Materialization of the Immaterial

Luke Chapter 14: “The Dark Enlightenment and the Anthropocene: Readings from the Book of Third Nature as Political Theology”

Timothy Luke’s chapter on the Dark Enlightenment focuses on the more specific, Accelerationist movement created by a group of individuals who refer to themselves as Neo-Reactionaries. Chapter 14 references Luke’s previous chapter in Anthropocene Alerts on Re-Reading the Unabomber manifesto. Luke draws similarities between the two referring to the common objective of both to disrupt the system and “reverse the runaway pace of change in the modern world” (273). At a more basic level, the Accelerationist movement within the Dark Enlightenment consists of those with close ties to “centered venture capitalists, cyber-liberatarian thinkers, and corporate entrepreneurs” (263). Centered in Silicon Valley, these tech moguls, in the eyes of Luke, view democracy as a deteriorating theology and one in need of reform.

The relationship between governance and capitalism is central to understanding the Dark Enlightenment period in general as those that have profited excessively from neoliberalism wish to reform the system for that exact reason. It is thus ironic that those reaping the most rewards from our current system of government wish to unearth it. Luke describes the accelerationist thought process as such:

“Immense wealth frequently is matched to liberatarian values, but today’s billionaires are deeply committed to their narrow self-interests, not unlike most robber barons during the Gilded Age before state trust busting broke up the big bank, oil, railway, and steel monopolies of that era” (266).

Kat Chrysostom in her TED talk on how to dismantle monopolies, acknowledges the limitless power that is principle to the belief system of NRx thinkers, the nickname afforded to them by Timothy Luke, centering around the notion that they are godlike. NRxers feel that they are greater than the average human and deserve to uproot the current democratic system, modeling it after a modern corporate business structure. Moreover, Accelerationists have exploited the introduction of Third Nature, the digital environment phase of human development, viewing itself as greater than any form of political governance.

Luke views the unabloggers, a slight allusion to Ted Kaczynski (the somewhat manic individual who attempted to break “the system” through a series of individual bombings, hence

the unabomber nickname), apolocolyptically stating that “For them, this societal structure of our epoch is fragile, waiting to be crashed, hacked or endlessly upgraded by them” (272). His impression obviously isn’t upbeat or positive concerning their school of thought as evident by the comparison he makes to someone that wasn’t mentally healthy and took to violence because of it. Furthermore, the accelerationist movement appears as a self-absorbed, darwinian theology in which those that are most fit are those that should rule. The epistemic and authoritarian approach characterizing the accelerationist movement is a big red flag for Timothy Luke perpetuated by the “IPO Bonanza” pursued by those who have undergone “historically uninformed, morally unfocused, and politically naive streams of STEM-centered education” (266). The movement is merely evidence of a superiority complex held by those in big tech and venture capital.

Luke (Canvas Article) “Corporate Social Responsibility: An Uneasy Merger of Sustainability and Development.”

Timothy Luke’s article about Corporate Social Responsibility discusses the beginnings of corporate social responsibility, and how these corporations use their own profit motivations to disregard the actual importance of sustainability at its core. The standards for how businesses approach sustainable measures have lowered because these businesses see sustainability as a way to profit off of the perception of society. If society sees a business portraying the use of sustainable practices within different areas in the workplace, consumers are more likely to want to purchase from that company. Many companies are doing as little as they can to still present themselves in a positive light to consumers without actually making considerable changes.

Corporations and sustainability have a unique relationship because the future of the natural environment does rely on how corporations and society approach sustainable methods in the workplace. Corporations profit off of the perceptions of the consumers. This perception goes into categories besides sustainability as well such as social justice, diversity and philanthropy. However, many of these categories could be considered less detrimental to the future of society and humans because the destruction of the environment leads to the inability for humans to function. Corporations are willing to implement new sustainable measures “as part of demonstrating a vital engagement with social responsibility” (87). The actual reality of the corporation is less important than the perception of reality of that corporation. As long as the public sees a certain company as environmentally conscientious, the company will bring in more profit. However, that company may have done very little to improve their standards of sustainability.

Luke delves into the differences between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ sustainability. ‘Weak’ sustainability describes finding a way for society to continue the ability to “accumulate…more man-made capital” (85). ‘Strong’ sustainability on the other hand realizes that natural capital is irreplaceable by man-made capital. Luke further suggests that “Without natural capital, there is no human capital of any type, because low, declining, or no natural resources create conditions where human capital cannot be appropriated or accumulated” (85). If society is unable to create human capital due to the natural environmental conditions, humans would be unable to survive in a healthy manner or at all.

Wendy Woods describes how Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is not enough to solve the environmental problems at hand. She talks about how CSR is impactful because it is appealing to the employees and customers, but in order to further attempt to solve these issues companies should adopt Total Societal Impact (TSI). TSI is the accumulation of the different ways a corporation affects society. She mentions the supply chain within the company, manufacturing practices and distribution of goods. Woods also explains how Total Societal Impact can contribute to corporate business benefits. Luke includes a similar example in his article of how proper sustainability practices provide “…operational growth and growth-oriented benefits that help cut costs and develop new markets and products” (89).

The sustainability ‘movement’ proves the priorities of corporations remain self centered and circle around profit. Luke explained the necessity of proper attention from corporations, but these companies will need to put money motives to the side in order to improve their sustainable practices.

Stubberfield, “Chapter 3: Fictitious Materiality: An Examination of the Wyoming Conservation Exchange”

Stubberfield’s chapter on the Wyoming Conservation Exchange criticizes the political economy created by the conservation exchange and the incomplete market it creates with its “fictitious” commodities. He argues that the WCE is an instrument in neoliberal environmentalism that is purposely constructed to feed into the Megamachine. Stubberfield defines neoliberal environmentality as “extending the formation and domination of markets within synthetic environs, and the production of commodities through processes of depoliticization, individuation, monetization, and technocratic management that incentivizes the adoption of instrumental thinking relating to environment.” The WCE fits this definition because it deals in synthetic environs and produces technonatural commodities that lead buyers to think the environment can be degraded and easily recreated in another area with equal quality.

The WCE works through a credit-based system. Landowners can earn credits by improving their land to provide Greater Sage Grouse habitat. The value of these improvements is determined by a Habitat Quantification Tool. This tool works by comparing the quality of the habitat to the perceived needs of a species, in this case the Greater Sage Grouse (GRSG). The

habitat quality is then quantified using a standard metric. Property is evaluated based on the perceived use the GRSG will get from the habitat. The score is converted to functional acres and sold at auction. The habitat quality itself is hard to quantify because the habitat preferences of the GRSG vary greatly by population. Therefore, the perceived benefits to the species may not apply to the local GRSG population.

Functional acre credits can be sold as either mitigation or non-mitigation credits. Most of these credits are bought by producers of paleotechnic commodities which perpetuates the cycle of degradation and mitigation. Stubberfield argues that “the currency that courses through the WCE cannot be said to be anything more than a fictitious commodity flowing through an incomplete market detached from ground conditions or benefits to the species. That which is traded is the ability to degrade land and habitat.” Mitigation credits are required by state laws, without these laws there would be no demand. These credits are called fictitious because it is hard to quantify the real value of the land and the market is based on inconsistent values. By creating technonatural habitats and selling them to offset degradation of natural habitat, this system is not benefiting the GRSG. Instead, it is supporting Wyoming’s hydrocarbon economy and benefiting the land owners and paleotechnic commodity chains.

Student Bios:

Nicholas Hatch is a junior double majoring in Political Science and Economics who loves pretty much any sport and is an avid weight-lifter. Nicholas is incredibly passionate about the Washington Nationals and watches nearly every game during the baseball season. He is also involved heavily in The Big Event and is also a part of Phi Sigma Kappa Fraternity. A fun fact about Nicholas is that he once won $200 in a bracket challenge for The Bachelor.

Calista Heister is a sophomore majoring in Management Consulting and Analytics and minoring in Political Science from Buffalo, New York. Calista is a member of the Virginia Tech Women’s Soccer team. Her educational interests include Corporate Sustainability, Environmental Law and Corporate Environmental Management. In her free time she loves travelling, hiking, trail running, skateboarding and skiing.

Chloe Hunter-Olson is a junior majoring in Natural Resources Conservation with a concentration in Outdoor Recreation Management. Chloe is currently considering an Urban Forestry minor. She is from a small town in Western Maryland near Deep Creek Lake. She has two cats here in Blacksburg. Her interests include hiking, cooking, and travelling. Chloe is also a huge fan of roller coasters and amusement parks.

The Instrumentalization of Nature

Luke (Ecocritique Reader), “Chapter 7: Marcuse and the Politics of Radical Ecology”

In Chapter 7, Luke explores Marcuse’s theories and influence on the New Left. Luke describes Marcuse’s criticisms of human social institutions, which he claims have negative impacts on human dimensions. Marcuse, in his writings, asserts that technology is a “form of social control and domination” (Page 143). This week’s readings highlight the theme of Instrumentalization, converting something into a tool utilized simply as a means to an end.

