Book Reviews

Brown’s book on Tolerance seems to be aging well in our era of unstable politics.

The goal of her project is to probe the political discourse of Tolerance and criticize it, but this demands a preemptive note: given the blistering strength of her critique it’s easy to get the impression that Brown is rejecting Tolerance tout court. This is emphatically not the case. Her focus is on Tolerance as a political discourse, that is, as a force that structures our political ideals and practices. Accordingly, she uses this book exorcise some of the demons she sees lurking in that discourse, but she leaves open a hopeful future where we can get by with a more virtuous version of the ideal. She also leaves unscathed the practice of tolerance in our personal lives – something she takes as an unqualified good. Brown is not intelligibly ‘against tolerance’ as some have put it.

What she is against, however, is a version of Tolerance which has a stultifying, depoliticizing effect on our public sphere, a Tolerance which supplants other justice projects like Equality, a Tolerance which provides cover for an expansionist State, and a Tolerance which underwrites an imperial civilizational discourse of us-and-them.

Each of these accounts is fascinating in turn and I will outline just some features of the case for depoliticization.

This version of Tolerance branches off from Locke’s Treatise for Religious Toleration wherein he argued that doctrinal differences in Christianity were a matter of personal conscience and not public dispute (and religious war). This classical liberal argument achieved peace (to the extent it did) by privatizing what was once public and turning it into a matter of belief.

This pattern recurs. The Enlightenment liberal state makes claims to both secularism and universality, and it faces a thorny challenge in groups who recognize authority in other places – like culture and religion. The liberal state can’t demand that some groups relinquish their most cherished beliefs as a condition of participation and still take itself seriously as liberal. Enter: tolerance. According to Brown, the state trades in a discourse of tolerance at this point because it assures the state’s authority by tacitly bargaining to admit these ‘other’ groups on the condition that they privatize their assertive claims as matters of mere belief. This way the state can maintain an air of liberalism while also inoculating groups it sees as a threat. It’s a hegemony donning robes of neutrality.

This leads to a progressive secularization of politics and relativization of belief that tend toward a State which claims only a culturally neutral proceduralism – one that is emptied of the substantive moral claims which seem parochial.

Whether or not we think that such a state is possible in a pure form (Brown surely does not), the story comports nicely with the state of many contemporary liberal democracies. Paeans to Tolerance as a supreme political value are recited at exactly this moment when citizens feel like their public lives are empty and bloodless.

In the story Brown tells, this liberal zenith (nadir?) is dissatisfying to the point of fueling reactionary movements and pre-modern counter discourses (while not within the purview of her book, resurgent nativism seems like just one case that is a propos).

Thus, tolerant liberalism creates new enemies against which it can assert itself.

To recap the story: liberalism’s pretension to universalism can only be maintained in the face of conflict over substantive values by invoking a discourse of tolerance and reducing competing values to matters of private belief. This relativization advances liberalism’s hegemony at the cost of any meaningful values by which people live. The ostensibly neutral and legalistic residue is so morally unfulfilling that it sparks reactionary and illiberal movements founded on the palpitating values of your choice (race, culture, religion, or some potpourri thereof). Liberalism can then assert itself against these movements by repurposing a discourse of tolerance as license for self-defence against these intolerant barbarians. In short: liberalism makes its own monsters, and efforts to quash them only exacerbate conflict. All told, Brown’s tolerant liberalism is purportedly exposed as a project which both obscures and exacerbates conflict, and which justifies its own imperialism.

While there’s much of interest here, I want to add one squabble: In this story Brown implies that a tolerant, liberal, and secular state cannot ultimately inspire moral allegiance. I would agree that this is an exceedingly difficult issue; the value of liberal democratic institutions cannot be reduced to a moral criterion (then we’re just invoking morals ex nihilo) and it should not be reduced to a matter of culture without great caution (as demonstrated by culturally imperial aggressors who claim the benevolence of democratization). This does not mean, however, that it is impossible to find justifications of liberal democracy which are motivating and inspiring enough to shield it from the reactionaries. One possible approach here would be the culturalist approach of John Dewey who thought that democracy, in addition to being a set of political institutions, was a way of life. “Democracy”, for him, “starts at home” and manifests in a set of practices in all areas of our lives – public and private.

To my mind, this kind of Deweyan project deserves serious consideration; we should want a democracy which is both liberal and morally inspiring. But a potential constructive project like this which hews close to cultural forces would have to be carried out in conjunction with critical projects like Brown’s – ones which sensitize us to the hazards of hegemony and empire. As an exploration of these potential sins and as a partial exorcism of them, I cannot recommend her book enough.

Graham Bracken

Book Reviews

Fatheuer, Fuhr, Unmüßig: Inside the Green Economy: Promises and Pitfalls

Climate Change is so depressing because it’s about more than just planetary destruction. As if trashing the place weren’t bad enough, our reaction has also been politically destructive and disempowering. This is because we have increasingly entrusted our shared future to the great impersonal Economy. The public has been hollowed out and the power has been redistributed to individual consumers, to producers, or to the vague and distant statistical agencies which design new markets in carbon offsets or wetland credits. Instead of acting with unity, we now wring our hands about incentive schemes and the potential harms to economic growth. To be sure, this is a trend which existed well before we saw climate change as a crisis, but the crisis is being used to stoke the market’s fires. The problem with all this, however, is that the market – either in its design or in its regular function – doesn’t ask us what we want. The market doesn’t believe there is an ‘us’ to be consulted. This has been a long-run disappearing act of the public, and it’s a minor miracle that there’s enough of a ‘we’ left to even feel helpless.

