Tag Archives: growth

The Key Question About The Crisis of Our Times

From Kate Soper’s review of Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital.

Had it had to pay for the bounty of nature or any of its debts to the labour of animals, slaves, the reproductive and domestic work of women, and so on, [capitalism] could never have existed. ‘The great secret and the great accomplishment of capitalism’, claims Moore, ‘has been to not pay its bills.’ Historical capitalism, moreover, has been able to resolve its recurrent crises until now only because of its continued success in ripping off what it should have been paying for, only because it has always managed to extend its zone of appropriation faster than it zone of exploitation – to overcome exhausted means or ‘natural limits’ to further capitalization, by engineering, with the help of science, technology and conducive cultural-symbolic forces, ever new means of restoring cut-price supplies of food, energy, labour and materials. Cartesian talk of Nature’s wreaking revenge on Humanity at some indefinite point in the future overlooks the often spectacular ways in which capitalism has overcome its socio-economic obstacles to growth. Particularly impressive in this respect has been its capacity to harness new knowledges in the service of economic expansion – as, for example, in the critical use made of cartography in the seventeenth century, or of time measurement, and other quantifying systems. Extensive historical illustration of all these devices and accumulation strategies is provided in the various sections of Moore’s book covering the colonizations of capitalism over the centuries, the territories thereby opened up for fresh labour exploitation, and the frontiers marked out for acquisition of pivotal resources at key historical moments (sugar, corn, silver, iron, oil, etc.).

But if apocalyptic formulation of nature’s limits is mistaken, Moore does also accept that capitalism may well now be running into the buffers, or, in others words, running out of the sources of the Four Cheaps [i.e., food, energy, labor power, and raw materials], and into a situation in which overcapitalization is left with too few means of investment and further accumulation. The problem here, he suggests, is a longue durée tendency for the rate of accumulation to decline as the mass of capitalized nature rises. In the process, accumulation becomes more wasteful due to increased energy inefficiency and the toxicity of its by-products; the contradiction between the time of capitalism (always seeking to short-cut that of environmental renewal) and the time of natural reproduction is made more acute; the eco-surplus declines, and capital has nowhere else to go other than recurrent waves of financialization. The key question, then, to which Moore continually returns without any clear answer, is whether the crisis of our times is epochal or developmental; whether, against the odds, new sources of accumulation will be located, or whether the combination of physical depletion, climate change, stymied investment opportunities and new anti-systemic movements now indicate a terminal decline.

Haul Road to China

Ore Truck
The mid-day flight from Marquette to Detroit last week was delayed for a few hours, and while we waited I had a pleasant conversation with a man who was on his way back to San Jose, California. He’d been in the Upper Peninsula visiting his father and staying in a cabin that’s been in his family for several generations. “It’s a little red cabin,” he said, “the one you see in all the postcards and stuff.” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the place, but I’ve been to the UP enough to know from his description roughly where the cabin is. It wasn’t until we were on our way to Detroit a few hours later that it dawned on me: his family cabin is situated right on the new Eagle Mine haul road.

Once the mine is in operation, ore trucks will pass by 100 times every day, making 50 trips down County Road 550 to US 41 via Sugarloaf Avenue and Wright Street. At the Humboldt Mill, the big trucks will dump their loads, turn around and make their way by the same route back to the mine. So much for those quiet family retreats to the picture-postcard cabin. He might as well turn the place into a diner or gas station, or open a 7-11.

Haul roads and trucking routes have been a point of contention ever since the Eagle Mine was planned, and they are now a bigger issue than ever, with the City of Marquette announcing last week that it wanted a new environmental review of any plan to haul ore down the Big Bay Road, through woods and over blue-ribbon trout streams, past the NMU campus, and into the town’s commercial district. It seems people in Marquette are finally realizing with horror what’s going to happen to their beautiful city and the nearby wilderness areas once those trucks start hauling ore out of Eagle.

Rio Tinto huffed and bluffed about their haul route for years, and when plans for County Road 595 fell through, they huffed and bluffed some more about the multi-million dollar investment they would make to upgrade existing roads. Who knows what Rio Tinto told Lundin Mining about infrastructure when they sold the Eagle Mine; but (as I noted in a previous post) Paul Conibear, Lundin’s CEO, did not seem fully in possession of the facts, or was not very forthcoming about what facts he possessed, when he said that good roads were one of the things that made the Eagle Mine so attractive.

An old timer in the Upper Peninsula once told me with pride that you can drive US 41 south all the way from the Keweenaw to Miami, Florida. He could not have imagined where that same road now leads. The ore trucked down US 41 will likely end up in China, where urbanization on a scale and at a pace we can hardly imagine is driving demand for materials like the copper and nickel that northern Michigan has in abundance. Rio Tinto’s business strategy depends on rapid Chinese and, more broadly, Asian urbanization (and with the imminent opening of Oyu Tolgoi — which will ship copper from Mongolia directly to Chinese smelters — the road from Eagle must have seemed an awfully long and unnecessarily expensive haul). The Chinese government’s ambitious plans to move hundreds of millions of people into megacities and move the country to a consumer economy shape the business decisions of mining companies and will also help determine the price Michigan copper and nickel fetch. That’s why analysts who foresee a further Chinese slowdown or predict the bursting of the Chinese credit bubble advise shorting Rio and other big mining stocks.