Here, the reading asserts that the increased use of technology has increased the human ability to have dominion over Nature. Luke argues Marcuse’s ideas on pacifying nature are more realistic than some modern ecologists. The reading underscores the importance of finding a balance in the utilization of natural resources, “since nature is a human construct in both theory and practice, truly non-anthropocentric society or post-technological economy is pure fantasy” (Page 150). This demonstrates Marcuse’s critical tone towards a more idealistic preservationist. Overall, the instrumentalization of nature is a vital component of our materialistic and modern consumer culture, it is near impossible to separate the delicate intricacies of the two.

Instrumentalism is the pragmatic view of using something as a tool or instrument to solve real problems. In the case of instrumentalism of Nature, Nature is used as the instrument to meet human consumptive needs. Natural resources are harvested for construction, food, energy, and technology. By using Nature as an instrument we are obliterating our constructions of a delineation between “nature” and “society”. Nature is at once as much a part of our production

system as we are a part of it. The instrumentalism of Nature has defined the past century. The chemical composition of Earth has been significantly altered at an unprecedented rate. Humans have harvested resources from all over the world. Ecological critics condemn this anthropocentric behavior while capitalist applaud it. The readings for the class have hinted that these forces are very delicate and intricately entwined.

Luke, Chapter 11: “On the Road to Marrakesh: A Politics of Mitigation or Mystification for Global Climate Change?”

In Chapter 11 Luke evaluates the political sphere of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. From the 1992 Rio de Janerio global summit to the 2015 Paris Accords it is clear that there is still significant discourse and disagreement over how to best combat this issue. The specifics of how to implement limits of GHGs and to what extent they need to be reduced has become a very polarizing topic. Luke claims there is still much to learn about climate change, however, once this knowledge is obtained it may be too late. Throughout the chapter, Luke talks about economic incentives and programs such as cap n trade. Will these alone be enough to curb increasing global surface temperatures and reduce GHG emissions – it is not likely. Luke’s evaluation of these policy instruments in order to combat the wicked problem of global climate change demonstrates that there is still significant disagreement about best use practices. In this context, policy instruments used to mitigate climate change are debated because they may reduce the capacity of environmental disruption, but at the compromise of real efficacy to maintain global production industries and the economy. Implementation of large scale instruments has a way of obscuring the feasibility of achieving policy goals. Sometimes the act of organizing to solve an issue can have more merit than the actual impact of any solution, which is where

mystification has been applied.

Pleistocene Park

This is a modern-day example that relates very much to our discussion of global climate change and the instrumentalization of Nature. Nitika Zimov and his father, Sergey manage Pleistocene Park in the arctic of Siberia in hopes of restoring a previous biome in order to slow the effects of global climate change. They utilize land use management in order to create a sanctuary for large mammals like bison, oxen, and even lab-grown wooly mammoths. While this may resemble something out of a sci-fi action movie, the motives are to conserve this permafrost swatch of the Arctic. This demonstrates instrumentalization because the policy and action of preserving this tundra as a sanctuary for these animals is an agent for hopefully slowing the effects of climate change on this region.

Stubberfield, “Chapter 2: Building the Laboratory: Instrumentalizing the Greater Sage-grouse in Wyoming”

Stubberfield’s chapter illustrates this concept of instrumentalization within the context of Wyoming’s Greater Sage-grouse population. The greater sage-grouse was going to be listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2010 because the bird population was declining due to habitat fragmentation and anthropogenic activity (page 59). However, this designation would also require the State to restrict development across a large portion of land (page 60). Such restrictions would have been a disruption to Wyoming’s economic dependence on extractive industries, so they used the Core Area Protection (CAP) strategy as an avenue for addressing the  

problem. This policy framework was an instrument to restructure authority over the landscape, from Federal conservation legislation to Wyoming’s own reterritorialized management zones (page 64-65). It is a way for the State to balance its financial and ecological interests by establishing a mitigation credit economy, which in turn authorizes the development of technonatural lands (page 65). Wyoming still allows 5% surface disturbance within their Primary Habitat Management Areas, and gives developers the option to restore the habitat on-site, or create a new one adjacent to their operations (page 78-79). The policy instruments used to justify production in ecologically sensitive areas still place environmental conservation within a commodified context and allows the State to elude federal land management designations.

John Todd – The Ecological Design Revolution | Bioneers

Human intervention in ecosystems, as with the Wyoming case, are not always a detriment to environmental health. Biologist, John Todd, speaks on his ecological design work which has powerfully restored various landscapes into thriving habitats, successful water filtration systems, and opportunities for social growth. The (Agricultural) Eco-Industrial Park he advocates for is a great example of instrumentalizing an existing network of businesses (or farmers) to sustain a new form of economy that is local and interdependent. Todd also explains a production process in which low value materials, for example brewery waste, are combined with an instrumentalized organic component, like quality manure, to increase the waste’s value. In a world where anything can be commodified, this seems like a good way to re-evaluate the capabilities of natural elements and their monetary yield.

Student bios:

Emma Wilson is a Junior at the Virginia Tech Honors College, studying Environmental Policy and Planning. Emma loves hiking, trail running, and playing lacrosse. Emma is passionate about spending time outdoors and environmental resource conservation! A fun fact about Emma is that she has broken both of her arms.

Amariah Williams is a senior in the Smart and Sustainable Cities program; she has a minor in landscape architecture and enjoys her positions within various Tech organizations, such as the IAWA. In her free time, she likes to decompress with a nap, activities in her sketchbook, a puzzle, or a bike ride if the weather is nice.

What is Hybridity?

For the purposes of our class, we can define ‘hybridity’ as the intersection of nature and society. We can credit Bruno Latour when arguing that the concept of hybridity is an ongoing problem for modernity because our society was constructed under the premise of separating everything that is natural from everything that is scientific. This inherent agreement is our “modern constitution” (Death, 2013, p.123). Below are the five contradictions that the modern constitution makes when trying to separate society from nature. 

The Modern Constitution {Editor’s Note: The following provides a good list of conceptual commitments found in The Modern Constitution. The points marked ‘a’ are demonstrations of the conceptual commitments of it. Hybridity challenges the Modern Constitution by questioning and providing examples that contradict or complicate the neat conceptual framework of modernity.}

1. Society and Nature are separate 

a. I.e. ‘We can draw a line between what we humans have constructed and what nature naturally created, and we are satisfied with that separation.’ 

2. Pre-Moderns = Nature, We = culture 

a. ‘East vs. West, Global South vs. Global North’ 

3. There is no God 

a. ‘Removing God from logic, science, and society. ‘

4. Positivism 

a. ‘We can subject everything to objective, scientific inquiry and scrutiny. And that which we cannot, does not exist.’ 

5. Time is Linear 

a. ‘In the past, people were more ignorant and less aware than they are now.’ 

‘Society’ and ‘nature’ are related and dependent entities that are both integral parts of what we consider the modern world. Studying one without consideration of the other would be a mistake. However, it is still important to recognize other definitions of hybridity and their historical uses in constructing a relationship with a group of “others”. Edward Said, often cited as the father of postcolonial studies, argues that western epistemology (epistemology is the study of knowledge and knowing) ranks individuals and groups of people according to their closeness to nature. Under this scale, we find that the closer one is with nature, the more backwards, less civilized, and less progressive they are. This is obviously problematic because hybridity implies a mixing of western/white/civilized communities with oriental/black and brown/uncivilized communities, which is ‘unnatural’ according to its definition. 

The video above explicates the differences between Modernism, Pre-Modern, Anti-Modern, and Post-Modern epistemologies to ultimately make the claim that to differentiate between society and nature is incorrect. The narrator argues that we can’t do anything about nature’s laws, yet we are completely free from it with limitless possibilities. Additionally, he argues that we are individuals free to live in a free society, yet we are limited by the requirement that we do obey its laws. Modernism paints us as being outside of nature, yet we erected a science that shows how we are at its mercy. Similarly, modernism persists to tell us that the only thing separating us from animals are our laws, but we are also individuals free to do as we please. These different perspectives contradict one another and our problem here is that we only represent one of them at any given time. Modernity really just means taking a stance based on a purified yet specialized perspective. 

What is Arcology to the Anthropocene? 

Luke in Chapter 10 of Anthropocene Alerts, opens up with a discussion of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is the era that human intervention is the primary cause of environmental degradation. Luke focuses on in the first section, human overconsumption from the proliferation of urbanization and agrarianization. Luke mentions, “the advent of intensive citification and agrarianization in a few human communities from 11,000 to 4,000 years ago also coincides with the first major leap in the rates of atmospheric greenhouse gassing, not matched until the past decade” (Luke, 2019, p.210). The large waste created through citification and urbanization leads Luke to arcology as a solution. Moreover, Luke continues with the idea of arcology. 

Luke examines the two arcology perspectives of Soleri and Mumford. Arcology is the idea to create a self-sustainable society that creates minimal waste. Mumford’s idea of arcology is much like modern day. Luke paraphrases, “The embedded reproduction of cities as artificial networks of human habitats rests upon enduring material formations as habitats to store and distribute the huge reserves of food energy farmed by citified human and nonhuman beings” (Luke, 2019, p.211). Mumford’s perspective can be seen in practice like suburbs or cities as they are connected group habitats working in a system. However, this idea of arcology fuels the Anthropocene. Soleri’s perspective would be done by including all aspects of life, including education, recreational, agriculture, economic, and domestic, contained in a single complex that has a minimal profile. Luke states, “Wringing all of the excess energy, materials, labor, and information out of this abuse of energy materials, labor in wasted space became the main aspiration for his ideal arcologies” (Luke, 2019, p.212). Soleri’s perspective in theory is attainable by containing everything in a single complex at a minimum to assure the minimal amount of waste from urbanization. 

