Materiality, Sustainability, and the Dark Enlightenment

By: Julianna Rodrigues, Keyonna Washington, and Larissa Delarue

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

Chapter three is written in three sections and begins by explaining how the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has laid the framework for conservation exchange (a new market-based instrument) and how it works regarding the Wyoming Core Area Protection strategy. What is explored in this chapter is how the Wyoming Conservation Exchange (WCE) plays a role in being an instrument used for neoliberal environmentalism and promotes commodity flows. Dr. Stubberfield, in this chapter, works to explain why he believes that the WCE “does not produce any real commodities, but instead circulates fictitious commodities” (Stubberfield, 2019). 

Dr. Stubberfield begins the first section regarding environmentality- specifically through how instruments hold power as they work through normalizing themselves in populations, and how we regard them in the scope of their domination. The role of instruments in our society is to share information through various conduits in populations. They also share the role of rewriting the context of how we see and interact with knowledge but also dictate the production and circulation of commodities. Techononature plays a role by using these instruments to redefine how “the real, the natural and the true” is viewed which leads to the topic of security (Stubberfield, 2019). Essentially, since instruments and the way they are used and normalized in societies are highly interconnected and can be manipulated, they are also exposed to “environmentalized security strategies” to police what is able to be presented as information (Stubberfield, 2019). Security within this manner is related to maintaining commodity circulation, policing of information or elements that could be regarded as dangerous, and continuous promotion of political economies.

Dr. Stubberfield states that regarding neoliberal environmentalism, EDF should provide “an examination of their proposed solutions to environmental problems through their instruments” (Stubberfield, 2019). EDF has been a part of several programs that has promoted new instruments of conservation and advertised for them to lead to the creation of new markets that regard the loss of biodiversity and promote conservation projects. However, as you read through the chapter, what becomes apparent is how they have worked within their own terms. This can firstly be seen through EDF working with the Department of Defense at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas in the 2000’s, in a conservation effort that utilized tactical instruments and militancy to try and accomplish their goals. While it should be noted that the original intention was to aid the Golden-cheeked Warbler, the economic benefits gained, and steps taken to continue them, outweighed the conservation aspect and destroyed much of the habitat of the Golden-cheeked warbler. In fact, the species is still endangered to this day, however this collaboration was vital in supporting EDF’s future projects. The collaboration showed that landowners could ‘be a part of conservation offsetting,’ while also benefiting economically. Dr. Stubberfield also briefly touches on the Recovery Credit System and how it provided a way to allocate resources among private landowners and put the responsibility of taking care of the warbler under individual landowners by financial incentivization. 

The second section starts with how the WCE came out of a collaboration between several groups, and how its purpose is to try to create opportunities to “conserve and restore ecosystem services across Wyoming” (Stubberfield, 2019). By having people such as Eric Peterson who link the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) and the Greater Sage-grouse (GRSG) to the WCE, what becomes apparent is how easy it is to connect the Federal biopower to local milieu and the impacts they could potentially have on any location. With people such as Peterson being able to be a bridge between several agencies, the way a project can be handled becomes easier, as they are able to manage the decisions of the buyers/sellers, work between the local, state, and federal initiatives, and most importantly, working with those who hold the most power economically between the projects.  It’s important to note that within Wyoming, there have been conservation districts that were formed to combine the different goals from different agencies, however by collaborating with the GRSG, a shift occurs (much like with the Warbler) where conservation is not the focus, but rather using commodified land “represented as an exchange-value determined at auction that can then be accumulated by debtors as capital” (Stubberfield, 2019).  Habitat credits, produced by the WCE, are also another aspect to be aware of as they play a large role in this chapter as Dr. Stubberfield argues that they are fictitious commodities that support extractive infrastructure. 