Climate Change isn’t just a simple story about how we unwittingly destroyed our home, having pushed it beyond certain thresholds only to feel helpless because we couldn’t get it back. In the full story, the helplessness comes first. Once we see that the death of politics is first, we realize that Climate Change isn’t a single dirty deed. It’s a murder-suicide.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find tellings of this story which don’t seem conspiratorial and grasping. A successful narrative needs to have a tight grip on the economics, the international institutions, the embattled local politics, and the environmental science. Inside the Green Economy: Promises and Pitfalls is just such a successful account.

Transparently, it is written from a “discourse-critical and power-critical” perspective, aimed at re-politicizing ecology and exposing the ways in which purportedly environmentally friendly market incentives have not only been backed by powerful corporations, but how such schemes have been used to hide increasing environmental impacts. Worse, they document the ways in which these new markets, like carbon offset farms, have been used to enclose the common lands of indigenous or local populations, thereby forcing them to behave as market participants. This gives the whole exchange an aura of consent and obscures the social disruption behind a smokescreen of growth statistics.

Make no mistakes: this is a story about the imperialism of economic calculus. It is a story about how the economy has dethroned nature as our final master. Where we used to believe the economy was within nature, we increasingly see nature as an input into economic calculation. National and international market-schemes try to evaluate stocks of ‘natural capital’ and we are given bromides that “you can only treasure what you can measure.” Nature becomes the ‘nature that capital can see’.

The authors do an excellent job of arguing that this expansion of the economy to include bits of nature, however well-marketed, doesn’t avoid any difficult problems of evaluation or the negotiation of conflicts. Rather, market schemes (which assume that value can only take monetary form) displace the problems of evaluation from local political groups and tuck them in the back-rooms of big statistical agencies. Since these agencies are unaccountable and since they face impossibly difficult decisions about quantification, they are likely to be captured by corporate interests who have a lot to gain from the creation of new markets. The quick version, then, is that power is transferred from local polities to corporations under the auspices of well-intended market-fixes. If our authors can establish this much then it is small potatoes to argue that the interests of corporations don’t align with our social or planetary needs – their gains lie elsewhere. Accordingly, we can’t trust that the incentives of the corporations will be adequately tweaked with market-fixes like taxes or offsets because those very programs are so deeply shaped by the corporate interests themselves.

Power matters.

Though the book was designed to be small and accessible, I regret this simple treatment of power. We are asked to understand corporations as agents: they have ends and adopt strategies – just like people. While this is at least somewhat true, it downplays a different – and consequential – understanding of power: that it is a corollary of how we organize our knowledge. Consider this example: suppose you face a difficult decision in your life – that is, you have the power to make a difficult choice – and in a moment of difficulty, you decide to consult an oracle. The oracle puts on such a compelling show that you believe her when she tells you what she sees for your future. Once you believe her, there is no longer a difficult decision to be made; it has effectively been decided. What happened? The oracle didn’t exercise power over you directly, didn’t tell you what to choose, claim authority, or give you an argument. Instead, she got you to believe something – to change your beliefs about the world – and that newfound ‘knowledge’ made the decision for you. The knowledge held the power. Or rather: the knowledge was the power.

Something similar happens in how we understand our natural world. Power isn’t just traded back and forth between intentional agents like corporations and governments; power circulates and concentrates in different places depending on how we understand and measure nature, and it makes those corporations and government agencies possible. Think of the US Wetland Bank in the 90’s: in an effort to be more economical and conservationist, a cap-and-trade system was set up so that developers who destroyed wetlands in one place would be given an allotment of credits which they had to redeem elsewhere by rehabilitating wetlands or building new ones. The height of hubris? Yes. But it’s important to see that such a scheme could only come into existence if the measurements took a certain shape: that is, if a wetland could be reduced to a single measurement scale and compared with a wetland anywhere else. This is no small task but once such a form of knowledge becomes usable, a trading scheme is almost inevitable. The power is in the form of representation. A similar tale could be told with the trading schemes which are emerging from our vastly abstracted carbon metrics; they tilt the game in favour of offset farms and other tragedies.

This alternative view of power shifts the focus of environmental destruction away from intentional and rapacious corporations and onto the kinds of knowledge which let those corporations expand their reach in the first place. This implicates scientists, statisticians, and accountants in deep ways. Of course, our authors know this story – and they tell it with gusto elsewhere – but it doesn’t get much press in this book, and that’s regrettable.

Fortunately, whichever story you pick about power, the course of action is the same: democratize! The authors celebrate political conflict and insist that all different powers and interests must be made accountable to one another. This means we need to ask questions about the role for industrial lobbies, ask who controls resources (and who should control resources), demand equal civil rights, push for gender equity, insist on political transparency, and so on. The project is enormous and is reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s aptly titled This Changes Everything, albeit with more clarity and practical direction.

Expanding this democratizing insight to account for the second form of power (that which is the corollary of our ‘knowledge’) means that we must celebrate conflict and dialogue everywhere – not only in the obvious cases where ‘the economy’ is invoked to silence resistance, but also in our construction of knowledge about the world. Since the shape of our environmental science and our statistics prefigure the shape of our politics and our tools for coping, the work of measurement should not be exempted from scrutiny, cordoned off as somehow politically neutral. To believe this myth of neutrality is to cede power to the statistical bureaus and their more dubious masters without a fight.