This clip demonstrates the effects of an arcological civilization from Soleri’s perspectives. The idea of living in this type of life seems almost like science fiction or dystopian society. It provides a few examples of arcology already in place in the modern day. The two societies they show are far from being complete but in theory would follow the sustainable goals of arcology. The video also gives an example of Shanghai Tower in China that is an arcology already in use. The tower shows the ability of advancements in clean energy with its low profile structural sound skin and energy producing turbines at the top. 

In Chapter 10 of Anthropocene Alerts, Luke explores the implications of our creation of the new epoch noting, “the invention and popularization of the Anthropocene as a chronotope for the current crisis, then, is politically significant. It redirects a scientific system of geological time measurement to run as a legitimation engine for those seeking to generate new knowledge as well as to acquire greater power to combat the crisis that “Man” supposedly causes” (Luke, 2019 p.217). The resulting change in perceived opinion the Anthropocene brings could either alarm the human population as a physiological scare tactic for legitimizing the environmental catastrophes we create or it could simply normalize the drastic environmental changes as defining tipping points in geologic history. 

In recent geologic time, from 1763 to 2013, “Man” is characterized in the Anthropocene in which his, “destructive power expresses deep ecology of hard anthropocentrism to shelter what little life remains in this sixth great extinction event” (Luke, 2019 p.225). This philosophy is adopted to benefit those with soft biocentric views who care about the “remnants of creation”. Thus, creating a paradox of recognizing the intrinsic value of other “less powerful” biotic creatures while humans act as the enterprise that permanently exterminates the future of other beings. 

The lyrics in Bon Iver’s song “Holocene” connect personal growth and relationships to themes such as realized human insignificance and destruction of the world around us. The video includes imagery of a young child, all alone amongst an environ that has been forever changed by the very species whose time on Earth has been a drop in the bucket in geologic time. A nod to the title of the song is referenced in the setting of the video, as Iceland is a landscape that has experienced glacial retreat during the Holocene and will continue to change drastically during the Anthropocene. 

Luke reinforces that Earth System Science, as a knowledge formation does not do nearly enough to hinder large anthropogenic environmental change. “ESS elites manage the patchwork adaptations of human and nonhuman life to spreading ecological catastrophe by refining sustainable degradation” (Luke, 2019 p.226). The paramount need for extensive reorganization of anthropocenian geophysical actions brings the question of choosing to rapidly adopt extensive efforts of geoengineering. This push for more intense efforts of geoengineering can be attributed to the smaller environments that have been adapted to create “new natures” or “technonatures”. As a greater amount of landscapes and enviorns have been changed by technonaturalism, humans can see the power that they hold in changing geophysical sphere to meet their needs and alter the environment to reach a specific ecological goal. Negative effects of anthropogenic climate change could lead to the ideological justification of experimental large-scale geoengineering to mitigate greenhouse gas effects on all planetary spheres. 

What is technonature? 

For the purpose of this class, ‘technonature’ is defined as a process that is primarily concerned with the continued reproduction of civilization through the expansion of technological infrastructure and continuance of commodity production. “Geotechnic expansion necessitates the generation of frontiers through the identification of components of reality critical in the maintenance of productive and consumptive patterns that lie at the heart of civilizational reproduction” (Stubberfield, 2019, p.35). The term itself implies that it is a hybrid ontology that recognizes the material entanglement of human, and non-human agencies involved in the co-production of environments. “The concept is built from scholarship in political ecology that recognizes the historical co-evolution of humanity through technological enrollment of organic systems in the expansion of second nature ecosystems formed through industrial activity” (Stubberfield,2019,p.24-25). This explains that we are incorporating technology into our lives by integrating it into nature and how we perceive it. 

“There is no need to view global change as a revenge of nature, nor is it possible to say that humans are entirely the mandarins of their planetary environment” (Stubberfield,2019, p.37). There are many factors that go into global change and we as humans are not the only factor because there are changes everyday within the planetary-scale machine. The said machine is termed as the ‘Megamachine’ and it is made up of “ historical material and psychic imbrications of the organic and synthetic” (Stubberfield, 2019, p.37). Since there are so many things that go into climate change and in the world in general this term seats the risks of climate catastrophe in technonatural systems. Generating technonature are ‘environmentalities’ that are “socio-techno-environmental process that organizes the relationships of living, and nonliving through the production of knowledge/power regimes such that they create administrable environs” (Stubberfield, 2019, p.53). This core process helps set a conduct that administers technonatural milieux. 

This video shows how technology has made an impact not only on nature, but the environment as well. Using less resources will help us lessen our impact with global warming, and using this kind of technology will help us to feed more people all around the world. However, capitalist economics may provide a stumbling block for both. The narrator talks about how if someone who works for the farm has access to the internet they are able to see and track how things are going at the farm. This increases managerial power over the flow of things that go into high tech agricultural production. The production of commodities is improved and accelerated by using this technology. The term ‘technonature’ can be used here due to how production is increased through the Internet of Things, and how the impacts on ‘the environment’ are displaced through the use of technology to ‘maximize efficiency’ concerning resources. This video does a great job explaining how technology and nature recombine through new technologies to create commodities at a more efficient rate, and how it can lessen the impacts on the environment, thus, setting an example for the future. However, it’s separation of Nature and Society as distinct spheres of action is complicated through an understanding of hybridity, and technonature. Specifically, a commodity is always already a hybrid as it is a combination of “natural” resources with labor and technology. The video above shows that information and data are inscribed in the food produced through a reorganization of production thus exhibiting a change in relationships between ‘nature’ and ‘society’ as an environmental strategy based in consumption. The technology above, through its deployment within a technological system of agricultural production is connected to the growth of global megamachinery as “the natural” is drawn into “the technological” as an environmentality connected to global agribusiness.

Bios 

Laura Gonzalez 

Laura is a senior in International Public Policy with a double major in Spanish. She is originally from Puerto Rico but has lived in Virginia for the past 10 years. Laura will be starting law school in the Fall of 2021 with plans to practice immigration law and reform policy. Her passions include community service and outreach, and civil rights advocacy. 

Carol Fears 

Carol is a senior in Agribusiness Management and is graduating in December. She was born and raised in Halifax, Virginia. Her plans after graduation are to apply to graduate school, and to find a job that incorporates helping people along with being involved in agriculture. Her passions include agriculture, sports, and helping others. 

Rose Freeman 

Rose is a junior studying Environmental Policy and Planning with a minor in Environmental Science. She is from Ashburn, Virginia and is passionate about environmental justice and energy geopolitics. Rose is involved with Students for Sustainable Practice at Virginia Tech and in her free time she enjoys being in nature with friends, dancing, and practicing yoga. 

Evan Furtner 

Evan is a senior studying National Security and Foreign Affairs with a minor in Italian. He is from Leesburg, Virginia but also spends much of his summers in Texas. Evan with his major originally wanted to work in the intelligence community but now hopes to attend law school next fall. Evan likes to go fishing, watch movies, study Italian culture, and anything to do with snow.

Society and the Environment

Society and the Environment

How have our perceptions of the environment evolved over time?

When we think of primal societies, we think of people who relied on their immediate environment for daily survival for fruits and berries, caves for shelter, and a reverence for the forces of nature. Paradigmatically, when we look at the current state of society, what we see is a species that is still reliant on its environment and yet insists on continuing practices that degrade it. What we see is a species that has so drastically altered its environment that it has become a threat to all other species on the planet. What we see is a species that continues to rely on fossil fuels despite the knowledge of its effects on the atmosphere, to build dams and highways and fisheries even if that means a death sentence for migratory fish and wildlife, a tendency that Joseph Schumpeter terms ‘creative destruction’ (Luke*, 801).

Conservation ideologies and movements have been on the rise for the past few decades as a result of the growing realization that Earth’s resources are not as abundant and limitless as they once seemed. However, the roots of this desire for conservation vastly stem from anthropocentric utility and consumerism whereby a resource thought to be of greater economic importance is said to have a greater intrinsic value. 

In order to truly move away from our exploitation of nature instead of placing temporary bandages on our ecological problems, there needs to be a radical shift in how we think of ecology itself from a shallow perspective that views humans as separate from nature and as the ‘crown of creation’ towards a deeper ecological understanding that recognizes the intrinsic value and right of all things to live and blossom regardless of their value to humans, based on the foundations of earth wisdom and ecological consciousness (Luke, 866). This is quite a challenge given the human desire to dominate and control nature and all her aspects, but self-realization and biocentric equality, as described by Devall and Sessions, are the keys to achieving a sense of deep ecology (Luke, 884). For this reason, the theory of technonaturalization can be applicable to how society may interact with the environment going forward. “Technonaturalization displays the construction of synthetic ecosystems related to the reproduction of machines and capital by showing how the organic becomes enrolled in civilizational life-support networks that partially form the global environment” (Stubberfield, 1). The human desire to dominate and control nature is once again exhibited here in order to manage the environment. 