An article about Chinese urbanization in the Times last month characterized it as a risky, large-scale, “top-down” social experiment which has already exacted huge costs: across China, rural villages are being razed, temples torn down, farmers forced from their land and moved into high-rise towers, fields and farmland paved over — often by government fiat. A little imagination and you can see the Marquette haul road as a remote extension of that effort, and it doesn’t take much imagination at all to appreciate that the road will exact its own social and environmental costs. The truck route from mine to mill will carve a noisy, busy, dirty industrial corridor along Big Bay Road and right through the city of Marquette — threatening wildlife all along the route and permanently changing the way people live around the Lake. Everything is at risk of becoming roadkill.

O, The Humanities!

Last week, the National Research Council of the National Academies issued Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security. I came to the report wondering how this august committee of bureaucrats, bigwigs and business people might go about defining the mission of the research university and how they would define “prosperity”; and I wanted to see what sort of future they envision for research that doesn’t immediately yield new machines, products or services, and doesn’t necessarily play well — historically has not played well — with business: namely, the kind of research I do and I value, research into the human world and the human condition.

I’ve noticed that in most national debates over educational policy and funding (which this report is supposed to inform) and in discussions of the R & D Tax Credit (which this report touches on), “research” gets defined way too narrowly. It gets restricted to scientific research and the invention of useful products and machines. As for prosperity, it tends to get confused with economic growth, or reduced to GDP and employment figures. It’s a limited, myopic view in which “research” is valued only insofar as it yields new machines and tools and products to fuel economic growth.

That’s pretty much the view here.

There are gestures throughout this report to find a place for the humanities (along with the social sciences) in the research university centered around science and engineering. The authors consistently maintain that the research university has to be “comprehensive” in scope, “spanning the full spectrum of academic and professional disciplines,” in order “to provide the broad research and education programs required by a knowledge — and innovation — driven global economy.” But there is not much ink spilled here on the value or the purpose or the place of the humanities. The idea that I advanced as a “crazy” idea in previous posts (here and here and here)– that research in the humanities might provide a much-needed critical orientation in an innovation-driven economy (and should therefore be covered by the R & D tax credit) — seems just as crazy as ever.

Perhaps we can expect a bolder stance on the humanities in the forthcoming report on the humanities and social sciences from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences mentioned in the footnotes here. Maybe without that report this group felt unqualified to tackle the subject, or they were simply being deferential to their colleagues. Be that as it may, Research Universities focuses on the humanities in just one place. This is in a chapter about “national goals.” It opens with a jingoistic account of American progress. Cue the bombastic voiceover:

In the course of our history, our nation has set grand goals that have defined us as a nation. And then we accomplished them. We created a republic, defeated totalitarianism, and extended civil rights to our citizens. We joined our coasts with a transcontinental railroad, linked our cities through the interstate highway system, and networked ourselves and the globe through the Internet. We electrified the nation. We sent men to the Moon. We created a large, strong, and dynamic economy, the largest in the world since the 1870s and today comprising one-quarter of nominal global gross domestic product (GDP).

The most muddled word in this historical muddle is, of course, “we.” The pronoun carries a lot of freight here, and it is meant to reduce history to a story of central planning. We set grand goals and we accomplish them: how grand!

At best, this version of American history is nothing more than the committee projecting the fantasy of central planning on to the past. But it’s also an attempt to sanitize history, to scrub off all the blood and dirt from our past and forget our present afflictions and troubles. Civil rights? The creation of a republic? These weren’t grand goals advanced in a planning session, set out in the form of pure ideas and then acted upon, but the very difficult, tough and very real struggles of people to gain and maintain their liberty. In the area of civil rights, some would say we still have a long way to go; in the matter of the republic, some would argue that we are now more than ever at risk of losing it, if we have not already lost it.

The railroad? Think only of Josephson’s account of how the railroads were laid. Or to take a more recent example, consider what was really involved in networking “ourselves and the globe through the Internet” (and don’t forget that networks are not only systems of inclusion, but of exclusion). The Eisenhower Interstate system may have been the closest we ever came to nation-wide military-industrial planning; but even that took a lot of cajoling, a propaganda campaign, and some serious political maneuvering, and given our current car-crazed, oil-dependent, environmentally-weakened, militarized state, it is debatable whether the Interstate system really deserves unqualified accolades.

Of course these questions and considerations were kept out of the discussion here. But I would hasten to add that these are exactly the kinds of questions and considerations that research in the humanities (and social sciences) allow us to ask. These are questions not only about the past, but also about where we are going, what we want, what we need to do, what is the best thing to do, how we should go about doing it, and how we ought to discuss all those questions.