For people like Peterson to have so much control over the usage of land that is supposed to be used for conservation efforts, something called habitat credits that can be bought and sold for different projects. Habitat credits are scored by judging properties against the Habitat Quantification Tool (HQT) (created by the EDF) by measuring the quality of habitat a landowner has created in comparison to the needs of a targeted species, and then scoring it based on the “perceived use-value to GRSG by the acre” (Stubberfield, 2019). The score that they received is then categorized into a project type, enhancement, restoration, add stewardship and is then sold based on its perceived value, the WCE uses habitat credits as instruments of labor through the commodification of property.  The WCE furthers this by auctioning the credits to debit projectors “occurring proximally to the credit project (though no real measure of proximity has been specified)” (Stubberfield, 2019). He argues that the functional acre created by habitat credits are a fictitious commodity as it only works within projects like the Golden-Cheeked Warbler project, or GRSG conservation in which economics and capital gain are the primary motivators. 

In the final section, Dr. Stubberfield refers to Chapter 2 in which he talked about the 2015 USFWS decision to delist the Greater Sage-grouse (GRSG). As CCAAs are “agreements between USFWS and private landowners that allow for incidental take protection of species in the event that it is listed under the ESA,” and the decision to de-list GRSG was made, he explained how federal management authorities benefited from working with CCAAs as they could create regulatory certainty in which landowners are protected in the case a species becomes endangered and federal management also benefits from being able to set practices for the landowners to follow (Stubberfield, 2019).

An important point to take away however is how Karl Polanyi argues that, “land, labor, and currency are not real commodities but belong to a class of fictitious commodities” (Stubberfield, 2019). This was stated in the first section where Dr. Stubberfield stated his intention to explore the way in which the WCE circulates fictitious commodities. The commodity being traded and circulated within the WCE is a fictitious commodity. When discussing fictitious commodities, one must understand that they are produced and circulate within incomplete markets that rely on state intervention. An example of a fictitious commodity is the functional acre.

Functional acres work through systems that are incomplete as they rely on state intervention for the circulation of money to occur because debts to the species are calculated through instrumental metrics that are supported and designed for the purposes of constructing a sage-grouse credit market through state and federal intervention such as the Wyoming CAP. This is an example of purposeful market creation and what is known as pump priming in an attempt to solidify a market through the implementation and support of a new technology – the conservation exchange. It is also regarded as fictitious as it requires private landowners to create land that can be sold off and might not actually have any real benefit to GRSG as sagebrush can take 50 years to mature to a usable habitat qualities for the species. This means that companies and extractive industry are able to carry on destroying sage-grouse habitat through promissory notes entered into a database concerning GRSG habitat that might not exist yet. This systemic loophole means that while individual birds lose their homes to oil, gas, coal and trona extraction, the state and its partners can pretend that they are helping the species by reserving land for future populations that haven’t existed and haven’t necessarily chosen the spaces reserved for them. This endangers the rangewide population of GRSG through adjusting how states, agencies and actors “see” the sagebrush steppe through their calculational metrics that may refer to nothing “on the ground.” In the last analysis, it is apparent that within the “balance” of ecology and economy concerning the Greater Sage-grouse, that it is economic concerns sedimented through instruments such as the WCE that is the governing rationality for GRSG conservation and that the WCE is just another attempt at turning the Greater Sage-grouse and representations of her habitat into crisis commodities in step with neoliberal environmentalism that places its faith in “markets” to solve environmental problems. The WCE appears to be another way of ignoring and pushing the GRSG problem around the map to allow for continued destruction of her habitat for fossil fuel extraction through the phenomenon of the commodity fetish. In the end, the WCE seems to be just another way of circulating representations and images without any real material form behind them – it simulates habitat, in other words, to allow for the continued operation of the Wyoming extractive economy responsible for killing the bird and creating the problem in the first place. The WCE, then, is another example of ‘sustainability’ discourse and its marriage to corporate fueled economic extractivism as a fundamental dynamic within neoliberal environmentality propagated by the Environmental Defense Fund and their partners.

Luke, “Corporate Social Responsibility: An Uneasy Merger of Sustainability and Development.”