The process of creating, administering, and governing these synthetic environments are ways for humans to be able to achieve the sense of self-realization, which is not only learning the fact or truth about something but also applying this knowledge in a substantive form. This does not simply deal with the minutiae of everyday life, but it also applies to a larger scale to maintain the environment “populated and supported by humans, machines, and capital” (Stubberfield, 2). CAP is a demonstration of Watts and Peluso’s description of resource complexes in regards to the Greater Sage-grouse. CAP works to ‘foster’ the safety of the Sage Grouse population, yet in doing so thwarts this very goal by valuing economic growth over biodiversity.  This example illustrates how economic and political goals are deeply intertwined in environmental endeavors.  These ulterior motives assess endangered species with little importance in comparison to human political desires.  

The problem with dealing with territories is that if a species is listed as endangered, then there would be the need for strict policing across a certain part of that state’s territory, which was the case in the situation of the grouse. This would also be a threat to the state’s economy, and for this reason, “the Wyoming CAP is theorized as a necessary evolution in wildlife management technology”, and also “provided the regulatory and technological bedrock for establishing the Wyoming Conservation Exchange” (Stubberfield, 2), which is “concerned with producing workforces of private landowners by financially framing relationships to territory and sage-grouse populations by turning representations of sage-grouse habitat into economic incentives” (Stubberfield, 3). The problem with this is that like many other technologically based approaches to nature’s conservation, it depends on the continued destruction and disturbance of the natural environment to remain economically viable. Because of this, the focus has shifted and once again it has become a challenge for humans to let go of their own desire to dominate and control nature.

Not only do we see how the human species attempts to dominate nature in Stubberfield’s research on the Sage Grouse, but we also see this exemplified throughout Death’s Chapter 19 ‘Resource Violence’ in which Michael Watts and Nancy Peluso illustrate how governments reify nature as an object of government ownership as exemplified by the economic and political ventures in the Indonesian forests and the Niger Delta Oil Fields. Stubberfield’s research detailing the relationship between the CAP and the Sage-grouse population is a manifestation of Watts and Peluso’s resource complex.  We reify nature to support greater political-economic desires rather than the immediate habitat itself. 

The environment is viewed as an object of ownership and power that serves as a means to an end rather than an end itself.  Because humans view the environment as a realm to be dominated, specific territories or resources such as the Indonesian forests become symbols of national identity and the state.  Subsequently, these locations become domains of state power with armed forces protecting the so-called nationalized space.  

This heavy occupation of land exemplifies land commodification.  Watts and Peluso have deemed this commodification and land management the ‘Resource Complex’ (Watts & Peluso, 194).  As these two authors have defined the term, the resource complex discovers how relations among resource access, management, violence, finance, and democracy function and stabilize.  This complex is widely shaped by neoliberalism, state power, and capitalism (Watts & Peluso, 196).  

Each of this week’s readings compliment one another and culminate into a larger discussion regarding how humans parasitically commodify and reify the environment and its resources.  In doing so, humans have come to value political dominance, economic surplus, and capitalistic ventures over ecodiversity, human safety, and conservation.  Unfortunately, as Luke described, we do not foresee an end in sight especially since the conversation and responsibility has shifted from that of unified government actions to that of individual, morally conscious acts that will attempt to shape humanity.  Very obviously, we lack any form of a suitable transition period.  

https://corescholar.libraries.wright.edu/neoliberalism_seminar/2013/April5/1/

*Luke citations based on e-copy of Anthropocene Alerts

Bios:

Carey Oakes

Carey Oakes is a senior studying International Relations and German.  Her grandfather worked on Capitol Hill as Director of Public Policy for the NRPA and laid the groundwork for her interest in politics and its relationship with the environment.  She currently writes for Remake, a website that discusses the environmental plights of the fashion industry.  

Karan Mirpuri

Karan Mirpuri is a senior studying Political Science with a concentration in Law. He was raised in NOVA, and has started developing more of an interest in nature after taking some classes at Virginia Tech that have to deal with the environment and the issues that it faces.

Reganne Milano

Reganne Milano is a Junior studying International Public Policy. She is also getting a degree in Multimedia Journalism with a minor in Spanish. Her interest in international government sparked from growing up in the D.C. area where she became aware of the overlap between international politics and the environment in highschool. Reganne is currently the SRA for Newman at Virginia Tech and enjoys hiking, watering her many, many plants, and editing for Silhouette. 

Urvi Patel Urvi Patel is a Junior majoring in Environmental Policy and Planning. She was born in India and raised in Uganda and therefore has firsthand experience with developmental challenges in ‘third-world’ countries which is what sparked her interest in political advocacy and environmental justice. Urvi is currently an Economics Tutor with the Student Success Center and enjoys hiking, cooking, and hanging out with her cat.

“Natural Space” as Social Technology

Who is Edward Abbey and why does he matter? 

In Chapter 8: “A Harsh and Hostile Land: Edward Abbey’s Politics and the Great American Desert”, Luke dives into the life of Edward Abbey and his influence on American Environmentalism. Abbey was the author of many books inspired by the environment, specifically the desert in the Southwest of the United States. In his books, both fiction and non-fiction, Abbey utilized an aesthetic vision of the desert, describing the raw beauty of the wilderness he found there when he traveled West from his home in Pennsylvania. His works are of great popularity, and his descriptions of the desert have motivated many to join environmental causes such as the Earth Liberation Front, amongst others. He has also inspired much contemporary American environmental thought, although many misinterpret who Abbey was and what, exactly, he was writing. He is often mistaken as an antimodernist, but in reality, he was more of an altermodernist who seeks the improvement of modernity through the improvement of humanity. 

Abbey was an anarchist who found solace in the nothingness of the desert, where there was nothing but himself and the open wilderness. This is what inspired one of his most popular novels, Desert Solitaire, an autobiographical account of his time in the Moab, Utah as a park ranger. For most of his life, Abbey was not a resident of the desert, and still had ties to industrial culture. However, he got to experience desert life later on in his life. In spite of his ties to the environment and the fact that many of his cult followers consider him to be so, Abbey did not consider himself an environmentalist. Instead, he considered himself to be a humanist, and let his opinions and critiques on human behavior peek through his descriptions of nature.

In the next section of the chapter, Luke explores the concept of space and how it relates to Abbey and the desert. He argues that space should not be accepted as an eternal unknown that is separate from human action but rather an important part of it. Humans shape space, and space shapes humans. In this way, space is social. There is no true, authentic space, only spaces that have been developed. Therefore, there is no such thing as an untouched wilderness because the effects of human behavior can be seen everywhere. The importance of space in environmentality is made clear when Luke states, “To focus on the environment…is to preoccupy oneself with the specific spaces and all the particular aspects..associated with their social practices” (Luke 165). He also discusses how there exists an indistinguishability between mental space and physical space. Space is also political, as individuals are expected to perform in specific ways and to have a level of competence in a social space. Abbey got political in his writings, although they may be hidden to some who read his books. He warned of destruction of the environment through urban revolution, but his writing has two meanings. Although he writes of the wilderness at the end of the road, he is critiquing what lies at the beginning: urbanization and industrialization. He celebrates the absolute space of the desert; a timeless essential organic being. To Abbey, the desert is where lived, perceived, and conceived come together within a spatial practice (Luke 172). 

In the following section of the chapter, Luke turns a focus towards politics, ethics, and aesthetics. Abbey had an impact on politics, even if that wasn’t his attempted result from writing. Such impacts included inspiring “eco-terrorists”, individuals fueled by fierce desire to protect the environment that commit crimes for the sake of combatting urban development. The government has flagged such individuals as highly dangerous terrorists that seek to harm the “American way

of life”: industrial tourism and suburbia. Abbey also had a theoretical political impact through his contrasting of rural vs. industrial spaces. He emphasized that his work is not a celebration of the environment but a warning about it, and a critique of the tragedies occurring to the American wilderness. Abbey found meaning in the untouched wilderness, which is clear when he stated, “I come more and more to the conclusion that wilderness in America or anywhere else, is the only thing left that is worth saving” (Luke 176). He stressed that his love for the wilderness stems from his humanist views and not from an environmentalist or naturalist standpoint, as he believes that nature is a necessary escape from the stresses of human life and the test against death in the desert is one of the most noble tests of all. 

A point that Luke emphasized in this chapter was that Abbey was not the environmental hero that many make him out to be. In fact, the liberal environmentalists that embrace him to this day would not have actually liked him if he was still alive. He didn’t care for feminism, gun control, Mexicans, or academia; he was not a great person. He simply was a man who wrote books about the desert. He rooted his views of liberty with the wilderness and the desert because of his anarchist views – there was no greater liberty than that of the wild. New nature writers fail to capture the political observations that Abbey did because they are the naturalists that he was not. Abbey recognized the ties between industry and the control of humanity, which is clear when Luke states “Industrial products, industrial processes, and industrial production, he realizes, form a complex system of conducting conduct by managing fear, insecurity, and desire” (Luke 183). In order to combat the American economic and political order that controls industrialization, Abbey made a call for monkeywrenching, or nonviolent disobedience, as an ecodefense.

