The original theme of this issue of the Breakthrough Journal was “Whole Earth Discipline,” celebrating the remarkable contributions of Stewart Brand to environmental consciousness and to the birth of ecomodernism. But as the issue took shape and the essays started to arrive, it became clear that the theme running through this issue is equity.
“Whole Earth Equity” is perhaps a more fitting theme at this particular moment. As we have come to better understand the social and political underside of the digital revolution, Brand himself has been criticized for his part in the development of tech culture and his faith in the democratic potential of personal computing. What in the 1960s and ’70s seemed like a radical celebration of individual agency, egalitarian community, and the liberatory potential of craft and technology has since been read by some as a rejection of politics and institutions and an embrace of a techno-libertarian ethic that has contributed to rising inequality, creating enormous wealth for those at the top of the new tech economy while leaving many more behind.
Ecomodernists too have faced similar criticisms, for what some regard as an unreflective embrace of modernization and for what others charge is a technocratic vision of the future devoid of politics and emancipatory struggle.
At bottom, all of these critiques come back to contested notions of justice, equity, democracy, and technology. What does a just and equitable future look like? Should we be more concerned about the far larger distributional differences in wealth and consumption between the developed and developing world or the smaller disparities closer to home? What are our responsibilities to future generations, to non-human life, and to each other? What circle ought we to draw around the scope of democratic deliberation, and what decisions ought to be made by whom and at what scale?
Most of the criticisms levied against Brand and ecomodernists have come from the Left, and it is worth interrogating how concepts such as justice and democracy are being deployed in these contexts. The post-Marxist Left has been both promiscuous and at times misleading in its use of both terms.
In “Food Injustice,” food studies scholar Margot Finn asks how it is that social justice advocates managed to convince themselves that the key to addressing health and other inequities in low income communities of color was the provision of farmers’ markets, urban gardens, and fresh produce.
The problem with food justice as social justice advocates have defined it, Finn argues, is not merely that taking advantage of all of these amenities requires time and money that poor people don’t have. Or that the real drivers of poor health outcomes in low income communities of color are things like high incarceration rates, lack of access to good health care, social isolation, and all the stresses that come with living on the economic margins. But, crucially, it’s also that the food justice movement demands broader access to amenities imagined and produced by upper-middle-class elites with the implicit purpose of differentiating themselves from those who are below them in the social hierarchy. In effect, then, the movement reifies the hierarchy that it is purportedly setting out to erase.
Substantial public investments to promote farmers’ markets and urban gardens haven’t made any demonstrable difference to health outcomes in poor communities. But they have reinforced the myth that poor people are unhealthy because they eat poorly, not because they are poor. “No matter how well-intentioned,” Finn concludes, “a movement based on such an impoverished moral imagination about what is worth wanting in food will never deliver anything worthy of the name justice.”
Finn demonstrates how justice concerns, when refracted through the lens that well-educated, mostly white progressives and leftists apply to food, become distorted beyond recognition. In a similar vein, science and technology scholar Yael Borofsky shows in “After Day Zero” what happens when environmental and climate concerns blot out the deep inequality and poverty that were the real backdrop to Cape Town’s water crisis in the summer of 2018.
International media sensationalized Cape Town’s looming “Day Zero,” when the water taps would ostensibly be turned off, as an omen of a climate crisis that was already underway. But the real water shortage in Cape Town, Borofsky argues, has been ongoing for decades and had nothing to do with the drought or climate change.
Much of the city’s population still lives in informal settlements and has long been forced to queue for water at communal taps. Residents in the informal settlements consume a fraction of the water that Cape Town’s rich, white population uses, even under the severe restrictions imposed during the drought because the national government has rationalized its failure to provide water services to the settlements for decades with the fiction that they were temporary and would soon be replaced by permanent housing.
The extreme measures that the city took to encourage its wealthier residents to conserve water did help the city get through the crisis, but they also counterintuitively made a long term solution more difficult. The problem with demand-side strategies under conditions of high inequality, Borofsky observes, is that they exacerbate inequality. Shrinking demand from wealthy residents results in shrinking revenue for the city and its water utility, leaving it even less able to invest in the infrastructure and innovation that might better prepare it for the next drought. “Cape Town’s drought was not, in the end, a crisis because it stopped raining,” she writes. “It was a crisis because this relatively rich city could no longer hide the fact that it was already buckling under the weight of insufficient planning and rampant inequality.”
What Finn and Borofsky both are after is that slapping the word “justice” onto an issue (food justice, climate justice, etc.) is no guarantee that what is likely to follow has much to do, really, with justice. Indeed, the fusion often ends up directing our gaze — and exertions — away from the underlying inequities. In the name of addressing the disparate impacts of climate change, we are directed toward emissions mitigation and over-consumption, not the extension of infrastructure and economic development to those who need it. In the name of addressing disparities in health outcomes in low income communities, we are directed toward interventions that bear little relationship to the disparities in question.