Conflict is essential and is healthy. We will accomplish nothing of worth without it. Inside the Green Economy is a wonderful critique of the alternative program we have embraced: timid, we have prostrated ourselves to the economic illusion of consensus and the chimera of growth. Vaguely believing piecemeal incentive schemes to be the best overall strategy, we have legitimated the market’s takeover of nature and let ourselves believe the result is somehow inevitable and apolitical. Blinded thus to the interests and powers who design these schemes and benefit from them, we have hobbled our politics. If it is not to be a complete political suicide then we must first challenge the mythology that the market will save us.  Inside the Green Economy is a clarion call for why this must be our fight if we are to survive on this planet.


It all follows an apparent logic: there are massive environmental catastrophes which the market is failing to solve. This is because there is continued exploitation or degradation of stocks or buffers – public goods – which the market cannot express in its own terms; private gains then come at a public cost. Therefore, we must fix the market and internalize these external costs by properly valuing our natural capital.

To use an example by Pavan Sukhdev, the Amazon is a rain factory and its transpiration is essential for the survival of everyone downwind.  But – he infers – since those beneficiaries don’t pay for this benefit, there is no correlative incentive for Amazonian locals to maintain the provision of this ‘service’ and so keep from deforesting. This is all so tragic, he thinks. The benefit of that service should be properly measured, extracted from its end users, and (presumably) redistributed to either the producers or owners of that natural capital. This would align incentives and so maintain the production and consumption of valuable services.

This is the fever dream of environmental economics: the services provided by our natural capital (naïfs might still call it nature) will finally be properly represented once natural scientists and economists team up to assess what these services are and who benefits from them, and by how much. Values will be represented in commensurable, exchangeable, and individual terms – preferably monetary ones – and, now that these values will all be represented in one grand unified system, there will be no more needless destruction of natural assets.

Do I sound at least a little sympathetic? I’m trying to sound sympathetic. Okay, fine, I’ll stop trying.

This is a contorted, autofellating perversion of economics. Not only does it sanctify the shakiest practical and moral assumptions of orthodox theory; it roundly rejects the best ones. Let me explain.

First the shakiest assumptions: all value is human value; everything under the sun can be reduced to costs and benefits for humans; those costs and benefits are commensurable (reducible to one common scale) and so can be represented by utility or money; since the goodness is representable in monetary terms, so too is it exchangeable. In this case then, all natural value is tradeable human value.

Of course, focusing on these commitments is to ignore whether or not we could ever have complete enough knowledge about the way nature works to know its benefits for humans (see previous post). But that criticism notwithstanding, the problem of value incommensurability which rears its head elsewhere in economics does so with a vengeance when we consider the natural environment. Just as you couldn’t possibly decide the number of pop tarts which has equivalent value to watching your child take her first steps, so too could you not decide the *true* human value of a cow which produces greenhouse gases, causes soil erosion, indirectly consumes Brazilian rainforest, dumps fertilizer, and provides eventual McNourishment to someone.

But buried in this aspiration for fully commensurable and exchangeable natural values is the more secret dream that every part of nature could be privately owned (again: see previous post). This debate will forever rage in normal economics, but it takes on a special kind of absurdity in the natural world. Our planetary and ecological systems are functionally integrated systems – made of component parts which play essential stabilizing roles in tandem with other ones, and which cannot be separated from them. A grassland is like a gerbil; made of components, either pollinators or spleens, which cannot be separated from the containing whole without killing it. Parts cannot be separately owned and exchanged. (The same argument could be levied socially: society is a functionally integrated system which follows an order that private property cannot properly respect or sustain.)

So taking just those two tenets – commensurability and exchangeable private ownership rights – it seems pretty audacious to suggest we could get the natural world to behave in the ways they demand. But it becomes clear that these tenets are maintained, not because it seems like nature could cooperate, but because economics demands them of us.

Now is the point when the environmental economist will say “yes, yes, these are problems but we must measure and represent these values, however incomplete they are! Otherwise these natural stocks and flows will be entirely ignored and degraded.” This specious pragmatism betrays his deeper capitulation to economics’ ethical ethos: that values can only come in this individualized form. If he doesn’t have the flexibility to imagine other ways of valuing, like moral argument or political negotiation, then his appeal to a gerrymandered market is understandable. It reminds me of Thatcher’s famous submission to the gods of the market: “there is no alternative”.

However this fixation on the market as the true source of values pairs rather poorly with the economist’s admission that the market has failed – dramatically – to capture the value of nature. Given the failure to imagine other value systems, the economist can only recommend ‘fixing’ the market with our expert scientific knowledge of what nature does for us – knowledge which individual consumers or investors don’t have. To him, we must use the state apparatus to intervene in prices and so approximate the complete, perfect market which we’ve been unable to attain thus far.

If the environmental economist has so far celebrated the worst features of orthodox theory, this is where he rejects the best ones – the second failure.

The decision about what parts of nature matter, how much, and for whom, is an immense political problem. But economists don’t see it that way. For them, it is a matter of expert measurement and judgement; the weighing of costs and benefits. The problem is simple: since interests conflict and since the natural world is so bottomlessly complex, any measurement of costs and benefits will be incomplete. Worse, such an accounting system will be arbitrary since there is no way of holding these experts to account for their choices; they are insulated in the back rooms of a bureaucratic machine.

When these arbitrary measurers are given real power to shape markets by imposing prices, or to decide where to build dams and windmills, then this is nothing less than a political tyranny. There are no strong mechanisms for connecting these decisions to the will of people, whether citizens or consumers and producers. It’s fair to say that the classical proponents of free markets would be abhorred by this since they were all political liberals. For them it was essential that people have the autonomy to value things as they see fit and to exchange with others; this was necessary to free them from the tyrannies under which they struggled.