I have attached three links: each correspond to parts of an interview done with Edward Abbey on PBS in 1982 called Abbey’s Road. He describes his views on himself, his works, and the environment. Getting to hear his perspective from the man himself is very interesting.

Abbey’s Road – Part 1
Abbey’s Road – Part 2
Abbey’s Road – Part 3

Nature Writing as Self-Technology 

This section of the blog post is focused on the Darier reading “Nature Writing as Self-Technology”. Connecting to the theme of this week’s readings, this particular reading focuses on how humans impact nature in varieties of ways. The reading focuses on the abnormalities that technology, within ourselves, poses on our bodies as well as the environment as a whole. There are many ideas brought up about whether these emotions and feelings are sinful towards the environment. 

What is the “wilderness retreat” concept and why is it important? 

Liberation of modern day luxuries. According to William Cronon, “…we are not subjects of modern culture”. Because we are not formed to be accepting of the modern way of living, we are expected to desire to be in touch with nature (Darier 172). Foulcalt says that the “wilderness is a place free from man’s schemes of mastery, a place where nature is following its own will”

(Darier 176). With today’s modern society, people are constantly subjected to unnecessary pressures and expectations. Especially with the use of social media, millennials and other young people are held to tight societal standards. 

Ted Talk Below!: 

I have attached a video about what being in touch with nature can do for a person. The speaker in this video, Lennard Duijvestijn, does a phenomenal job at describing why leaving society (even for a short period of time) is good for everyone. 

What is nature writing? 

Nature writing is a “distinct form of testimony in which the subject bears witness to mutuality between the subject and self-willing nature” (Darier 173) . According to Lawrence Buell, nature writing is considered to be “nature’s genre”. In this case, the term ‘nature’ refers to the environment outside of modern culture. Many people, including the above mentioned Edward Abbey, may believe that because the world has physically been touched by humans everywhere, there is no more “true nature” left. I would disagree with this because even though there are virtually no places left untouched, the feeling of being in an untouched environment is still prevalent anytime you go out in nature. When you leave the hustle and bustle of suburban life, you “become a true subject of nature’s will” (Darier 174). The biggest misinterpretation of nature writing is the way nature is perceived. Foulcault believes nature is a mental escape, whereas Rawlings tends to focus on the more wild side of nature (absence of material structures).

What is posthumanism? 

All of this week’s readings have required contemplation of the human relationship with nature and their environment, a core aspect of posthumanist thought. There is not one widely accepted definition of posthumanism, in fact, some critical thinkers like John Cairns use the term posthumanism in a literal sense meaning after humans (Death 177). This interpretation is far from the most popular, and for that reason we will focus on posthumanism as it relates to the relationship between humans and the non-human. Posthumanism “[challenges] the notion of human exceptionalism” (Death 175) and anthropocentrism. Posthumanism veers from the beliefs of many religions that humans are in some way “special or chosen species” and towards the idea that humans have moral responsibility not only to other humans, but also across species barriers. 

I’ve linked a video to a song by cyberpunk artist Grimes titled, “Be a Body”. Cyberpunk is a genre commonly known for its post-human themes. Grimes takes a different approach of exploring posthumanism by contemplating what it means to be human in many of her songs. Her view on posthumanism is heavily shaped by the idea of technology isolating us from our bodies and human nature. See if you can pick up any parallels between this song and some of Darier’s points about escaping technology and getting back to nature. All and all an interesting perspective coming from the partner of AI guru, Elon Musk! 

What is complexity theory and how does it relate to posthumanism?

 When I first read the words “complexity theory” I was immediately disheartened by the positioning of “complex” and “theory” together in a sentence. Complexity theory is not, however, quite as daunting as it seems. The essence of complexity thinking is that systems are both open and interconnected. This idea lays the framework for the posthumanist approach focused on in the Death reading. It serves as a counter argument to humanocentric views “by stressing the interconnected and overlapping character of human and non-human systems.” (Death 180) The idea that nothing occurs in isolation is a central concept of complexity thinking. 

Contemplating posthumanism through complexity thinking effectively opens up a conversation between posthumanism and critical environmental politics. Breaking through the species barrier and thinking of actions within human systems as interconnected with all other natural systems could lead to breakthroughs on how all decisions are made. Posthumanist thought brings humans closer to living “‘of nature’ rather than ‘in nature’.”(Death 175) 

Complexity theory relates closely with Abbey and Darier’s rejection of the existence of “untouched nature”. Seeing the first two authors grapple with the human experience allows Death’s insights on posthumanism to bring all three readings from this week full circle. Perspectives on nature, or more specifically, how we write about nature has a monumental role in shaping how humans interact with nature.

Authors: 

Cricket Spillane 

Christa “Cricket” Spillane is a senior from Middleburg, Virginia studying International Relations with minors in Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, Leadership and Social Change, and Spanish. Her interests lie in the realm of human rights, most specifically gender equity, gun control, and the fight against human trafficking. When she’s not busy running Campus Cookies in Blacksburg, you can find her with her pets streaming video games on Twitch. 

Regan Westwood 

Regan Westwood is a senior studying Environmental Policy and Planning, and Smart and Sustainable Cities from Potomac, MD. She is also a first year student in the accelerated Masters in Urban and Regional Planning program. Her academic interests include urban agriculture, environmental justice, and stormwater management. Most of her free time is consumed by her position as a captain of the Virginia Tech Diving Team, but when she is throwing herself off of a 10 meter platform you can find her biking or reading. 

Spencer Tuttle 

Hi Hokies! My name is Spencer Tuttle; I am a sophomore majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics X Public Health, minoring in Ecological Cities. I am from Staunton, Virginia. In high school, I was on the cross country, indoor/outdoor track, swim, and soccer teams. I am currently on the VT Women’s Rowing Team, so you can find me on Claytor Lake any day of the week! When I’m not rowing at Claytor, I am most likely kayaking at Claytor (my kayak is red and

named Ruby). My favorite part about being a Hokie, aside from living in the New River Valley, is that VT fosters a community that has something for everyone. 

References 

Bowerbank, S. (1999). “Nature as Self-Technology.” In Darier, Eric ed. Discourses of the

 Environment. Blackwell Publishers. 

Stephen Hobden. “Posthumanism” Chap. 18 in Death, Carl ed. Critical Environmental Politics. New York: Routledge Press, 2013. 

Luke, Timothy W. “Chapter 8: A Harsh and Hostile Land: Edward Abbey’s Politics and the Great American Desert.” Anthropocene Alerts Critical Theory of the Contemporary as Ecocritique. Candor: Telos, 2020. Print.

The Green Governmentality of Technology

What is Green Governance:?

Green governance is a statist practice existing since the 18th century (Darier, 121). State power becomes dangerous when it is so heavily involved because of the position of control it has over the environment. Geo-economics is highly critiqued under Green Governance due to the government manipulation that it complements. Geo-economics is essentially the economic concerns within national security, but according to former Vice President Al Gore, it produces a “dysfunctional civilization” and predatorial and nationalistic means of achieving national goals. And the very core of geo-economics is the State support for major corporations instead of regulated government policy that is beneficial to all (Darier, 124).

In addition to geo-economics, there is also eco-knowledge. Eco-knowledge describes that nature and humanity are inseparable (Darier, 137). This means that there isn’t a nature without humanity, and humanity couldn’t survive without nature. This knowledge introduces a different perspective on what many people think of when they think of the term ‘sustainability’. Instead of thinking about the environment first, governments should prioritize human basic needs. To become sustainable, we must become economically developed in order to avoid ecological disasters (Darier, 137). Thus, focusing on the societal and economic dimensions of sustainability will improve the environmental dimension, as well.

Another facet of green governance is enviro-discipline. Enviro-discipline proposes that unsustainable environments need to be disassembled then recombined by expert managers to reap mass benefits from multiple aspects (Darier, 142). This would allow for a better stance on sustainability in the form of better management of ecosystem services. Ecosystem services include natural resources, products, and functions derived from nature that are valuable to humans (Darier, 146). Green governmentality is utilized to protect ecosystem services through actions of monitoring and management (Darier, 147).

What is the relationship between governmentality and technology?

Certain technologies can propose power in a nation (Death, 272). We see this with developed nations that have advanced scientific findings and capabilities. There is always a possibility that the world can end via nuclear bombing because many countries now have the knowledge and technology to produce this kind of destruction. This example leads to the point that technology is used at the government’s discretion. “Who defines, controls, owns and creates technology, in turn, directs what is produced and consumed in economies and societies (Death, 273).” This concept could also be applied in modern pandemic times. If there is a reliable vaccination or medical breakthrough for COVID-19, governments can determine how to utilize this technology to benefit their economies or societies.

What is the relationship between technology and the environment?

Technology and the environment are usually looked at as polar opposites, one is society and the other is nature. When recognizing how broad the definition of environment truly is, you start to realize how technology is becoming its own environment and how they can even at times be interchangeable (Luke, 270). This concept of technology as an environment was the result of human civilization creating and engineering their lives, and we merged the two together (Luke, 270). It is not simple to draw a line between trees and machines anymore, there is overlap in all things. Now, environments can be portrayed through technology and technology can help navigate and manage the environment. The environment and technology can be beneficial to one another, but also are frequently working against each other. Technology represents a modern society and economy, and there is a constant battle between whether the economy or environment should hold more value.

