6. 29. 2022
For a Red Zoopolis
What could plenty mean, in a finite planet?
Traditionally, socialist utopias envisioned a society based on a superabundance of essential goods which could be treated as though they were free. Thus, markets would be eroded, and the compulsion of work would be reduced.
Was this a fossil-fuelled dream? Most essential goods, from manufactured artefacts to foodstuffs, are energy-intensive. And energy is going to have to be rationed, either by price, queue, or economic plan.
Why? 100% renewables is improbable within the short window of time we have. One influential report estimated that a totally renewable world in 2030 would need to generate 17.1TW of solar energy and 13TW of wind energy. That would require 3.8 million new wind turbines, 49,000 new concentrated solar plants, and 1.7 billion rooftop PV systems.
Currently, global wind capacity is 650GW, while solar capacity is 583.5GW. Current capacity would have to increase 20- or 30-fold to meet this desideratum.
The system would have to be capable of meeting a realistic level of demand. It would have to provide electricity to 99.9% reliability even during extreme conditions (such as those induced by climate crisis). It must also deliver frequency close to standard (50 or 60 Hertz). It would entail a completely overhauled system of “ancillary services” (functions that keep the grid working reliably). And it would need an enormous and global network of high-voltage AC transmission lines to meet demand.
It hasn’t been shown that this can be done, even by 2050. Even if it could, we’d have to cut energy use. A study by UK Fires found that even with 100% renewables, the UK would have to use 60% of its current energy levels, have 60% of its current road traffic, and no shipping or aviation.
Globally, we’ve also got to provide for a larger population. By 2050, the UN estimates that the world population will peak at 9.7 billion. Eco-Malthusians say that population is the problem. Their critics say that controlling population growth in sub-Saharan Africa would make a negligible impact, since their share of energy and material use is slight. True. But why should we take vast global inequality as a premise rather than as a problem?
Capitalism’s historic promise was, there being no hard limits to growth, all the formerly colonised countries could play catch-up: as countries like Japan did after the Second World War. The magic formula of capitalist growth was, therefore, what made global inequality compatible with the declared principle of equality: because everyone has, in principle, an equal shot at getting rich.
But there are binding physical limits to growth. And if the growth promise no longer holds water, then a new dilemma arises. Either the principle of human equality is honoured, or the principle of human inequality is affirmed and supported with authoritarian violence and militarized forms of extractivism.
The aggressive climate denihilism – as in, nihilism – of the nationalist right, which resembles nothing so much as a section of humanity trying to do everything on its bucket list before the end, which indeed – like Holocaust denialism – contains a secret affirmation, a willing it on, strongly pushes in the latter direction.
The worse the crisis gets, the stronger the denihilist reflexes have been: “Antifa” caused the Oregon wildfires. The Green New Deal caused Texas snowstorms. And where an ecological crisis is acknowledged, the shift from fossil fascism to ecofascism doesn’t change much politically. The blame is placed on surplus humanity and out-of-place biology. From ecofascist lone wolf murderers, such as the Buffalo shooter, to far-right leaders like Le Pen, to reactionary pundits like Tucker Carlson, migration and ecological spoliation are the same thing.
Ecofascism has authentic roots in European ecological and fascist thought: from Ernst Moritz Arndt’s defence of the “rights of wilderness” and the “single unity” of all nature, more than a century before Bolivia’s Pachamama laws, to Ludwig Klages’ spitting contempt for the “man of ‘progress'” announcing “his masterful presence by spreading death” everywhere. Klages was not referring to colonial genocide, but to the elimination of wild species. Ecofascism is present in the environmental movement, from Garret Harding to Dave Foreman of Earth First!, and is latent in the eco-Malthusianism of mainstream environmentalism. There will be strong pressures as the crisis develops, to convert it into a war on surplus humanity and those climate refugees who will be stigmatized as tantamount to invasive species.
If we don’t accept that brutal logic, and if we honour the principle of human equality, and if the majority of the world’s people have legitimate development needs, then we face a real dilemma.
In a 2016 analysis by the economist James Meadway, it was pointed out that even if population peaked at 9 billion, and GDP per capita froze at 2007 EU levels, the world economy would have to be six times larger than it was then to ensure the same living standard for everyone. Even then, to keep temperatures under two degrees above preindustrial temperatures – already an inadequate target – carbon intensity would have to fall to 14g a dollar of GDP, compared to 770g in 2006.
The escape clause there is that CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP will fall, as it has fallen since 1990. However, there are limits here.
Global capitalism used 60 billion metric tons of materials in 2018: this is emissions-intensive. Steel production makes up 8% of global emissions. Concrete, another 8%.
Green technologies will take time to scale up and distribute and will only get us so far. There isn’t a proven way, for example, to remove carbon emissions from concrete production. That’s a problem if the growth of living standards in poor countries depends on urbanization. And you can’t decarbonize the shipping of those materials.
So what do we do? The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology calls for the 2000-watt society. An energy budget, rather than a growth target, for everyone on the planet. This is endorsed by the earth scientist Vaclav Smil as the only plausible scenario for survival. And Smil is extremely cautious in his endorsements.
For most citizens of Europe, North America, Australia, Japan, and even China, this is a drastic cut in energy use, even as it represents an improvement for citizens of countries like India, Brazil, Sudan.
Let me mention one other ecological limit. Species extinction is happening at a rate between 100 and 1000 times the historic “background rate.” Increasingly, scientists call this the sixth mass extinction.