In both cases, the most immediate, direct, and effective way to address those disparities is to help poor people — whether in the United States or South Africa — to no longer be poor. But having broken faith with modernization and abandoned the old Marxist commitment to dialectical materialism, the contemporary Left has no pro-active development or economic agenda beyond incoherent demands for bottom-up decentralization and enfranchisement that offer no broader theory of how such things could possibly provide either infrastructure or wealth for those who presently have meager access to both.
In the same way that invocations of justice often direct our gaze away from the central inequities that ought to concern us, claims from critics on the Left that ecomodernists don’t have a “politics” are not what they might first appear to be. The claim is that ecomodernism rejects politics for a sterile, technocratic vision of the future. But critics’ demand is actually not for politics in the normal sense of the word, meaning a pluralistic and deliberative negotiation among stakeholders in service of pragmatic solutions to social and environmental problems — solutions that recognize the panoply of legitimate values, interests, and practical considerations that any democratic society must navigate.
Rather, the demand for “politics” is actually a demand for a sweeping, millenarian politics, one that flattens the world into a universal conflict, where class, race, gender, ethnicity, and ecology are fused into a single construct, with the forces of egalitarian righteousness and liberation arrayed in Manichean struggle against a corporate, neo-colonial, white supremacist, extractivist elite.
In his new essay, “In Defense of Greta Thunberg,” political scientist Jonathon Symons takes aim at the anti-extractivist narrative, arguing that in the name of having a politics, much of the climate movement actually rejects politics as something that has been irredeemably corrupted. Drawing on data from the IPCC and analysis by Thomas Piketty, Symons demonstrates that while an extractivist elite is indeed responsible for most emissions globally, “this elite group is quite large.”
“Most of the First World climate activists who channel popular resentment upward toward a tiny extractivist elite,” Symons argues, “are themselves members of what, by global standards, is a tiny profligate elite minority.” In the same way that the Occupy Movement’s “99%” framing elided the stark differences in social position and economic interests between the well-educated upper-middle-class protesters who showed up at places like Zuccotti Park and the homeless population that was living there, claims that climate change has been an enormous conspiracy foisted upon humanity by an extractivist elite has allowed the climate movement to airbrush its own privilege, entitlement, and consumption out of the picture.
Thunberg has been cheered by the anti-extractivist crowd for her unyielding insistence that politicians have failed us and that the world must take draconian steps immediately to avoid climate catastrophe. But in contrast to those propagating extractivist conspiracies, Thunberg implicates her own social class and her political comrades. “Thunberg thinks that everyone in rich countries like Sweden is responsible for climate change,” Symons observes. “I may not accept Thunberg’s belief that radical constraints on individual consumption offer a plausible or desirable climate solution, but I do share her aspiration for universal human development through public infrastructure and service delivery.”
The politics of millenarian climate apocalypse not only elides who is responsible for most emissions, but it also invokes democratic action in ways that are often not particularly democratic. In “Planning the Earth System,” science and policy journalist Leigh Phillips enjoins us to reckon with the imperiled fate of social democracy in a climate-changed world in order to imagine an alternative to the dominance of the Westphalian nation-state. “If we continue to lean on treaty-based intergovernmentalism to solve environmental problems, and if we continue to practice global governance in the absence of global government, then our progress will not only be slow and inadequate but will also stall in the face of the wrath of citizens who recognize its lack of democratic legitimacy,” Phillips writes. “What we need, instead, is the capacity for global majoritarian decision-making: a worldwide democratic state.”
Appeals to global governance might seem fanciful. But Phillips’ rejection of treaties and intergovernmentalism and call for majoritarian decision-making cut to the heart of the failure of the present framework for international climate action. Under that framework, Tuvalu, population 11,000, gets the same vote as India, population 1.4 billion. And under pressure from island nations and allied environmental NGOs, demands have grown to adopt a more stringent climate mitigation standard that would limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, based in large part upon the likelihood that small island nations will disappear if temperatures rise higher.
And while the plight of small island nations is, without question, real and legitimate, the notion that a vanishingly small share of the global population represented by these states would dictate the future of the global energy economy to billions of Chinese, Indians, and Africans is absurd on its face and represents nothing recognizable as a global democratic response to the crisis.
Of course, all democracies, whether national or global, must balance majoritarian rule with minority rights, and it is important to consider what democracies owe the losers when serious tradeoffs must be navigated in democratic decision-making, as they almost always are. But those tradeoffs must be addressed through democratic negotiation and majoritarian politics, not assertions of prior and inviolable rights.