How is our environmentality being compromised through the power plays of politics and economics?

Anthropogenic changes such as extracting resources and creating waste are fueled by economics and capitalism. These anthropogenic changes confuse technology (or man-made items) with what is truly natural (Death, 270). Economic growth causes environmental friction, this can be seen with ‘failed states’ such as Rwanda, Somalia, and Angola (Darier, 122). The economy pivots the priorities of humanity towards technology and material benefits rather than nature.

Natural resources are seen as a power in the global market. A country could be more powerful if it has access to resources in which it can sell and commodify in the market (Darier, 125). The fallacy with that, however, is that countries and nations with access to resources must know how to utilize and market these resources with strategy and policy. For instance, in America, we protect natural resources in the form of departments, agencies, and organizations to avoid exploitation and degradation of the environment. These protections are carried out through environmental policies and laws, thus why America is looked to for reliable leadership (Darier, 127). In developing countries, there is often a lack of reliable leadership, which can deplete and exploit the environment.

While developed nations are often looked to for reliable leadership, these same nations are also responsible for mass consumption. Due to living in a society with materialistic values, overconsumption can be seen frequently in developed countries. From the Al Gore perspective, we are losing connections with our everyday world which creates loneliness, and this is what causes us to rely on consuming material goods. This overconsumptive way of living is degrading the environment, Luke discusses green governmentality through the lens of food production. Industrial agriculture systems are centered around “mining” not “minding” the earth’s resources (Luke, 191). This “mining” method provides mass provision but is harmful to the earth’s ecology because it is so exploitive. A potential solution in regards to industrial agriculture systems is a community garden similar to the Virginia Cooperative Extension; these gardens help consumers save money while saving and renewing their environment (Luke, 186). Not only do these gardens provide healthy food for its visitors it also provides a sense of community, allowing people to feel less lonely and rely less on material goods (Luke, 193).

Bios:

Kourtney Phillips

            Kourtney Phillips is a junior studying International Public Policy & National Security and Foreign Affairs with double minors in Spanish and Arabic. She is from Leesburg, VA, and has a passion for human rights and civil justice issues in which she is hoping to turn those interests into a career as an immigration lawyer in the future.

Lexi Schnell

            Lexi Schnell is a junior studying Environmental Resource Management with a double minor in Ecological Cities and Forestry. She was born and raised in New Jersey but decided to go to Virginia for college. She enjoys photography, live music, hiking, and cooking.

Susan Schulz

            Susan Schulz is a senior studying Environmental Conservation & Society. Raised in the rural landscape of Southwest Virginia, she has an interest in sustainable agriculture and farming practices. She enjoys hiking, kayaking, and gardening.

Hannah Siebert

            Hannah Siebert is a junior studying Natural Resources Conservation. She has lived in Fairfax, VA for her entire life, exploring the life found in its suburban forests. Her passions lie in outreach and education.

Dr. Stubberfield recaps the course discussion and provides further context for the intersection of technology and green governmentality.

Megamachinic Dependency and Environmentality

Chapter 6: Searching for Alternatives: Postmodern Populism and Ecology, by Timothy W. Luke.

Many may view caring about the environment and capitalism as two separate issues. Timothy Luke describes in his book, Anthropocene Alerts that was not the case in America for the past two centuries. American populism in the 1890s was a national revolt against the new systems of ecology that these “megamachines,” (basically future corporations) were creating. Populists were wary of the dangers of the new rhetoric of what was “good” for the environment that was being pushed upon society by megamachines. They, the megamachines, pretended to embrace science when presenting better living, pushing away the idea that a good life could be achieved by hard work, self-reliance, and individualism. Megamachines wanted to convince everyone that only their products and their hard work as a major corporation could make your life better. This kind of dependency upon major corporations started in the 1890s, and populists were adamantly against it from the beginning.

The issue was that the United States viewed populists as a negative entity, mostly due to labels it received during the Cold War. Seymour Martin Lipset viewed populism as a “rancid strain of working-class authoritarianism,” (Luke 117), and this narrative was widely spread amongst Americans. In order to gain more traction, some populists adopted fascist or authoritarian concepts into their populism, which led to them being ignored and labeled as dangerous mobs for the next couple decades. Populism then split up into different beliefs on the right and left side of politics in the US.

In the 1890s and the 1990s, populism actually had come full circle in what it stood for. Populism, then, stood for local economies over global diseconomy, was against huge corporations having more privilege and power over everyone else, and preferred communities that were more familiar with each other than they were with commercial megamachines being in their business.

Today, we are so used to the corporate capitalist world we live in, that we have forgotten what life used to be like before the Industrial Revolution. Today, if one argued for a four-day work week, many people would think that was radical and not possible. Even today, people have adopted a “American Dream” mentality where they believe if you keep working (an insane amount honestly), then you will eventually make a lot of money. That doesn’t happen for everyone, because it literally cannot work under a world of capitalism. Most people have to fail and stay at the level they are at in order for others to make more.

Before Fordism and Taylorism (1890s), people did have a four-day work week. It was essentially an artisan economy that allowed for producers to have a lot of control over their official work rules, how many breaks could be taken, etc. It was a world before major corporations essentially owned monopolies that dictated how the economy was run. Producers would interact with other local producers and put less focus on a national consumer base.

Overall, the spread of corporate capitalism has been extremely destructive to the world’s environment as well as widening the wealth disparity gap. Luke states that just like communism would never work, corporate consumerism is in the same boat, “…economic equality cannot be achieved under an advanced system of capitalist production…What is not so obvious is that equality now implies a more modest standard of living for all,” (Luke 122). Some macro environmentalists even claim that nature is now dead, long overtaken by commercial products. But what is so frustrating, is that everyone who lives in a capitalist, “money-based” economy is that we have to depend on the products produced by these major corporations as our own form of food and shelter.

Postmodern populism is encouraging “voluntary simplicity” which emphasizes the dependency of local communities on their individual volunteers and not mega corporations. It also encourages “rurbanism” which is a combination of rural and urban living. It combines the art and commerce of an urban society with rural crafts and culture. For example, “…agriculture mixed with habitat centered housing tied into windmill centers, solar ponds, household gardens, or community woodlots could begin to rehumanize nature and renaturalize humanity by resituating people in nature,” (Luke 138). It would decrease the costs of living in an expensive city or an isolated farmhouse, combining the cultures to create a more “nature-based” community. 

Timothy W. LukeThe Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society

The Oxford Handbook reading by Luke explores how theory can be applied to climate change and governmentality. Foucault’s analysis of governance states there is a direct issue with establishing government laws which are just tactics focused on controlling the populations. Pressure has been put on the government as populations raise and resources are becoming more and more strained. As issues surrounding relations between population and territory grow, environmentality has become more and more revelevent. Environmentality is the effort to bring governance of state , society, and self into the realm of “geopowers”. This is becoming more and more prevalent as populations are policed to provide for and protect the environment. While doing this, putting concepts like earth into frames, renders humans as no more than other inhabitants that experts are trying to sustain and develop. 

To be able to form tactics to deal with climate change, it is extremely important to bring climate change and society into the discourse. According to Luke, as climate research modes change with contemporary capitalism the global warming conference is producing a green governmentality, which links with how man is concerned with what he knows and what determines his being. Green globalism tends to motivate beliefs and practices that each state and society should manage to agree with corporate capitalist enterprise. As Lefebvre stated, this usually leads to negative outcomes, such as the ones managing everyday life and far above means of institutions and services. According to Foucault, having a “positivistic pretense and interventionist impulse” in backing scientific knowledge can be problematic. 

Policy makers are not seeing nature as a whole, they see it has fragmented bits in their environmentality agendas through disjointed studies. Luke argues that this is a sign of the “postmodernization of the world economy” due to the capitalization of bioproduction. Bioproduction is how economic, political, and cultural life overlaps within the reproduction of society through adjustments to the living. This can be a tool for the analysis of spaces in environmentality. 

Different versions of environmentalism exist and compete in the same sphere. When talking about climatology it is not closed and certain, as it is challenged from many sides. When it is tested and challenged, orderings can happen in contradicting historical accounts and frameworks. Luke gives caution around the idea of issuing total solutions through environmentality. More than ever there is a need for more diverse experiments to confront climate change. 

 In Ch. 5 “Ecological Modernization and Environmental Risk” of Darier’s Discourse of the Environment it speaks to how the modernization of society has changed the views on environment and environmental issues.  As modernization has happened the effect on the environment has increased and the issues surrounding these effects have been seen to take a back seat. Environmental issues movements have been centered around the effects of technology and modernization, however many of their beliefs revolve around using these technologies to counteract negative impacts on the environment. Yardly says in chapter 5 that, “environmental movements are profoundly anchored in modern science” (101). What this is saying is that environmental movements intend to use modern science to create clean and sustainable technology while fighting against technologies that hurt the environment. These movements focus on the use of sustainable energy consumption such as solar panels and wind turbines. This is a perfect example of the modernization of environmental movements because there is less of an emphasis on limiting the effect on modern society on the environment and more of using these technologies to repair, restore, and enhance the environment. The next part of this chapter talks about environmental risk. With more human involvement and technological advance there is always a risk for environmental effects. On page 105 it says, “hazards appear as the creation of an autonomous process resulting from a strictly instrumental use of technology in commodity production.” The commodity production could be referring to oil and natural gas extraction. Both use modern technologies such as high-pressure drilling and fracking to extract both resources from the earth and both have high environmental risks involved. Technologies and how they are used determine the risks that follow. With responsible use of these technologies’ risks can be limited and there can even be benefits from the use of these technologies. 