Within this short article, Timothy Luke analyzes corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs as they developed within the United States towards the end of the 20th century. CSR programs within businesses adopted the concept of sustainable development and utilized the concept for their own political and economic motives. Such programs prioritize growth and development over sustainability, which then sets the standard for many businesses to promote sustainability but fail to truly do so. There is no concrete definition of sustainability; however, the concept focuses on keeping a balance between the natural resources a nation requires without depleting the supply entirely. CSR programs and the companies that have acquired them have however put on a facade in order to maintain power and economic gain as they present an image of sustainability and environmental protection to the consumer. As the ecology movement advanced towards accepting greater responsibility in preserving the environment, emerging sustainability policies also marginalized underdeveloped and impoverished states. Sustainability is connected to development in that those “underdeveloped” places who are not able to put sustainability into play, and will not be able to develop properly. In this instance they are left out of the conversation of sustainability, so they are unable to advance past their underdeveloped status and affluent countries benefit and prosper. 

CSR programs ultimately benefited from such marginalization, while advocates of sustainability remained skeptical of “sustainability as clean lean corporate green living” (Luke, 2013). In most cases, CSR programs practice what Luke termed as weak sustainability, which defines society as being capable of retaining its ability to acquire more man-made capital such as the functional acre and the Greater Sage-grouse habitat mitigation credit. Those who support weak sustainability hold the assumption that nature and its resources are everlasting. On the other hand, there exists the notion of strong sustainability which opposes weak sustainability in its belief that man-made capital cannot be an alternative to natural capital. Strong sustainability promotes the preservation of natural capital in order to safeguard society as a whole. CSR programs have a perceived responsibility to sustainable development, which pertain to a business’s goals towards engaging with the outside community and upholding environmental standards. Nevertheless, weak sustainability is present within such programs, leading to sustainability goals often being neglected and economic growth and modernization being prioritized as in the Wyoming CAP. 

Sustainability is a vague concept that many individuals have attempted to tackle and has now transferred over into the wider business world where CSR programs are able to hide behind the positive message their sustainable practice suggests. The influential philosopher John Stuart Mill presented his stationary state economy model that implied that if human society were to reach the utmost limit of economic growth, sustainability practices would be necessary. Herman Daly on the other hand opted for a steady-state economy in which he warned against the continuous expansion of industrial society due to the devastating impact it would have on Earth’s natural environment. In today’s modern society however, we are at risk of losing our supply of natural capital entirely as a result of the production of man-made capital.

In attempting to protect the Earth’s natural capital, the implementation of CSR programs within many businesses has occurred. Sustainability practices that have previously been utilized range from convincing consumers to adopt a “green” lifestyle to concentrating on development aimed towards obtaining profit through supposedly environmentally-friendly methods – such as habitat credit production and carbon offsetting. These tactics that try to use growth as a means to alleviate their problems prove to be futile considering the extent to how quickly we are advancing compared to how little we have left. Now, when it comes to merging sustainability and development, what might appear to be a situation in which everyone wins, the environment in most cases gets the short end of the stick while big business profits as we see in the example of GRSG in Wyoming. CSR programs claim that their number one priority is sustainable development focusing on, “people, planet, profit” (Luke, 2013). However, it is necessary to question their motives because more often than not, profit is above everything, including our planet.

This video dives into the CSR programs that BMW implements in South Africa in order to give back to the community. These CSR programs concentrate on three main areas: Local Community Upliftment, HIV and AIDS prevention & mitigation, and Education. By pouring resources into this community, BMW is able to bring awareness to the environment in South Africa and supposedly create sustainable conditions.

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

Timothy Luke in this chapter directs his attention towards what he termed the Dark Enlightenment. This is a movement led by neo-reactionaries (NRx) who oppose democratic values and society due to their fear of the government attacking the wealthiest members of society through the imposition of taxes. One NRx thinker, Curtis Yarvin, better known as Mencius Moldbug, developed one theory in which the state, or what he called “the Cathedral,” cannot be abolished, and therefore must be “cleansed” through neo-cameralism (Luke, 2019). For Moldbug, neo-cameralism meant that, “a state is a business which owns a country” and therefore, the U.S. is nothing but a corporation (Luke, 2019). NRx thinkers perceive the state to be a business, therefore it should be run like one and serve its consumers, or citizens, efficiently and effectively. 