This should help us see that the environmental economist’s heavy-handed commitment to fixing markets concentrates power into an elite class of technical experts, and that this is no less than the total abandonment of the politically liberal heartbeat in classical economics.

The absurdist shadow play of environmental economics is thereby complete.  They sanctified the worst parts of conventional economics, blinded as they were to any value system which wasn’t individualized, commensurable, and exchangeable – however little sense it made for the natural world. Worse, their effort to follow through on these commitments impelled them to a final tragicomic embrace of arbitrary bureaucracy and the tyrannical rule-of-experts, disinheriting them from the moral core of classical economics: political liberalism.

Philosophically and morally contorted, these economists went on to twist and fold our national and international political administrations into such unrecognizable shapes that only they could look normal.



It used to be home, this earth:

A place for roots, and the

rich tangle of tendrils,

tracing our dance of decades,

below as above


But now the cracks we pretended not to notice have softened and sifted

and slithered away,

making us exiles who have no choice but to stay


Here’s an op-ed I wrote a few months back which never saw the light of day:

Pipelines are tedious to talk about, especially when we bludgeon one another with the importance of the economy or the environment. It’s tedious because it’s not the important conversation. Heresy, I know, but in the aftermath of the federal government’s new interim principles for the environmental assessments by the National Energy Board, these are the bludgeonings we can expect.  The Conservative’s natural resources critic Candice Bergen took a first whack: “At the end of the day it’s about jobs”. You know how this one goes.

But, actually, this time it’s different and the punches about the economy aren’t landing quite so squarely. This is because these new interim principles aren’t directly about the approval of specific pipelines like Energy East. What they are about is how we should make decisions about these pipelines, and about whose voices get included in making that decision. They’re about what kind of democracy we want.

And there’s nothing better than a pipeline to force this conversation. Think: they are born in backcountry, have huge and uneven economic value, flow through farmland, provincial borders, indigenous lands and cities, and end up at the sea with global effects. Everyone has a stake. Existing at this scale, Rona Ambrose is on the money when she raises the scepter of national disunity, but she’s wrong to think this makes decisions about pipelines an obvious ‘yes’ to appease despairing westerners.

There are economic benefits for some of us and environmental costs for others, often both for all of us. Who, then, makes the decision? In a democracy, the answer is “we do”, but who is the ‘we’ when the pipeline has such a wide range of effects for different people? Ah, well, there’s the rub.

A couple of safe answers are on the extremes: not every farmer in its path should have a veto, and it shouldn’t be left to a federal bureaucracy which only looks at jobs statistics. Somewhere between the two we have the existing NEB charged with a mandate for ‘consultation’, balancing the need for public legitimacy with the realities of having to govern and make centralized decisions about our pipelines.

So then how much consultation is needed, and with whom? These are difficult questions but, importantly: they are the right questions. Even posing them requires us to acknowledge that the decision should somehow be ‘ours’ democratically. A federal bureaucracy which tinkers with statistics but fails to consult citizens will never have this legitimacy. This is what Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr alludes to when, defending these principles, he notes how few major NEB projects have gone ahead in recent years. They failed, he says, because they lacked public confidence. In this light, we should interpret the interim principles as a way of saying that the NEB needs to be more democratically legitimate – more closely tied with citizens. Consider two of the five principles:

–  The views of the public and affected communities will be sought and considered;

–  Indigenous peoples will be meaningfully consulted, and where appropriate, impacts on their rights and interests will be accommodated

Just how much consideration communities will get and just how meaningful the consultation will be is yet to be seen – and is a balancing act all its own – but placing these requirements front and center makes a strong statement about what is at issue: how we govern ourselves and who is included in the political “we”.

Marking these as priorities is a way of disqualifying the zealots who shout “it’s all about jobs” or “it’s all about the environment”, dogmas which fail to recognize these resource decisions as essentially political problems. From this perspective, “the economy” and “the environment” are not the words on which we should hang these choices. As singular nouns, they are set beyond our reach; they are outside of politics, cordoned off as special and non-human. This is not to say that we don’t need environmental science or economics – we desperately do – but we must treat them as tools, not as distant gods which demand certain sacrifices from us.

It is when politicians or other experts claim special knowledge of the will of these gods, economic or environmental, that we are lead into the kind of holy war with which we as a public are so familiar. Experts duel and most of us feel compelled to declare an allegiance to one or the other. And meaningful democratic politics is the biggest casualty.

We should then find cause to celebrate whenever this feud appears to loosen into a conversation about how it is that we should make these decisions. By requiring expanded political dialogue, it seems that large parts of the NEB interim principles could mark just such a shift. But even if that’s too hopeful a reading for the time being, such democratization needs to become true of our national environmental assessments. Holy war only leaves carnage.


I recently saw The Fraser Institute express the hope that everything in the biosphere will eventually be owned as a marketable commodity, “every square inch”.

And I was like:



So I thought it would be worth taking a moment to show a couple of the things which this dystopian nightmare hypothetical future assumes are possible, leaving it to you whether or not they’re plausible – nevermind desirable.

There are two basic assumptions I won’t pick a fight with: First, that all value is utilitarian; that “man is the measure of all things”. And second, that there could be a legal administration big enough and efficient enough to handle all the property rights and enforcement of contracts (which if we’re talking about every square inch of the  biosphere – from land to the water table to the atmosphere to underground mineral deposits – is a very, very big administration). Let’s just pretend these aren’t problems.