Authors:

Anna Cheema

Anna Cheema is a Senior studying Criminology and Political Science at Virginia Tech. She is interested in criminal justice reform with issues like police brutality and mass incarceration. She aims to address these issues in her career in public policy. She enjoys baking, painting, playing guitar, and volunteering in her free time. Anna is the President of Students for Non-Violence at VT and is currently serving an internship at Virginia Organizing.

Brenny Cabezas 

My name is Brenny Cabezas and I am a senior at Virginia Tech. I am studying Political Science and I have a minor in Humanities, Science, and Technologies. I was born and raised in Virginia. My parents are from El Salvador and they immigrated to the United States at a young age. My favorite things to do in my free time is play my guitar and bass. I also love to listen to music, hike, paint, sing and dance. I hope to be able to graduate college and find a job in the government in a place where I can help people who are in need. 

Joy Brookhart

Joy Brookhart is a third year college student studying international relations. She is interested in the humanitarian global conflict side of international politics. She is from Orlando Florida and transferred to Virginia Tech this past year. In her free time she enjoys hiking with her dog and reading. 

Matthew Cultbreath

My name is Matthew Culbreath and I am a senior majoring in smart and sustainable cities. After graduation, my plans are to be a planner within a local government and eventually working my way up to be a city manager or country administrator. I enjoy hunting, fishing, and doing anything outdoors.

Corporate Conservation and Indigenous Loss

In many instances, indigenous people feel pressure from conservationists to “stay primitive” in order to be recognized as “legitimate habitants” of their own homes (Death Igoe, 2). The emergence of this cosmology gives hope to the removal of the hierarchy we see between nature and man today. Specifically, with the shifting perspectives of the new cosmology, the integration of the previously separated spheres of human and nature serves to benefit native peoples as well as the land and resources they depend on. A common narrative in indigenous histories is the repression of native practices by their colonizers. A prime example of this is the banning of cultural burning by the United States Forest Service on the west coast. This policy, in direct contradiction with native practices, along with climate change, has directly led to the devastation in California and Oregon.
By initiating a new contract with nature, humanity places itself on the same level as nature (Darier, 70). By looking at conservation as having a capitalist bias and seeing its effects on diverse groups of people, we can analyze basic steps that can aid us in making changes. Listening to diverse voices that shine light on new issues within conservation can allow us to recognize deeper problems and view conservation ethics as derived from social relationships (Death Igoe, 8). Additionally, we recognize the social and political relationships between people and their environments. As our perception of nature and the environment shifts from the sanitized image that has been fed to us by NGOs and multinational corporations, we can begin to change our relationship with nature and establish the new cosmology and begin to make meaningful change.

The topic of environmentalism consists of rethinking humanity’s relationships with nature and the values upon which that relationship is based (Darier, 65). The evolution of environmentalist and conservationist discourse has its roots in the catastrophe brought on by global capitalism and the advancement of technologies and methods of production (Darier, 67). Due to these forces, our conception of nature has increasingly shifted from being a “good, abundant, renewable commodity” which is “exploited for human benefit” (Darier, 66), to a perspective coined by conservationists and environmental activists as a “new cosmology” (Darier, 65-66). This cosmology requires a “holistic vision” of humanity’s relationship with the so-called environment, emphasizing the “interdependence of all physical, biological, social and cultural elements” (Darier, 65-66). This cosmology calls for humans to become consciously aware of their effect on the environment and the realization that nature and its resources are no longer something of abundance. In addition to this new cosmology, there needs to be a removal of death culture in relation to nature. Death culture is characterized as the idea of the existence of one concept essentially crushing another concept. In relation to nature, death culture is seen in scientist’s role in the attempt to master nature which can be seen in capitalist attempts at producing nature as a commodity (Darier, 66). This new cosmology is in sharp contrast with mainstream conceptions of nature which identifies the “natural” as “wilderness” and methods of mainstream conservation efforts reflect this perspective. While conservation has long been associated with “capitalist expansion,” a recent phenomenon is the prevalence of multinational corporations on the boards of NGOs (Death Igoe, 5). Additionally, many corporations have adopted conservationist rhetoric claiming “sustainability,” and “social corporate responsibility.” This shift in rhetoric is arguably meaningless. Capitalist’s minimal attempts at conservation is often simply a way to further monetize nature. This often comes in the form of conservation spectacle which is the idea that society needs to place higher value on clean water, clean air, and other untouched aspects of nature. However, capitalists do not see these aspects as, “profitable enough,” leading them to develop nature as liquid capital and further nature’s monetization (Death Igoe, 6).

The alliance between corporations and conservationist NGOs serves to propagate mainstream conservationism which is often at odds with those directly affected by these policies. Indigenous people, for example, are often forcibly removed from their homes so that Western researchers and tourists can enjoy “preserved nature” that is frozen in time, and “untouched” by humans. This idea of untouched nature coincides with the idea of “first nature” that is discussed by Luke. First nature is the aspects of our environment that are independent of human management (Luke, 2546). This concept is a facade that is directly dependent on the erasure of indigenous narratives and existence (Death Igoe, 7). Indigenous people are often pushed to the side by conservationist scientists, who have very different conceptions of nature and the purposes of conservation. An example of this unjust removal of indigineous peoples is the well known “Trail of Tears” that was enacted by President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. The Trail of Tears consisted of the forced removal of native people from land they had cultivated and lived on for generations for the purpose of white profit. Ultimately, many native people did not survive this removal. Throughout the past two centuries, more and more native land has been stolen for capitalist gain. Oftentimes, this removal of indigineous peoples coincides with the production of “wilderness.” This production was a direct result of the capitalist conditions that resulted from the industrialization of our society. As conservationist ideals have evolved, society has changed its views of nature as wilderness to viewing nature as a capitalist monetary venture (Death Igoe, 4).

Biographies

Karoline Davis is a Senior studying International Public Policy, Middle Eastern Studies, and Arabic at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include critical theory, feminist theory, poststructuralism, secularism, and post-colonial theory. She also enjoys baking, hiking, and is currently engaged in a comparative study of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Black Panther Party.

Caroline Drumheller is a Senior studying Criminology, Political Science, Psychology, and Leadership and Social Change at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include sociological theory, feminist theory, and post-colonial theory. She is involved with the national co-ed service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, at Virginia Tech. She also enjoys hiking, playing soccer, and reading. 

The Construction and Governance of ‘Environment’

From Ecocritique to Environmentality: 

We have considered the critical ethos within research programs, and the critical ethos within ecocritiques to date. The purpose of these exercises has been to provide a framework for us to understand the enmeshment of society, and “nature” in the construction of our lived experience and the discourse of the anthropocene. We’ve criticized “The Anthropocene” as too totalizing and inadequate for understanding the discrete actors that have come to and do make up the material stuff in our environs. We defined environs as sorts of built enclosures populated by humans, machines, capital and non-humans and we have seen that part of their existence is built upon the circulation of capital in the form of commodities; technocratic rationality tied to consumerism and the need for continuously functioning social machinery (such as commercial corporations); and the positions of subjects (people and other actors) within massive technological networks that produce risks through the mitigation of others and in service to the everyday needs of “society” writ large. The task at hand is to move from our understanding of ecocritiques as a genre of writing that see the construction of “the environment,” through the actions of social actors and the rule of “natural” or individual bodies through the lens of the critical ethos, to a broader understanding of environmental construction as resulting from interlocking technologies of government and as a project of government itself. We make this move by understanding “the environment” as a political object – that is, something that has become governable, and subject to governmental strategy

I asked you to read three chapters last week that dealt with the formation of “the environment” as an object of governance (note that this is not the same a ‘government’) and the intellectual history involved in moving from a concern of governing humans, to the government of the human through the government of the non-human. This is paradoxical and a little confusing, to say the least, but I’ll do my best below to elucidate the meaning of the above with a story. However, we must give a name to our object of inquiry first, and that object, or field of objects that concern themselves with the governance of the living and the non-human we call environmentality. I first give some background to the concept before diving into an example of an environmentality and I hope that this exercise will help you through the field of Environmentality Studies. 

