources and labor that have an exchange value ($3 for 16 ozs of Pike Place, for example), and circulate throughout your environment. Now consider that the land you’re sitting on is a commodity but only insofar as the U.S. government recognizes land as tradeable. This means that land is a potential site of commodity production – as in a gold mine – and a commodity itself – in that we can attach an exchange value for it, and we live within a society that thinks land can be bought, owned and traded. This leads to other quandaries such as fictitious commodities (Paterson, Death, ed., p.56) and the Second Contradiction of Capital (Paterson, Death, ed., p.56-60) but I’ll leave these aside for simpler language. 

Both Paterson and Luke see commodification as central to the reproduction of a particular form of society grounded in liberalism and exhibited through the establishment of markets and circulation of commodities. Their crux is that commodity development and circulation, as practiced, is often ecologically destructive and grounded in notions of abstraction and extraction that complicate and animate social relations and exacerbate and create inequalities through discourses of market “freedom.” However, liberal thinking has generally ignored ecological and environmental damage and degradation within its economic calculi and labels these effects as “market externalities.” Ignorance of externalities is accomplished through the distancing effect that commodities and their circulation have on the perceptive faculties of consumers and reinscribes a sense of accelerated consumption and accumulation of material stuffs that are built from extractive networks. These consumptive patterns are driving (in a sense) the production of ecological destruction and it isn’t until externalities become salient within the environment that attempts at incorporation within economic calculi are made (look at the establishment of Superfund sites). This process already exhibits a relationship to that thing we might call “nature” and already shows you how “nature” and “society” are enmeshed through extractive commodity production. Social demands are and always have “natural” consequences and Luke admonishes TNC for their “conservation” strategy which reinscribes the logic of commodification within the production of the physical environments they’re supposed to protect! 

Look at it this way: Commodities are capital. They can be bought, traded, made, and circulated as a force within and through environments. They are also, according to our authors from this week, central in the production of ecological destruction because they exist and emanate from real material networks of extraction and production. Commodities and commodification are so pervasive that we often talk about ourselves and others as existing within markets – this labor market, or that labor market – and this leads to some unpleasant social consequences like the mistreatment of people, or, as in a previous example, the enslavement of others as commodities! 

We cash our hopes and define freedoms through objects and commodities but is anyone asking whether we should, or what consequences that will have?

All of the above have material effects. We can look for sites of analysis through the commodity as a nexus – a window – into a world that runs on commodification and an environment built by the circulation of things based on perceived values. More often than not, our notions of freedom are cashed out in terms of consumption – in terms that make freedom constitutive of the objects to which it is attached (watch a car commercial as above, and ask what values they’re selling you). Our social structure often includes the language of commodification and exchange!

So, here’s the dirty little secret: Luke might nail TNC for doing the very thing they claim to be preventing – the degradation of lands, waters and airways by commodification and the production of sociality – by commodifying more lands, waters and airways in service to their notions of what “the environment” should be; but commodification is a cornerstone of liberal discourse. It’s often what people turn to when presented with a recalcitrant externality showing itself through our environs. Indeed Luke’s first chapter in Anthropocene Alerts is an alert from 1980 prodding liberal thought and thinkers for not considering commodification as a central problem in “the environment (Luke, 2019, Chapter 1). They slap a technological band-aid (not the actual common term, but a brand name!) on nature’s sucking chest wound and then try to find something to sell – some sort of “market incentive” to attract more capital or make environmental protection palatable to people who can’t understand that clean drinking water is a must for everyone and people other than themselves live in this world and are fighting for their lives every single day. This collective akrasia in evidence points to – alludes – to the presence of the commodity form – a notion of collective consciousness that sees the commodity as the omnipresent model of society and social relationships (Paterson, Death, ed., p.54). If you’re paying attention, this means that the commodity form also quietly regulates conduct toward the environment and its construction. In other words, the commodity makes the machines we call societies run and are simultaneously its output creating a self-repeating system of extraction and expansion. One only needs to consider carbon markets discussed by Paterson, The Nature Conservancy’s trade lands discussed by Luke, or habitat credit swaps discussed by yours truly, to see the presence of the commodity form and its psychic and material effects.

Chozen’s “Tel A Lie Vision” talks about the circulation of commodities, of desires represented through a system reliant on passive viewership and active consumption. Here we can hear the circulation of commodities as a system of governance.