I’d rather take a narrow focus on the following question: what kinds of characteristics does something need to have to become private property or an exchangeable commodity? Some criteria seem obvious. Imagine a piece of gold: it is solid, measurable, immobile, immutable, and belongs to an identifiable class of things which other people can recognize and value. All of these qualities seem to make it an ideal candidate for ownership and exchange. What about something like a fishery? A population of fish is not obviously solid, not easily measurable, highly mobile, mutable (its demography is always changing), and although it may be mostly one species, there may be so much individual variation that a general classification will miss a lot of details that matter to traders (at least compared with gold, which is simply classified by atomic structure). This at least seems to explain why fisheries are much harder to own and exchange than gold.

Some cases are harder still, like the atmosphere: it is gaseous, mostly immeasurable, always mixing and stirring, and doesn’t belong to a class since it is a sui generis entity.

So because of their physical or functional properties, some things are easier to turn into tradable commodities than others. But there’s an important proviso: it’s not directly the physical and functional properties which matter; it’s our classifications which do the work, and classifications don’t always match up with physical or functional properties.

Consider wheat. Before the western expansion of the American railroad, wheat was sold by the sack. Buyers would inspect the quality directly and haggle about price. But with the railroad came grain cars, silos, and the mixing together of wheat from different origins. There still had to be some sort of quality discrimination but since the buyer could no longer inspect it before purchase, there had to be a new set of classifications: No.1, No.2, No.3, and rejected wheat. Suddenly wheat came in standardized classes which varied on one dimension where, until then, the farmer and buyer had to consider a large number of characteristics. That is, where wheat had been a discrete unit – sold by the sack – it was now a continuous flow; where it had been diverse, it was now homogeneous. In effect, it became more of a commodity. (Interestingly, it was at precisely this time that a futures market came into existence in Chicago. Since the commodity now existed as an abstracted set of standards, people could trade in promises on the future – the actual quality or quantity of wheat at any time didn’t matter as much.) But wheat didn’t become more of a commodity because of its physical properties; it became more of a commodity because of the way people chose to represent and classify it. And this classification had less and less to do with the natural world. Differences in the ecologies of farms were ignored, as were many characteristics of the grain. A rift was created between the tradable thing and the thing itself.

This strikes me as the most basic rebuttal to those who want to commodify the world and turn it into one big market. The problem is that some things just don’t have the right properties for being traded as commodities, and that creating an abstract classification which makes them tradable will necessarily neglect many of their properties which we may think are important. If we are trading in abstractions and ignoring many actual properties, then it should be unsurprising if the market fails. Farms will lose their topsoil, fisheries will be depleted. This is not a market worth celebrating.

To put the argument in another way:

(1) The natural world is made up of all kinds of things and processes; some are easily classified, isolated, and traded as commodities, some are too complex, functionally entangled with their environments, or mobile to be so classified.

(2) Treating something as a tradable commodity doesn’t only depend on its physical properties but also on our classifications, like the wheat.

(3) The market pressure for standardized classifications (to make things comparable and tradable) will ignore a great deal of diversity and many of the properties of the now-commodity, either its physical properties or its functional role in local ecosystems, etc.

(4) Some of these properties and functional roles will be unknown to us, and will have effects which we would say mattered if we knew about them – like discovering that a fishery was a keystone species in a whole ecosystem.

(5) Since our ignorance about the composition and function of the natural world is still great, commodifying it and trading it will surely be destructive in many ways.

(6) Such a market would fail by any standard of efficiency.


I’ve left a lot out, but I just want to finish by pointing out the part of the argument that does all the heavy lifting. Let’s call it the epistemic gap – that we don’t know enough about the world to properly represent it in our own terms. This is clearly value-laden. If we think that everything is functionally tied up with everything else, and that we don’t know the ways in which it is so tied, then we are going to say the epistemic gap is too wide to represent things as commodities – the risk of destruction is too high. If we don’t think that there are any functional connections (as with bits of gold lying around) then the epistemic gap won’t matter. Which one we think we’re dealing with will change from case to case but will also be driven by our ideology of what we think nature is like.

So where the issue seems to turn – unsurprisingly – is whether or not we see nature as a complex, interactive, and evolving system which is full of mysteries, or whether we see it in mechanical terms – full of discrete piles of things just waiting to be used. It’s at least worth noticing that the commodificationist ambitions of marketeers assume the latter from the start.

Book Reviews

Christophe Bonneuil & Jean-Baptiste Fressoz: The Shock of the Anthropocene


The Anthropocene.

The Anthropo-what?

It’s too big of a concept for most of us mere mortals to understand. Sure, the climate is changing – we’ve seen some graphs around. Sure, we’ve decided to call it a new geological epoch. Sure, we were the ones who did it. Now what? The mind balks.

One of the resounding messages of The Shock of the Anthropocene is that the concept itself is too big to be useful. Although Bonneuil and Fressoz don’t doubt that we’re entering a new era, they want to deconstruct this enormous linguistic Trojan Horse and show us what’s hiding inside: technocratic managers who, intentionally or not, will anesthetize politics and replace it with either authoritarian management or deeper and wider markets-in-everything.

This surely sounds a bit overblown for a debate about geological nomenclature, but it’s justified. And this book makes these fears palpable.

An important first step in this project is noticing that Anthropocene is a very different kind of name than Holocene or Pleistocene which mark the historical periods with certain kinds of climates. Unlike those names, Anthropocene has its causal origin built right in – the Anthropos did it. So, more than dry nomenclature for temperature records, the name entails our understanding of how we got here and whose fault it is.