Accelerationism is a significant concept when considering the Dark Enlightenment in that it calls for the utter and complete collapse of modern, capitalist society. For accelerationists, the successful demise of capitalism is needed in order to rebuild a more efficient society. Their tactics might include purposefully “accelerating” environmental collapse as a political project to spur anger and resentment toward the U.S. government. Their goal is to stoke civil unrest through accelerating environmental degradation beyond the point that any one government or agency can address it. This would be a systemic failure calling into question the regime which helped produce it and, in their minds, this would exacerbate existing inequalities to the point of social upheaval creating a social wreckage to be rewritten into a neo-cameralist – or corporatist – system of governance.

The term “unablogger” is also introduced and is used to describe individuals within the Dark Enlightenment who conduct “disinformation wars” with the goal of attacking capitalist society and providing what they consider better alternatives. Unabloggers take to social media without any limitations to what they say and continuously critique and criticize modern-day society in an elitist tone. On these media platforms, accelerationists often downplay the severity of the consequences that would follow the collapse of capitalism, including the environmental repercussions. The foundation of NRx thought emerges from what one would call cyber spatial networks. Much of the world’s money circulates within and throughout these technological and data-driven machines, signaling our move into the book of third nature in which human interaction is dependent on the cyber-world. The Dark Enlightenment has led the way past first and second nature and into third nature, which is considered the accelerated movement into a modernity focused on technological advancement. Throughout each shift from one nature into the next, we have had to adapt to the changing environment around us, illustrating the co-constructive nature of human-beings and their environment. Accelerationists require current society to change quite rapidly and whatever stands in their way, including the government and other institutions, will be targeted. Dark Enlightenment thinkers want change through advancing or “accelerating” the social and political collapse through cyber networks that are becoming increasingly prominent within society.

As we experience this shift into a new era of modernity in which cyber space and technology has taken an influential role in society, proponents of the Dark Enlightenment seek integration of nature and culture, “at which a population becomes indistinguishable from its technology” (Luke, 2019). The Dark Enlightenment in a way does advocate the movement towards trans-humanism due to their goal of merging together humans with the technology they have created. Accelerationist and NRx thinkers envision a new society that has been reprogrammed entirely following the demise of capitalism. What they consider to be the path towards restoring society can be broken down into three simple and hard steps: become worthy, accept power, rule (Luke, 2019). Whether or not accelerationism and neo-reactionaries are successful in accomplishing their goal of terminating our current capitalistic society, the rapid advancement of the technological sphere and its impact on humanity cannot be ignored. 

Here we have Mencius Moldbug discussing what is perceived by many as an extremist view towards how the international system of states and governments should essentially be entirely dismantled. Moldbug introduces the acronym ‘RAGE’ which stands for ‘retire all government employees.’ Moldbug criticizes democracy and instead calls for the establishment of dictatorships because states are run like corporations and corporations have CEOs. While Moldbug’s perspective does appear to be quite extreme, he offers an interesting look into how the world might progress and evolve.

Keyonna Washington: I am a Senior majoring in Criminology, Sociology, and Political Science. After graduation I plan to travel for a year and then attend law school. While in law school, I plan to focus on criminal law and hope to obtain a job once I finish school.

Julianna Rodrigues: I am a Junior majoring in International Studies and International Public Policy and minoring in Spanish. After next year, I hope to work within the non-profit sphere, and in the future move to Europe and pursue a career within the United Nations. 

Larissa Delarue: Hey everyone, I am a Junior majoring in Political Science and minoring in Theatre Arts. I am from Woburn, Massachusetts but have lived overseas my whole life. After graduation, I hope to move to Japan to work under the JET program and teach English for a year or two, afterwards I hope to get a job in the State Department as a Public Affairs Officer.