When all the world is processed, what will Nature be? If everything can be commodified and turned into capital, then where is Nature now? These questions should help you come to an understanding of the world we live in when you consider that Nature is dead and we have killed her. 

Welcome to the Critical Ethos

There are three things I discuss in this post:

  1. The critical ethos and its importance in doing environmental politics through self-reflective cultivation; 
  2. An introduction to ecocritique as a genre of writing, method of analysis and theoretical orientation that can help develop and emmenate from the critical ethos;
  3. And lastly, looking for inspiration through critical self reflection on oneself in the environment

Looking through the syllabus, you’ll notice, dear reader, that this course does not take particular case studies of global environmental change as its guiding arc. I made this decision because this class is for those already somewhat convinced of global change, and my apologies to those whom this class leaves aside. In short, “the science” has been discussing global change for centuries – if but relegated to local analyses in its early years – and we are not in the business of merely finding more information regarding our changing planet and transmitting it. Instead, this class is focussed on developing thinkers – people capable of going beyond the particulars, the phantasms of reality, and grasping the totality of interactions that make up the environment

As such, we’re engaged in developing engaging and thoughtful people through a recognition of “the self” within “the environment.” We will question and probe what “the environment” is and what it means within political discourse and we’ll try to wrap our heads around some of the more puzzling and difficult problems presented by global trends in social organization and how those trends contain not only civilizational history and its modes of living – the lifeforms it produces and has produced – but, and more importantly, how plastic “the environment” actually is in its meaning and its materiality. 

Neither myself nor any (for the most part) of our authors are trying to alarm you to the “problems” or issues in “the environment.” You’ll notice that I won’t be impelling you to “do your part,” or make some mealy-mouthed oath to “safeguard” the planet. We have no time for such arrogant managerialist approaches to our spinning orb. Instead, we focus on how deeply embedded and political the issues presented by global environmental change are within “the science,” or through the case studies and examples mobilized in this course. We live in settled societies with real material effects and consequences. These effects are the result of how we’ve built and run our societies across the Earth. As a result, we’re going to question the totalizing attitude presented by discourses of “The Anthropocene” – the geological epoch of humans – and how this discourse hinders critical environmental reflection necessary to tackle the problems presented by global environmental change. 

George Carlin expresses the attitude we should develop toward our human arrogance. It is not so much that the planet is changing and it’s “our” fault, but the results of this change. Who wins and who loses? Who gets to pollute and who lives with that pollution? Who despoils the Earth and who has to live in the rubble and the wrecks when all is said and done?

This course is a class in Political Ecology – a subfield of political science, and environmental studies (Death, Death ed., p.8). We are interested, in short, in how politics constructs and administers environments. Carl Death’s chapter from this week’s readings splits discourses of the environment into two broad categories (Death, Death ed., P. 8-9). One treats the environment as part of Nature – something that exists independent of human societies. Indeed many thinkers seem to separate arenas of action into “nature” or the natural and “society” or the social. We’ll see why this separation is problematic and why, in my opinion, we’d be better off without it as it merely clouds thinking. In short, this class questions the Nature/Society split, and we must approach this often unquestioned conceptual framework from the position of theory and theorizing. For those of you questioning that vantage point, I’ll remind you that theory is almost always animated, lived and felt regardless of whether you’re conscious of it, and that the act of splitting reality into “Nature,” and “Society,” is already a theoretical division.

Theoretical fantasias such as “pristine nature,” “untouched wilderness,” or an independent Nature akin to the Abrahamic God will not be mobilized for our discussions save as whipping posts. We will, instead, take the opposite fork of the two ways the environment is portrayed in political discourse and thus acted upon through political networks. This is one that understands the environment as made up of environs – that is, enclosures and how those enclosures are made, animated, policed, securitized and linked to the machinations of global capitalism. This is a more intuitive notion than it sounds. 

It’s often said that we wear different hats in society. Sometimes you have to put on your student hat and listen to me in my professor hat. Other times you put on your driver’s hat and have to recognize, interpret and anticipate the actions of others who are also wearing their driver’s hat. Something switches when you put on your different hats for your different functions in society and you’ll notice that your surroundings more often than not, play a role in how you behave and what hats are needed by you within different enclosures. We’ll suggest in this class that we exist within different enclosures that are textured by rules, technologies, interactions, histories, governments, sciences, and more. We’ll see that these little worlds and the actions within them make up the much larger aggregate of “the environment” at a global scale and that we humans are deeply, inexorably embedded within the functions of the planet writ large. These enclosures – these environs – are created and administered by and through politics and it is here that we focus our analyses. 