Now, since we are assigning blame, Bonneuil and Fressoz think The Anthropos is a pretty evasive culprit. Do we really think that climate change is caused by ‘people, generally’? Do we think that blame extends to all humans equally – to Brazilian tribespeople just as much as the Koch brothers? No, obviously not. The causes of climate change are concentrated in certain times and places, and are embedded in certain kinds of political and economic institutions. Disassembling the huge and faceless Anthropos into particular times, places, and peoples is then important for both descriptive accuracy and for a more proper assignment of blame, which is needed to figure out what we do next. Such a disassembly is the largest part of the book and along the way we are treated to explorations of such helpful descriptive treats as the ‘Thalocene’ (war), the ‘Phagocene’ (consumption), the ‘Agnotocene’ (ignorance’), etc. We also get a bewildering cornucopia of historical snapshots to make the descriptions feel real.

But the most important part of this project runs above and throughout all of these games of historical dress-up.

By trying all these stories on for size, what rubs off is the sense that history matters. By which I mean that, like any good history, this retelling makes our current situation look like the contingent result of choices which could have taken us in other directions. It places the explanatory burden squarely on us and not some purported laws of history or progress. For example, many of us live in suburban cities and are dependent on cars, but a reflection on the history of this situation reveals that it’s a consequence of choices we’ve made – partly as a security measure in the Cold War, partly as a deliberate strategy to encourage private property and individualist (non-communist) society. But it could have been otherwise; there are no laws of history which necessitate this kind of life – only structures we have inherited, and can change if we have to.

But history also matters because we can see that we’ve been on this merry-go-round for a while. One of the strongest messages of the book is that, in spite of scientistic narratives, we are emphatically not in some sacred ‘new age’ of heightened awareness about our environmental impacts. Various forms of this awareness have been around for a good while: concerns about the finitude and polluting nature of coal go well back in the 19th century, worries about deforestation – even further, anxieties about depletion of soil nutrients, awareness of industrial pollution, and even knowledge about the threat to the climate stretch far back in time. But these periods of awareness coincided with periods of industrial pollution, coal mining, ballooning trade, and deforestation. The mystery, then, is why awareness coexisted with destruction. In failing to reflect on these histories, our current obsession with ‘finally getting the science right’ and our confidence that such knowledge would bring solutions ends up looking like the height of hubris.

The most interesting part of the book lies in the shadows around this observation. Although they don’t say it directly, Bonneuil and Fressoz seem to suggest that our environmental abuses continued not just in spite of our knowledge about them, but because of it. This seems paradoxical, but a couple of examples are helpful.

First, in fisheries off the American west coast there was a conflict over the possibility of depletion. In their infinite wisdom, regulators imposed legal requirements not to exceed the “Maximum Sustainable Yield” – an estimate which reduced the fish population to a single aggregate number and a replacement rate. Result: explosive increase in harvesting and fishery collapse. We are not given a clear explanation of why this happened, but it’s safe to say that the complex, local relationship with a fish population (that was sensitive to all kinds of ecological interactions) was reduced to a single dimension and revalued as a stock or flow of commodities. Alternatively, we could explain collapse by dubious motives of the people who estimated the sustainable yield – maybe they used inflated representations for their own short-term gain. This certainly still happens in many fisheries, and it sounds a lot like letting kids decide the price of candy.

But in the second case of coal, this manipulation of representations is more salient. At a time of British anxieties about the sustainability of continued coal use, certain Panglossian geologists entered the scene with what we now take to be wildly inflated (by six times) reserve estimates. Result: full steam ahead with coal-fired industrialism and the development of fossil-fuel-dependant infrastructures to which we are still beholden.

In both of these cases, I think our authors would want to say that the choice in the matter – which legitimately belonged to the people – was usurped by a class of technocrats, that power was transferred from political process to the purported experts who wielded ‘representations’. Worse still, Bonneuil and Fressoz argue that these representations encouraged certain kinds of social and economic developments, changing the way we interact with nature – and probably for the worse. This way of thinking about representations locates their anxieties about the possible depoliticizing effects of science and it motivates their warnings about the scariest possible future: a cabal of experts which seeks to quantify and price all the so-called ‘ecosystem services’, thereby commodifying nature and turning it into a market. This is a viable fear – if you don’t believe me, read an environmental economics textbook.

Not only is this possible future technocratic (and so manipulable by those with the power to influence the technocrats), but it promises to be an unmitigated ecological suicide. For a thousand reasons – not least of which being our ignorance about how ecosystems work – natural processes are not reducible to financial measures. This argument doesn’t even require moralizing about commodification, though there is also that.

But these arguments are really beyond the scope of the book. The authors’ focus is, first-and-foremost, to sketch the various historical contexts of our increased environmental destruction and then use them to show that we are not immune to the kinds of technocratic take-overs which have occurred in the past.  Moreover, they suggest that highly abstracted talk of ‘The Anthropocene’ may be just this kind of political anesthetic. By deconstructing this conceptual behemoth into a number of smaller ‘cenes’ they aim to relocate our environmental influence within the realm of choice – decisions we made, for better or for worse. By doing this, they hope to achieve a kind of political emancipation and give us all the sense that we can get a political grip on our future.