Instead, climate advocates too often use island nations (and indigenous populations) as human shields, deployed to undermine majoritarian rule and assert prerogatives that reflect the priorities of mostly Western environmental constituencies, not a global democratic majority or even, in many cases, the interests of the communities in whose names those priorities are invoked.
This issue of the Breakthrough Journal continues debates from earlier issues about agroecology and the processing of foods. Ellinor Isgren and Thaddeo Kahigwa Tibasiima respond to Nassib Mugwanya’s “After Agroecology,” arguing that while agroecology might not, to date, look materially different than traditional smallholder farming methods that have left most practitioners deeply impoverished, it might do so in the future. And Rachel Laudan continues her debate with Sam Bliss about the role that grains have played, over many millennia, in allowing ever larger populations to liberate themselves from the hard and drudgerous labor of not only growing food but processing it such that it is nutritious and palatable.
Fundamentally, both of these debates get back to distinctions that often get lost in much of the undifferentiated hand-waving about inequality and equity. Poverty, inequality, and social mobility are not the same thing. The development of agriculture and ultimately grains allowed for more populous, complex, and hierarchical societies. Subsistence agrarian economies often have substantially lower levels of inequality because most people must spend most of their time growing and processing enough food to feed themselves.
Complexity and specialization bring higher levels of inequality. But they also bring art, science, and technology, productivity and innovation. Modern societies are more unequal than subsistence economies. But everybody, rich and poor, is also wealthier. The low income communities that food justice advocates concern themselves with struggle with obesity, not starvation. Armies of social justice activists and advocates in the NGO sector working to make the world a better place are able to do so because we have already made the world a better place. Because billions of us today have been freed from the daily struggle to scrape sustenance from the land.
So many of us care about nature today because we no longer depend directly upon it for our material well-being. Humans have flourished, science journalist Brandon Keim argues in “Conservation for the World We Want,” because we have decoupled our prosperity from nature’s whims, or simplified and engineered its affordances to our own ends. Today, indeed, “at precisely the same time as so many wild lives are imperiled, billions of people are enjoying historically unprecedented prosperity and health.”
Of course, many still do depend on nature to support subsistence livelihoods in biomass-based economies. Others simply value more traditional systems where yields are low and biodiversity high. But most of us will need to separate ourselves from dependence on nature in order to allow it to thrive. “This isn’t simply a matter of increasing efficiency and productivity,” Keim writes, “but of envisioning economic growth and prosperity that isn’t resource-intensive. It means envisioning a society that is not so reliant on displacing and consuming other lives.”
Misunderstanding the problem risks misstating the solution. If what we’d like to do is enable nonhuman flourishing, Keim reminds us, we need to understand that our reliance on nature often stands in our way.
Indeed, Keim, Symons, Borofsky, and Finn all bring us back to the question of discipline, the original theme that we set out to organize this issue around. Discipline has many meanings, but one of them entails focusing the mind and carefully interrogating our ideas about the world. It means paying attention to the terminology and mental frames that we apply to problems. It means adjusting our conception of the problems before us, which too often miss the facts on the ground for the thrust of the ideal.
But self-reflection, and even words, may be insufficient to reimagine our greatest challenges and our brightest futures. For that, we also need vision. “Seeing Different,” the visual series featured at the center of this issue, asks what it means to see the present and the future with new eyes. How can a bird’s-eye view of a beautifully planned city or an elegant illustration of a next-generation advanced nuclear reactor, nestled in the shadow of two arctic mountains, open us up to new opportunities that words alone cannot?
But vision too is not enough. Ultimately, Brand has been such a successful visionary because he has been in the business of making the future as much as predicting it. The Whole Earth Catalog was not a hysterical jeremiad like The Population Bomb or a dry forecast of economic collapse based on a computer model like The Limits to Growth, and not simply because Brand placed on its cover an aspirational image of the Earth from outer space. The Whole Earth Catalog, rather, offered to a community that Brand had helped to create “access to tools,” as one of the catalog’s mantras read. Brand’s great contribution to the digital age, similarly, was not simply in seeing the potential of digital technology to foster community, but rather in actually creating one of the first digital communities, the WELL, or the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link.
Stewart’s gift, in the words of Frank Foer, has been “to channel the spiritual longings of his generation and then to explain how they could be fulfilled through technology.” That, at bottom, is the ecomodern project and the Whole Earth Discipline, to imagine what a prosperous, equitable, and ecologically vibrant planet of 10 billion souls might look like, to explain how technology — or more accurately, social-technological systems — might fulfill that longing, and then to make it so. The tools are at hand; what remains is the vision to work our way into the future.