Our course is not for those in love with binge and purge style regurgitation. It will require you to think and think very hard about how your enclosures are connected to others and how this aggregation is connected to that which has cradled humanity since before homo sapien arrived on the scene. To do this, we’ll need a few tools. The first and most important tool for the task is you, dear reader. We will learn that we must cultivate a critical sensibility suggested by Carl Death in his first chapter, by Tim Luke throughout his work, and by me, your professor, in my work and throughout the course. I want to show you how this ethos is actually a way of living, one that tries to connect the little loves and lived realities of our everyday lives with the massive movements of capital, culture, society, technology, and politics – civilization

To do this, we must cultivate, as Death councils, a sensibility that questions the everyday and the things that seem given to us. Why are you reading this? Because you were told to? Who told you to do that and what gave them that authority? How is that authority connected to an environ and how is it connected to the rest of the living, breathing orb on which we live? These are the sorts of questions that should concern you. When a cruise ship that belches out a carbon output equivalent to a million cars everyday tells you that they have a “Save the Waves” environmental program, are you simply going to accept it and be on your way? Or are you going to recognize the interconnection of all things and wonder how in the fuck an industry that relies on a fuel source dug from the ground that is then burned in a furnace could possibly claim any semblance of sustainability? In short, will you call bullshit and recognize that bullshit circulates in your environments everyday but that maybe you’ve become numb to it? This is the germ of the critical ethos – a critical way of life that refuses to accept the given and wants more. Cultivate it, as you will in this course through your own research.  

This is a clip from The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology by Slavoj Zizek – the Jarjar Binks of critical theory. We won’t use “ideology” much as a term in our course and favor “discourse,” instead, but Zizek is alluding to the difficulty of liberation in one’s environment. We’ll circle back to this problem throughout the course, but the clip is instructive in that it shows how ideologies are environmental and how the environment is constructed by ideologies.

    Secondly, you’ll need a weapon – something sharp, maybe but something you can wield with precision. We’re going to study, and sharpen a weapon that will help you cut the bullshit into manageable sizes. I suggest we learn ecocritiques as that weapon. Your weapon’s expert is Timothy W. Luke and we must learn how to use his weapon with care. Thankfully, however, ecocritiques are intuitive and customizable and we’ll continue to see example after example of ecocriticisms that demonstrate not only a mind armed with a critical ethos, but one flexible enough to make it work across disciplines. We’ll roam from critical approaches to understanding science and management, to ecocritiques as a technology of self-discipline and scholarly improvement. 

Ecocritique, at its broadest, is a genre of writing that questions the place of humans within their environments through criticising or interrogating their social organization related to the machinations of their broader operational contexts. They are about taking the familiar and making it strange; of seeing other perspectives through the connections exhibited within environs; or of coming to understand and probe positions purportedly in the name of The Earth, or The Planet, or The Environment. We’ll push the very big categories to their limits and question the actions of others in a political-environmental context. 

Try to cultivate a sensibility that sees the separation between an uncaring planet, and one that must care about the planet’s inhabitants. We can’t simply collapse into actionless nihilism that sees the emptiness of meaning. We must come to recognize our spinning orb as our home and the home for others including nonhumans. There’s no need to despair in darkness when you are the author of your own light – not in that stupid individualistic way though.

Here’s the rub. It’s not good enough to find “the science” and bring it back to your village. You need to see how “the science” is mobilized within politics and how it acts within environs. Yes, we’ll see more flooding. Yes, the Great Barrier Reef has been pronounced dead. But who cares? We in Blacksburg can’t see how the Reef is connected to our everyday worlds. We in Virginia didn’t have to live through Katrina, or Sandy and deal with the destruction wrought by those storms. We may have sent money, supplies and people, but no one lost a house because Sandy made landfall in our remote mountains. That’s what this course and its ecocritiques get to. Who wins and who loses in the global environment constructed by politics? We don’t have to look far to see racism threaded throughout our environments and one only has to go to Shockoe Bottom in Richmond to see how flooding was a problem for some and not for others and that this was created and committed in and through politics. 