The main cause is the destruction of wildlife habitats by agribusiness, miners, and developers. The impact on global food supplies, as for example pollinators and topsoil creators are lost, is incalculable.
To even make a dent in this, we would have to drastically reduce carnivory. About 300 million metric tonnes of meat were consumed in 2018. Meat and dairy alone account for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, but they also account for most deforestation. We’d also have to reduce the consumption of monocultural crops and their products, like palm oil.
So, are we now in the terrain of what the eco-modernists jeeringly call eco-austerity? How far have we come from the dream of superabundance and red plenty?
But what do we really have to lose? As Smil points out, a vast amount of current energy use in affluent countries is wasted on environmentally destructive activities whose elimination would only improve living standards.
More fundamentally, your emissions are not entirely yours. As Matt Huber points out, in Climate Change as Class War, the emissions you contribute to in your home, in your drive to work, in the food you eat, and so on, are partly for the reproduction of your labour-power in its normal state.
Capital doesn’t just consume fossil energy. The work/energy regime, as George Caffentzis calls it, combines both fossil energy and human caloric energy. Each emission is made to happen by a “web of social relations” through which capital expands itself in the form of profit.
The reduction of your energy use means a reduction in the use of your energy.
As for consumption, the environmental movement has had a tendency to moralize at people for their consumer choices, but I want to underline what contemporary patterns of consumption take away from us.
After all, the majority of us did not design systems of planned obsolescence, or fast fashion, or long carbon-intensive food supply chains. Nor did we design the marketing practices that, as Benjamin Barber writes in Consumed, deliberately teach us to think and desire as infants, with no talent for deferred gratification and no orientation to the future.
Nor did we design the technologies that increasingly exclude us. A few decades ago, a broken television could potentially be fixed by unscrewing the back and looking for a blown transistor. Try opening your smartphone today: they’ve built it to stop you doing that. It is just that technologies are blackboxed, designed both to control us (through data) and keep us out. The entire political and economic system is increasingly blackboxed in the same way. If it weren’t, we would be having emergency meetings in town and city halls every week to work out how to fix this crisis.
We have been comprehensively infantilized by modern systems of consumption, which are designed to consume us. Where work appropriates our labour-power, modern systems of consumption appropriate our savoir-faire, our capacity for self-help, our know-how. They make us dependent, passive, spectatorial. They control us, they exclude us, and then – as in the ingenious concept of the ‘carbon footprint’, which is the equivalent of those “drink responsibly” warnings at the end of ads for beer – they scold and blame us.
Here, then, is a first approach to red plenty. Abundance, not as supermarket cornucopia, but as the restoration of energy, free time, and mental and physical health.
Abundance, not of shareholder value, but of shared political power – currently blackboxed as capitalist and state power.
Abundance, not of goods made for planned obsolescence, but of low-carbon goods like care and services.
And there is another form of plenty. The abundance of life itself. Mass extinction is not only a problem because of its impact on food supplies.
Biodiversity is a value today upheld by international covenants and bodies like IPSEC, by most scientists and – at least verbally – politicians. It wasn’t always a value. In the 19th century, scientists like Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin thought that the extinction of other species – and other peoples – reflected the rude health of our own.
The overthrow of such colonial triumphalism – by, among other things, the defeat of the Third Reich, anticolonial and anti-nuclear movements, the modern synthesis of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution, and the discovery of mass extinction events – caused a drastic reversal in values.
We now esteem the “web of life,” not species chauvinism. Indeed, if anything, colonial humanism has given way to a form of melancholic humanism, limned by a profound sense of species guilt.
But what sort of value is biodiversity? Until the late twentieth century, it was controversial among scientists to impute consciousness, creativity, dreams, and play to nonhuman animals. Decades of discoveries have ended that controversy.
Nonhuman animals play, socialize, have funerals, use “words,” even have names for one another. Because of this, we can understand and communicate with them. We have complex social and emotional relations with nonhuman animals, beyond eating them or fearing them. That expands the conception of what is human. The narrow conceptions of homo economicus, in which we are obsessive utility-maximizers, give way to something radically indeterminate. Because, just as Freud showed that there is no self without the other, no ego without the representation of the personalities that have shaped us, it’s also true that there is no human without the nonhuman. Genetically, organically, metabolically, socially, and psychically, there is no human apart from the nonhuman. As the saying goes, we contain multitudes.
Prompted by these discoveries, there is an increasing literature on the possibility of a zoopolis: a polity in which animals – insofar as we can communicate with them – are taken seriously. Not just as moral patients, but as having interests and preferences. In which their thriving is of value in itself, and a cause of human thriving and pleasure. Utopias are about pleasure, after all, not just survival.
Here is abundance worth fighting for.
A long-tailed tit, hopping along a tree branch, to bring a caterpillar to its fledgling.
A pod of spinner dolphins, playing with debris in the open ocean.
A polar bear, attended by Arctic terns and wolverines, ripping into the blubber of a whale’s carcass on an ice shelf.
Corals, those underwater metropolises, more productive than savannah or forest, vibrant with sex, and play, and home-making, and feeding.
A planet which is not a death-trap, and in which humans are not the self-loathing, guilty Anthropos of climate literature, but at long last the responsible stewards, and the agents of collective liberation.
For a red zoopolis.
“For a Red Zoopolis” was first presented as a talk at the FIBER Festival in Amsterdam, and shared with patrons of Richard Seymour’s Patreon, for which you can sign up here.
Richard Seymour is a founding editor of Salvage magazine. His latest book is The Disenchanted Earth: Reflections on Ecosocialism & Barbarism.