One heavy and departing qualification: this project all hangs rather tenuously with our belief that the scientists are right; that they are experts, and that their representations of nature have epistemic authority. On the one hand, Bonneuil and Fressoz enthusiastically accept current science “with open arms”. On the other, they demonstrate this deep suspicion of anti-democratic ‘experts’ and they explicitly caution against the fantasy that only the scientists can save us. In their conclusion, they admit that our challenge lies in “meticulously listening to scientists and putting their results and conclusions into public and democratic discussions” (288). Although reassuring, the reader gets little more advice for how we move forward. But that’s not really the point; it’s better if we read the project as a mostly one-sided corrective to the heretofore unchallenged managerial and technocratic ethos which threatens to consume us. In this effort, The Shock of the Anthropocene is a huge success and I recommend it enthusiastically.

General, Science and Democracy

Let me briefly express and then partially exorcise a general worry about current environmental discourse: that it’s depoliticizing. And let me do it in staccatos.

  • Climate Science and Environmental Science are often asked to make pronouncements on enormous and highly variable objects of study.
  • Their conclusions, then, are highly abstracted, highly technical, and non-contextual.
  • This situation is in some ways analogous to specialist talk of ‘the global economy’ – insofar as it is highly abstracted and decontextualized.
  • This technical expertise in economics  tends to blur into technocratic political leanings; the question of ‘what we should do’ can be answered, for these people, by sophisticated Cost-Benefit Analysis.
  • This technical exercise in aggregation is profoundly elitist and anti-democratic. There is no role for discussion, argument, or deliberation.
  • A parallel worry applies to Climate Science – that a highly technical and abstract level of analysis would lead to a technocratic kind of politics. This attitude is not uncommon. James Lovelock (of ‘Gaia’ fame) expressed outright contempt of democracy not so long ago.
  • So – moving quickly – there is an overall worry that technical epistemic expertise in problems which are highly abstracted and decontextualized can slide into an ideal of technocratic political expertise which – it goes without saying –  threatens the political life of the rest of us.

Indeed, this political tilt of many scientists is only surprising with regards to its tedious repetition. Francis Bacon, for one, had the utopian vision of scientists as both epistemic experts and technocrats in The New Atlantis (1627).

Now, caricatured as it is, I think this is a legitimate worry. But it’s not an inevitable one. In fact, I think this is all more or less a consequence of various self-deceptions we have about how science works. Chiefest of these deceptions is the myth that science is a discipline which is free of values – that it represents facts about the world and that’s that. This is the mother of all errors and maybe I’ll summarize some arguments against it in later posts but there are many other dubious assumptions which could be challenged like, say, that science is fully empiricist and free of metaphysics (false – it mostly operates on unquestioned foundations about reality, like that it’s mechanistic) or that our relationship with the truth is an individualistic matter of assessing evidence for our hypotheses (highly contestable, for too many reasons to mention).

There has been a lot of important work in the Philosophy of Science to try and correct these errors, and it leads in one general direction: that science can and should be socialized and democratized. Our epistemic goals and our practical or moral goals are all tied up together; our scientific projects are inextricably bound with the rest of our politics.

If our image of science can change like this then not only does the worry about possible technocratic domination dissolve, but we also see that it was the assumptions about science which failed us. The political anxiety starts to look contingent and remediable once we realize that it was premised on a very poor image of how science works. We get a new way forward when we see that our science doesn’t have to be awkwardly compromised with technocratic ambitions. As a departing shot of optimism, I would add that this new kind of vision also holds promise for resolving the environmental and political stalemates in which we already find ourselves – but that may seem too optimistic to be credible. I hope to expand on these themes in coming posts.

Book Reviews

John Bellamy Foster: Marx’s Ecology.

I always thought Lucky inWaiting for Godot was about as comprehensible as your average Marxist, and that you could prise about as much insight from those feverish ramblings as from The Grundrisse – if you had the mind to try.

Turns out I was wrong, and following John Bellamy Foster through this broad, ecological interpretation of Marx’s ecological thought made that obvious. The sizable task of dispelling this ignorance was the first virtue of the book and most of my past prejudices were squarely challenged by the general overview of Marx’s thought. But more immediately, Foster’s ecological spin features a Marxism that’s useful for understanding present anxieties about capitalism on our fragile planet.

By now, such anxieties have become common fare with blockbusters like Klein’s This Changes Everything and its equally unbashful subtitle, Capitalism vs the Climate. The story is familiar: the profit-motive of capitalism transfigures our natural environment into a pile of commodities and abstract market values – all that is solid melting into the air – and exploits that very environment beyond the point at which it can recover.  So we get outfits like The Nature Conservancy tapping oil wells and killing off the endangered Atwater chickens which they were tasked to protect, and we get the continued consumption of fossil fuels, killing everything else.

No doubt, Marx would agree with this fable as far as it goes. But the Marx which Foster presents would disagree with a standard assumption of this story: that there is an essential difference between humanity and nature; that one inevitably and unilaterally exploits the other.  This perceptual shift is subtle, but it refocuses our imagined place in the environment and reprioritizes the kinds interventions we think are appropriate for managing it.

To make this shift more perceptible, Foster foregrounds the philosophies for two of Marx’s biggest inspirations: Epicurus and Darwin. Both of them emerge as uncompromising materialists, but it’s Darwin (along with a strongly modified Hegel) who more clearly explains why that material world has come to take the structure that it does. Crucially, these evolutionary explanations are anti-teleological – which means the refusal to believe there is any privileged final end towards which things are travelling; there is no plan. For these thinkers, the deepest truths about the world are the ones which happen to emerge historically, not ones dictated from above by natural laws or the will of God.