The term environmentality was drawn from Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality he used to describe definite historical shifts in the way governments conducted themselves and their citizens in Eighteenth and Nineteenth century Europe. Two lecture series delivered by Foucault are important here: the first being his lectures titled Security Territory Population, and The Birth of Biopolitics. The above are not his sole writings concerning the subject and there are, arguably, many more throughout his corpus that provide support to the field of study known as Governmentality Studies. In particular, another lecture series by him collected as Society Must Be Defended has become more popular in recent scholarship and is well worth the read concerning the production and circulation of “truth” and the manufacture of “force” within society. It must be grasped that while there is disagreement over where to seat Foucault and his work (is he a philosopher, social theorist, political thinker, historian, etc.,?), it’s clear that he uses history to form concepts as a matter of method and his work in this area is largely descriptive though still embodying the critical ethos through its presentation and subject matter. When he, or anyone else discusses his work or a concept that he’s using like governmentality or biopower, they are most likely, and he certainly, referring to definite periods within governance generally construed throughout time. Thus, governmentality, for Foucault, is not something that has existed forever as a natural fact of human society, and it might not last forever once it pops into being, but, and here it is important to stress, that governmentality exists now and is a feature of any government that properly calls itself liberal. Liberal, again, does not mean Democrat or Republican, it isn’t merely in contradistinction to “Conservative,” but takes a more special meaning as one that – and I do violence to the concept here – is concerned with the welfare of the individual through the production of material means necessary for its flourishing (commodities and their circulation); the non-centralized planning of market economies (though government intervention and incentivization exist and are practiced); and the rule of the individual through some sort of universal suffrage and collective decision-making embodied in the rule of law (democratic, republican, etc.,) and a sort of rights framework that checks governmental power over the individual subject. 

Governmentality, as you saw with Lovbrand and Stripple’s chapter in Death, is concerned with the maintenance and articulation of population related to “environment” and its features. We are not concerned with the rule of individuals, such as the elimination or punishment of individual political dissidents, but the operating parameters of whole populations within a bounded territory or space. Those operating parameters are a set of rules related to actual things within space that become objects of government. More concretely, one might think of borders and border crossings and how the rules of conduct change between political boundaries that are used to draw limits to space. When I enter Colorado from Wyoming I am able to use marijuana legally if I so choose. My conduct in Colorado includes recreational marijuana use if I wish, and I may not, but the option is left open as permissible, intelligible, accepted, taxed, and endorsed conduct within the political borders of Colorado. Crossing back into Wyoming, it is illegal for me to use marijuana, even when prescribed by a doctor for medical reasons, and thus my conduct does not include the option to use marijuana in Wyoming without state sanction.

Notice that in either Colorado or Wyoming it is possible for me to use marijunana recreationally and so I, as an agent, can pursue it as an end. However, the point is to recognize that my choices for recreational marijuana use also includes the risk of a misdemeanor and a $750 dollar fine for the first offence in Wyoming. This, in someway, structures my choices as an agent concerning how I ought to conduct myself within specific enclosures at specific times. When, where and how I can do something is the normative force of government through the rule of law and the institution of policing. Zooming out one level further, we see that norms condition how rules about conduct are made. 

Standards of democratic decision-making, or rules for how the people are represented within and through their institutions condition how liberal society arrives at the formulation of law. Here too we see governmentality in operation and the key point is that governmentality is concerned with how individuals relate to one another and society within their enclosures. It is how decisions are made and not necessarily why that is in analytic focus. What are the procedures of a governing agency and how did they get that way? How are those procedures embodied, practiced, inculcated, memorized? How do those procedures allow that agency to relate to others and its environment? We’re not interested in grand theorizing and big philosophical pronouncements, but the small politics that lead to big details that get overlooked when we go asking for why rather than how. So, to adjust the old philosophical question, it’s not “why are we here,” but “how are we here,” that is of concern for the students of governmentality studies. 

Governmentality, I’ve said, is concerned with setting, enforcing and policing the conduct of conduct down to the individual level in society. As the rule of law is meant to be universal – that is, the law is supposed to apply equally to all and every person it touches – this means that setting the conduct of conduct will connect massive social machinery to the everyday actions of individuals. Seen this way, we see that individuals can be enrolled and assimilated within massive technological networks necessary for social reproduction and never know it. Their bodies circulate in space feeding machinery with more energy, capital, creativity, intelligence, body parts, emotions and lives and they may never stop to consider their place within the great gearworks of the social body. The social body itself is maintained through surveillance and security operations of both the military (that operates beyond the borders of the nation-state) and the police (that operate within that space). Foucault maintained that the central objective of policing was to maintain commodity flows throughout space and this is accomplished through identifying and removing undesirable elements from governmentalized environs. This means that criminality is an environmental feature of some environs and not others as a matter of conduct and nothing more; and that the aim of governance is connected to the maintenance of social machinery that draw in natural resources to reproduce governmentalized environs through the domination of the conduct of individuals. Thus, while Foucault may have said something true about strictly human affairs, he missed a critical linkage to the production and articulation of the natural through the domination of “the environment.”

Two key thinkers pick up the Governmentality trail and go further with it than Foucault and they do this by recognizing the centrality of knowledge within governmentality. It bears mentioning that in speaking of governmentality I do not mean that there is only one articulation of the concept. It is more appropriate to speak of variation between governing bodies and thus of different governmentalities that have real, definite and discrete embodiments. Governmentalities change and one way is through the generation of knowledge, specifically scientific knowledge-discourse. Tim Luke and Paul Rutherford both recognize that “the environment” has become central to specific patterns of governing and rule by watching how “the environment” is articulated within political discourse. Rutherford, for example, writes about the budding science of ecology as central to the scientific management of “the environment” within the political discourse of the 1960s and 70s in the United States. Luke, as we have seen, looks at how computing, cybernetics and computer science rose as a tool for capital by creating technological systems that we live through as consumers and labor. Both thinkers are concerned with how the new knowledge frameworks have been used to justify interventions within governmentalized environs that went beyond the control of the human individual. 

The documentary above is about Canmore, Alberta and their integration of wildlife into their town infrastructure. This shows a clear relationship to the non-human and how it is understood, and articulated through technological networks and supported by technoscientific knowledge. The documentary, I think, illustrates an environmentality at work and how environmental subjectivities (the next post) are constructed, learned and enacted.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, New York Department of Environmental Conservation, etc., are all agencies tasked with policing “the environment,” and all of them accomplish this task through the management of individual conduct relative to the non-human. They all have some sort of mandate expressly stating their mission as grounded in scientific rationality and wise resource management, and it is this mandate that allows them to police some elements of the social body and not others. The expansion of governmental rule into these areas of life previously untouched by the state was and is assisted through the production of scientific knowledge regarding non-human species populations and flows of energy and matter that gird the ecosystems of the biosphere. This expansion was accompanied by a shift in the reason of state to concerns related to how persons ought to relate to non-persons as a matter of social reproduction. This means that control of individual human bodies is articulated through the control of non-human bodies as a matter of governmental strategy and that criminality is a feature of human-non-human relations within governmentalized environs. The reason of state is supported by the force of scientific knowledge translated into a form of management and that management is supported by real technologies of government such as policing agencies. This means that, as analysts, one can see an environmentality through how individuals are policed in relation to “the environment,” and the non-human. I’ll give a brief and more concrete example below to help you think through this:

I went to court yesterday. It took all day and it was because I failed to have a personal flotation device onboard my inflatable kayak while paddling around Claytor lake last month (notice already that my relations to myself and personal safety changes when I get on the water from dry land and vice-versa). Everything ended fine and the judge was gracious and lenient for this most egregious violation which VA law classifies as a Class IV misdemeanor (wear your life jackets, please). However, I had to go sit in criminal court for a good portion of my afternoon which, as I was nabbed for being a scofflaw on the water, was the Conservation police check-in time. I heard a few cases but the most interesting were the poachers who were being brought to justice over their mishandling of wildlife or the illegal taking and attempted taking of wildlife.

The state of Virginia articulates deer, bear, elk, and other animals within its borders as belonging to it. This means that you, as a taxpayer, pay for the maintenance of those herds and their management. Hunting is an economic money-maker for Virginia and the commonwealth uses her creatures, in some cases, as commodities and thus articulates them as her property. Virginia then polices the conduct of her human persons through the establishment of hunting seasons with definite operating parameters for hunters within her borders. There are specific seasons for specific animals and each hunter must acquire the necessary paperwork to hunt during those seasons. Failure to file your paperwork properly and promptly, firing a weapon at an animal from a vehicle, accidentally feeding bears, or keeping fish below a certain length are ways to end up in Conservation court if you are caught by a conservation cop. 

You’ll notice that Virginia is not ticketing deer for j-walking. It might have bounties on coyotes, but it’s not educating them. It might have elk, but you’re in a world of legal and financial pain if you shoot one in the wrong county. It’s not about regulating the conduct of the individual elk, or deer, or bear – though it does when they become an inconvenience to its human populations – but about regulating the conduct of the hunter. One becomes a poacher and not a hunter when one hunts and kills against the grain of established law that sets the conduct of conduct within environs. In order to do or accomplish any of this governing at a distance,the state must have information about “the environment,” or the environs through which its populations are articulated and persist. This means that its governing apparatuses must be concerned with the generation of knowledge, data and information related to the functioning of the social body and the individual bodies within it. All of this governing and movement is related to the technical control over the living through the modification of life’s processes relative to the production of space and the circulation of commodities that simultaneously co-modify the living. Central to policing, production, and politics, then, is the technoscientific generation of knowledge related to the material control of things broadly construed. It is through the control of things, and the processes of bringing things into being and extinguishing them that we witness the functioning of power as the Earth and her inhabitants are understood and articulated as an object of environmental governance remaking people and place in the image of capital and power.

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.”