Ecocrtiques are about exposing the political, cultural, economic, and social forces within our environs. They are about exhuming the connections we share to one another not simply through the air we breathe and the water we drink, but how that water got there in the first place, and how the composition of the air came to be that way. Luke opens his Anthropocene Alerts by altering his readers to the radioactive isotopes circulating in the global biosphere as a result of Cold War politics and the need for displays of power within the strategy of nuclear deterrence. In other words, politics is already in the water – just ask the people of Flint, MI – our job is to bring those politics into fresh light so we, and others can see more clearly how their lives are built and run by remote interests as much as life and the living emanate from the individual. 

Lastly, and this has bearing on your final project, I want to share a personal journey with you and show you, dear reader, how you and your interests are connected throughout this amazing planet and how you can find inspiration almost anywhere. This class is for those who want to feel inspiration. It is not for people who are merely interested in sliding through their education to hopefully find a job. I have earned four degrees in my life and looking for “a job” or “money” through education is wrongheaded and expensive – we need tradespeople! I sought freedom – liberation – from the utter discomfort I feel daily in my environs. Ecocritques, self-discipline, the critical ethos are all fine and good, but the reason I’ve done this and chosen these paths is because I’ve been looking for the tools – the vocabulary – to describe my surroundings and deal with their discomforts. Critical theory, the school of thought we will examine throughout this course, deals specifically with the problems of liberation – of freeing oneself from the matrices of the status quo – and I have selected this school of thought as my philosophical home after examining a few of the alternatives in the Western canon. This journey has taken years and really begins with 9/11/01 and the shock of death that hung in the air over Long Island. I won’t bore you with the details of how my sky had ash in it for three days, or how this sent me on a long project of trying to figure out what would possess people to slam themselves and others into the World Trade Center on Manhattan but it bears mention that thoughts and thinkers don’t come from nowhere and have a material basis. 

I was getting my butt kicked by my dissertation committee. I hadn’t found my project yet and nearly 12 years of continuous education and all the money and energy spent during them were in jeopardy. My advisor told me to go home to Long Island and think seriously about what I wanted to research and hopefully come back to Blacksburg with something concrete to present to the three other scholars on my dissertation committee. I did as Tim told me and went back to Setauket, NY and wracked my brain trying to find something to talk about. The horse blinders were on though and I couldn’t relax enough to think through talking about whatever it was that I wanted to talk about. Truth be told, I couldn’t find any environmental histories of Long Island that weren’t half-assed collections of hearsay as most seemed to lack the primary sources to substantiate their claims. This was a defeating dead end, and though there’s an insane amount of things to talk about in Long Island’s history, nothing appealed to me and I was in too foul a mood (having had my ego chopped into little pieces and scattered around me by one brilliant teacher) to recognize anything worth writing about in the sort of detail a dissertation demands. 

I was sleeping most of the day because I was living for the night and happy to be back in some of my old haunts with good friends. My dad, sensing my slothful inebriation, shook me awake one morning and told me that we were going kayaking around Setauket Harbor and into Conscience Bay. The hangover was pounding in the mid-day sun and I was regretting every last drop from the night before as my sweat poured into the water surely altering the BACs of the fish populations in the Long Island Sound (I do not advocate drinking as a source of inspiration but the pains from the hangover can be quite instructive life advice). I looked up and there was an osprey on a dock pylon with a huge fish in his talons.

Setauket Harbor.

I did not grow up seeing many ospreys in my waters. We always had to drive East to Shelter Island or Greenport to see them. They have been making a comeback since their extirpation and raptor populations, generally, have rebounded with peregrines and bald eagles claiming more nesting sites across the island. I did not know this at the time, but found out later after we approached the beach where I had grown up and spent a significant time in my younger years.

It was moving. All of it. The sand, the water, the grasses, all of it shaking and shimmering. I chalked it up to my booze-addled brain recoiling in horror at the sun and heat, producing some sort of delirium that made everything appear more alive; just some last ditch effort by a fading consciousness to entertain and soothe a damaged ego that was again having the tar whipped out of it by physical activity and the July Sun. I was wrong – thank God. 

It was a march of fiddler crabs the likes of which I had never seen before nor since and I couldn’t believe their density when I beached the kayak. I had to get out and stand in them to make sure I wasn’t totally off my nut, but they were there. Shaking, moving, living, and marching in throngs that would make Christmas Island blush. They scuttled around me and I stood watching them and the whole beach move under the weight. 