These various commitments stitch together: if you believe that everything that exists is made of the same stuff (materialism) and you believe there are no final ends or plans for that stuff (anti-teleology), and you think that the kinds of things which emerge have evolved historically and are continually evolving (anti-essentialism), then it will be very difficult to claim that there’s some special privilege which separates humans from the rest of the natural world. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is still the consensus of the scientific worldview today; Marx was just on the leading edge of it.

But what do these commitments do for us, or for Marx? It’s complicated, but the most basic switch is that humans start looking like equal and active ecological participants, unified more deeply with the rest of the natural world. On this view, we are ‘associated producers’ who mix our labour with the labour of nature to produce a surplus by which we continue to grow.

(I’m sure the bells are going off in your head at seeing shibboleths like ‘labour’, ‘surplus’, and ‘producers’ but this is the virtue of Foster’s Marx – his canonical economic concerns and the ecological ones are unified in that familiar language. Marx’s capitalism exploits and alienates workers in the same ways as it does the soil.)

But keeping focus on the ecological side of the union, this associated production of both humans and the natural world results from what Marx calls a ‘metabolic exchange’. Think of this in terms of energy: the sun provides the most basic form but it is then exchanged and transformed in different ways: plants feed animals, animals fertilize plants, animals feed people (other animals), and those people transform that energy into labour to nurture plants. To appropriate Martin Luther King: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men [beings] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Marx’s metabolic exchange is this process whereby energy is constantly converted and passed back and forth among the different co-producers, making things grow.

It’s seeing this kind of association which allows Foster’s Marx to point directly to cases where that exchange was broken – where a ‘rift’ was created. The central case here involves the deterioration of soil quality on agricultural land. At a time when economists thought that the fertility of certain soils (their ‘latent power’) was fixed by natural law, Marx saw the unsustainability of nutrients being taken from the countryside soil as crops, shipped into big cities like London, and then sloughed off through toilets into the Thames rather than being returned to the land as fertilizer.  To him, this was a disruption in the natural metabolic exchange which involved people as active ecological participants or co-producers.

(Unsurprisingly, concern about this rift doesn’t only apply to the contradiction between town and country but more generally to the logic of capital and private ownership.  The mid-19th century bore witness to dramatic failures of soil quality in certain parts of Europe, volatile markets for replacement fertilizers, and economic-imperial conquests for fertilizers abroad – all quite consistent with the more familiar stories of Marxist economics.)

Things get dicey, however, when Foster repeatedly refers to this rift as a form of alienation from nature. Now, my grasp on Marx is tenuous but I’m pretty sure this was a term he only used early on, abandoning it for most of his work. Whether the term is fair to Marx or not, it marks a snarl of problems. For starters, doesn’t ‘alienation’ suggest an estrangement from some kind of essential natural state? Doesn’t seeing an essentialized state of nature from which we are alienated also entail that humans are different kinds of beings entirely?  But both this natural essentialism and the dichotomous opposition of nature and society are moves which Foster’s Marx elsewhere opposes, so it’s hard to see how this ‘alienation’ could ever be consistent.

Another possibility, however,  is that the rift alienates us, not from some state of romanticized harmony with the outside natural world, but from our own nature as producers.  This is an intriguing suggestion and it finds support in the ubiquitous Marxist reduction to ‘labour’ relations, but I suspect those who aren’t already dyed-in-the-wool Marxists will find this essentialism about ‘our own nature’ just as implausible as essentialized claims about an external nature.  It is a metaphysical indulgence to say that – deep down – we are really just Homo faber (producers and tool-users) and that modern capitalism alienates us from that essence. Like any metaphysical foundation, this is beyond the realm of public criticism; it’s just a blunt and basic truth we are asked to accept so we can get on with the rest of the project. Foundations like this will obviously never be enough for people who don’t already agree – the claim needs to be argued or demonstrated.

Of course, this objection to specious essentialism applies to a lot of projects, not just Marx’s. Classical and neoclassical economists who postulate that humans are really just homo economicus should be criticized for their metaphysical balloons just as much as their opponents who claim that we’re actually homo politicus. In contrast, the historical and evolutionary insight of Darwin – which Marx otherwise praises – leads us to a much more nuanced view of ourselves: that we have no essence. To be sure, we are dappled with parts of each – part economicus, part faber, part politicus – but our composition at any given time is a contingent historical matter and there’s no deep reason why we couldn’t become more economicus than the others. If anything, that is the apparent trajectory of history for the time being; as we market our ‘personal brands’ and make ‘educational investments in our human capital’, we become different kinds of people.

If Foster is so keen to present a Marx who was scientific in all the right ways – materialist, empiricist, anti-teleological, and anti-essentialist – then talk of ‘alienation’ along with its metaphysical baggage about our essential nature will have to go. Unfortunately, this demand would undercut many of the project’s practical ambitions since the desirable ‘productive forms of association’ lose their sheen if we doubt that humans are essentially producers. But if that’s the cost of eliminating specious essentialism, so be it. For any philosophy to be useful and publicly acceptable there can be no spooks, no unquestionable metaphysical foundations.

So it seems like there is still some serious work to be done to make this scientific, Darwinian, and anti-essentialist Marx consistent with his practical program, but Foster’s account takes laudable steps in that direction. If for no other reason, seeing the details of Marx’s philosophical background and his ecological concern shows that he still has much to tell us about our current environmental crises. Foster deserves enthusiastic praise for bringing this to our attention.



Creation is mostly conceit,

The Bloodroot beguiled by its bloom,

Estranged from the ancestral feat,

And crushed into dye for the loom.


-GB, Mar 26, 2016