Just as importantly, the humanities allow us to look at the American story and ask who “we” are, and help us recognize that we are a plurality, not reducible to a single historical agency or identity or even a unified, entirely coherent, unimpeachable history. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the humanities – research into a broad domain of language and historical experience, and questions about the role of language in historical experience as well as the incommensurability of language and history – give us at some very basic level an awareness that history is many stories, that we can ask questions about those stories and that doing so creates the option of telling (and living) another story.

You’d think that at least some of this thinking – which is hardly radical or new – would find its way into this report. Or at least that at some point this report would acknowledge that research into language, thought and history is of value to deliberative democracy, and to considerations of American prosperity. But, no – not even a gesture toward the traditional notion of the “liberal arts” (artes liberales) as the arts most befitting a free people – arts of language and understanding that equip a free people to deliberate and exercise their freedom. In fact, when the report turns to “civic life,” the humanities play no role whatsoever in the discussion. Instead, The Council considers research in the humanities under the heading “Enhanced Security.”

Research in the social sciences and humanities has allowed us to better understand other cultures we may be allied or in conflict with so we can adapt strategies to improve diplomatic and military outcomes.

A handmaid to military strategy and diplomacy: that is a pretty poor rationale for the humanities – about as poor as one can imagine. Humanists can help military generals and diplomatic missions “adapt strategies” for dealing with friends and obliterating enemies. The understanding of “other cultures” – which involves complex, enduring, maybe unanswerable questions of interpretation, translation, language arts, anthropology, history – has been placed here in service of the all-powerful State. “We” are no longer the people, in the plural and in all our plurality, with all the uncertainties that entails, but one singular, grand, innovation-driven, militarized, secure State.

Our friends may delight in this technocratic fantasy, but our enemies had better look out.

Can America Still Bring Good Things to Life?

When announcing the appointment of General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt to lead the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness today, President Obama vowed to put “our economy into overdrive.” He meant what everybody took him to mean: we are now going to get things really going, shift America into high gear, pull out all the stops, discover our inner Edison, “build stuff and invent stuff,” and export it to the world.

But the word “overdrive” is probably not the word the President should have chosen. Or at least it commits him to positions he isn’t going to take – positions I wish he would take.

Indulge me for a moment. Overdrive is not just high gear. Overdrive also means better fuel economy. When you put your car into overdrive you get the best mileage per gallon, because the overdrive mechanism allows “cars to drive at freeway speed while the engine speed stays nice and slow.” Or, as the entry on Wikipedia puts it, overdrive “allows an automobile to cruise at sustained speed with reduced engine speed, leading to better fuel consumption, lower noise and lower wear.”

At the very heart of the President’s metaphor, then, are two ideas: one, economy, a more efficient or economical use of resources (or fuel) and two, sustainability, maintaining a constant speed without causing wear and tear. Right now, we are desperately in need of both: new ways of conserving the resources we have and a more sustainable way forward than the cycle of boom and bust, or dangerous exuberance followed by social collapse.

Those ideas were not on display today in Schenectady. There was some talk about clean energy – a business GE is in, and where, not surprisingly, Immelt thinks a “partnership” between the private and public sector is “essential.” But the main focus was on U.S. manufacturing and U.S. exports, which the President wants to double over the next five years. “For America to compete around the world, we need to export more goods around the world,” said the President. So we need to innovate and invent new “stuff,” or bring good things to life, as the people at GE used to say. “Inventors and dreamers and builders and creators,” we need to expand our manufacturing base and bring American products to the global marketplace.

Reading these remarks, I can almost hear the old General Electric jingle. “We still have that spirit of innovation,” Immelt said. “America is still home to the most creative and innovative businesses in the world,” said the President. We are “still” innovative, both leaders took care to say — almost as if we no longer believe it or doubt it’s true. We’ve still got it. Our force is not spent.

It’s great to be reassured of our continued prowess. There are, however, lots of unexamined assumptions at work here, and chief among these is one I’ve discussed in earlier posts: namely, the assumption that “innovation” is the surest path to “growth,” and that growth – even unsustainable growth – is good in and of itself.

Sustainability doesn’t really enter into this conversation – partly because, I suppose, it really isn’t a conversation. It’s all bluster and boosterism.

Nor would anyone at these events, the President least of all, take a step back and ask whether, while we are doubling our exports, we should also take some steps toward greater self-sufficiency. Doing that, especially when it comes to energy — and energy consumption — would leave us less exposed.

I’m not even convinced doubling our exports or even saying we are going to double our exports is the right thing — for the dollar, for trade agreements we have in place, for the very focus of American industry and innovation. For his part, Immelt has no doubts:

“It’s the right aspiration,” Immelt said of the president’s goal of doubling American exports to more than $2 trillion in five years, during a Nov. 6 interview in Mumbai, where he joined Obama for a meeting with business leaders. “We’ve done it in the last five years as a company.”

Maybe in the long run, or at least in five year’s time, what’s good for General Electric will turn out to be good for the republic. How could it be otherwise?