I took this experience back to my advisor, Dr. Luke, and he told me to look at the removal of a synthetic pesticide from Long Island’s environments called DDT. Without going into the specifics of DDT, it had been held responsible for killing off raptor populations and crustaceans through its over application to remove mosquitoes from Long Island and elsewhere. There is a long history to its use dating back to the Second World War, but it entered our suburban environments shortly thereafter. It was the Environmental Defense Fund who spearheaded the removal of DDT from Long Island and the rest of the US and I rifled through their exploits by reading books and articles published by them and their employees. It turns out that I had grown up looking at their old headquarters behind an animatronic bald eagle on the Stony Brook Post Office and I took this as some sort of sign that they were supposed to take center stage in my work. 

I tried, dear friends, I really did, to only focus on EDF and their history as an environmental organization. I passed my comprehensive exams with a rough idea of how it would go only to find that EDF’s archives were housed at Stony Brook University in physical collections I would have to go to for any real sort of scholarship to be written about them. I couldn’t do that. I had limited funding that tied me directly to Blacksburg and I was unwilling to drive home and let my classes run without me while pouring over notes, and letters in the bowels of Stony Brook University (the archives, of course, are undergoing digitalization currently and would have made my life easier). Another dead end – maybe.

Refusing to give up can be an excellent skill to cultivate when it’s not naked stubbornness and stupidity. In my case, EDF felt right. I wanted to tell a story about a hometown hero and how a ragtag group of scientists, one old school English adventurer and a foulmouthed lawyer after my own heart failed upwards and stuck it to the US government and their corporate overlords. The problem was, that story had already been told, and better by the people who were there. So, who was EDF and who are they now became my guiding question. I had to start looking at their current projects and who they had become since the DDT wars. They fired the lawyer I loved – the guy whose slogan, his personal slogan, was “Just sue the bastards,” and the current president was a Long Islander from Mineola Station in Nassau County. Leaving aside how anyone could possibly know anything natural and be from Nassau County, I started looking at the projects Fred Krupp was heading. They were trying out a new sort of environmental economics scheme called a habitat exchange and the most sophisticated and advanced instantiation of it was in Wyoming and concerned the Greater Sage-grouse. 

I had not been to Wyoming at the time, and had never seen a Greater Sage-grouse. I was a researcher living outside a temperate rainforest, not the sagebrush steppe and I had no real local knowledge to speak of concerning the state, its biota, ecotones, or environs. I was, however, trained to smell bullshit through my education in politics and philosophy (amazing disciplines for the study of bullshit and not themselves bullshit studies). Their schemes didn’t seem right to me in how they simply talked about “nature,” or Centrocercus urophasianus. I smelled bullshit and dug deeper. It grabbed me, and pulled me in and finally, I produced the first two chapters of my dissertation that would be edited, chopped up, remixed, criticized and prodded.

Yours truly combing the sagebrush steppe. Photo credit: Jon Butcher.

Kayaking. That’s all it took. It was seeing an osprey and some crabs kayaking. This led me on a journey that took me to the heart of the US and connected my birthplace with somewhere I never thought I’d go. I have since solved my problems of having never been to Wyoming, nor seen a sage-grouse and this is because I let my research take me when it felt right. The point to all of the above is to show you a small cut into doing research on the environment. Your little lives are connected to much bigger things and it’s pulling out those connections that displays your education, your creativity, and your understanding of things well beyond your local conditions. You’ll read my dissertation in this class, and I’m excited to share it with you, but you should know that ideas don’t come from nowhere and that you can find inspiration if you let it in and fight through all the dead ends and stumbling blocks in your way. I want this experience for you, my friends, and I want to see you find a little piece in this world that you’ll come to know and, hopefully, as in my case, love. 

We’re not going to be easy on the world and it’s a path that can be isolating and lonely at times, but you can find your way through it and see things in new lights and inspire other people. I’m not going to moralize anyone in their consumptive habits or blame individuals solely for the changes in our planet, but we’re going to cultivate a larger sense, something planetary that goes beyond the narrow confines of our bailiwicks to see the patchwork of connections that make our worlds. I invite you to join me in this project and I want to show you how a critically reflective way of living can open new worlds that many never see, and how simply seeing those new worlds will make your lives richer and maybe, just maybe, help us get a handle on the changes in our worlds as we make and remake habitats of the living and the unborn.

A sage-grouse hen taken through a spotting scope in Wyoming’s sagebrush steppe. Photo credit: Jon Butcher.