Friday, June 6, 2008

thoughts on zizecology 1

Lord Stern, the World Bank's former chief economist, said governments had been slow to accept the awful truth that usable water is running out. Fresh rainfall is not enough to refill the underground water tables.

"Water is not a renewable resource. People have been mining it without restraint because it has not been priced properly," he said.

If Slavoj Žižek is Theory’s official contrarian, it still surprises to find him taking aim at what is surely among the most widely held shibboleths of the contemporary left, environmentalism—and yet this is exactly what Žižek has done in recent lectures published on his Web site,, and popularized on the video site YouTube. His critique of ecology centers around a series of interrelated claims regarding late capitalism and ecology’s functioning within it, central among them what he describes as today’s “Fukuyamaian” consensus: the unacknowledged majority view that history did in fact end with the fall of Soviet communism, that “liberal-democratic capitalism is accepted as the finally-found formula of the best possible society, all one can do is to render it more just, tolerant, etc.” Ecology, then, becomes simply the latest set of technologies and practices through which we can “perfect” capitalism; the possibility that ecology might function as an operative challenge to the market is always already proscribed by the Fukuyamaian assumption that ecology (like anything else) can only operate within and through the market. This is to say that we understand ecological correctives to capitalism as in some sense needing to pay for themselves: we will change our consumptive practices only when the price of oil becomes high enough to so induce us, just as the market will encourage the development of alternative energies and more efficient engines at such a time as they become profitable—and so on and so forth, while the planet burns.

Subsuming ecology to the logic of the market, Žižek says, has a number of pernicious consequences. First, the belief that the market’s “invisible hand” will operate as a kind of Hegelian “Substance” that dominates the individual subject is unsettled by the newfound potential of individual actors to effect world-historical change:

What looms on the horizon today is the unheard-of possibility that a subjective intervention will intervene directly into the historical Substance, catastrophically disturbing its run by way of triggering an ecological catastrophe, a fateful biogenetic mutation, a nuclear or similar military-social catastrophe, etc. No longer can we rely on the safeguarding role of the limited scope of our acts: it no longer holds that, whatever we do, history will go on. For the first time in human history, the act of a single socio-political agent effectively can alter and even interrupt the global historical process, so that, ironically, it is only today that we can say that the historical process should effectively be conceived ‘not only as Substance, but also as Subject.’
The market, that is, can no longer be trusted to intervene and “course-correct” the destructive behavior of individual actors, precisely because a single wayward individual can impact, unsettle, or even destroy entirely the market itself. (Notably, even the Catholic Church has suggestively adapted to this new post-Hegelian reality, with its recent announcement of a new set of 7 Deadly Sins for the modern age, including among them pollution, genetic manipulation, participation in morally debatable experiments, and amassing excessive wealth.) To imagine global capitalism standing unchallenged as the end of history, then, is to ignore Substance’s newfound subjectivation at our collective peril—it may well be that we shall all be destroyed before the logic of history is able to right itself, or, indeed, that the logic of history actually now points catastrophically towards our own doom.

Next, Žižek writes that the logic of the market obscures the individual’s role in second sense: thinking and acting ecologically becomes equated with a certain set of consumer practices that in many cases have, at best, only a tangential relationship with what actual ecology would look like. Liberals, even those fancying themselves environmentalists, happily shop at Whole Foods and Starbucks because these corporations “sell products that contain the claim of being politically progressive acts in and of themselves”—obscuring not only the dubiousness of many or all of these claims of “good consumption” but also allowing the anti-union and otherwise exploitative practices of these companies to fade harmlessly into the background in the face of an often-misplaced, self-satisfied sense of “ecological awareness.” (Proclaimed environmentalism becomes in this way a type of free P.R., allowing such companies to effectively buy good-will on the cheap.)

These two points, if anything, actually fail to take us far enough. Žižek writes of “the infinite adaptability of capitalism which, in the case of an acute ecological catastrophe or crisis can easily turn ecology into a new field of capitalist investment and competition”—but such glib if backhanded praise of the market only works to obscure the fact that the efficient functioning of the market system is the ecological catastrophe already in process. Nowhere is this fact made clearer than in John Bellamy Foster’s first book The Vulnerable Planet, which is a grim guided tour of the history of ecological degradation from the start of the industrial age to the present, a process that began with primitive accumulation’s lassoing of the environment and has only accelerated during the period of revolutionary technological expansion following World War II. Such destruction, Foster says, is essential to capitalism’s structure, and thus unchangeable:
[Capitalism] is a system of creative destruction, in which the creative drive is the seemingly infinite ability to produce new commodities by combining materials and labor in new ways, and the destructive drive is the systematic degradation, transformation, and absorption of all elements of existence outside the system’s own orbit.
The so-called “infinite adaptability” of the market therefore should be understood to necessarily require environmental destruction of some form or another for its own creative functioning—and therefore the destruction is not some potential or theoretically correctable side effect of the market’s functioning but its very engine. Contra Žižek, the supposed newfound power of individual actors to affect History by degrading the biosphere only masks the extent to which capitalism has always demanded widespread and irreversible environmental degradation in order to function in the first place.

Later in the same book we find Foster aptly describing the way that nature is figured dialectically as both inside and outside capitalism’s orbit, a position that allows it to be drawn from for capital without ever being allowed to fully become capital itself (and, as capital, therefore be deemed worthy of protection).

Against Barry Commoner’s four laws of ecology, Foster offers the four counter-ecological laws of capital:
(1) the only lasting connection between things is the cash nexus; (2) it doesn’t matter where something goes as long as it doesn’t enter the circuit of capital; (3) the self-regulating market knows best; and (4) nature’s bounty is a free gift to the property owner.
Understanding these four counter-ecological laws demonstrates a second way that that Žižek’s backhanded praise for the market’s adaptability is importantly misplaced: the logic of the market violently draws the material for capital from nature but on a structural level cannot respect nature except insofar as nature can be commodified.

We can see now why a method of “environmental accounting” like the one Lord Stern suggests, which takes nature “into the balance sheet” and "prices" resources "properly," would be unlikely to solve the problem of environmental degradation. This is a judgment Foster shares and argues in a number of places, most effectively in an essay on “ecological reductionism” reprinted in his 2002 anthology Ecology Against Capitalism. Though the logic of environmental accounting suggests the incorporation of “externalities” such as pollution and environmental degradation might be brought into the actual costs of commodities, such a process would in actuality have precisely the opposite of the desired effect by bringing nature fully and finally into the logic of capitalism, into “the cash nexus.”

The protections promised by such a scheme can quickly be seen as illusionary. Foster chooses to expose this logic through the example of redwood forests in the Pacific Northwest, which has long managed its forests through a lens that views forests as factories whose production must be optimized, and which views aged trees and biologically diverse forests as “unproductive assets” to be made maximally efficient through their immediate destruction and replacement with an arboreal monoculture that is easier to harvest and sell. That the original, untouched forests might have a value other than cash value is anathema to the four counter-ecological laws, especially the first and the fourth; the “nature” protected under the logic of capital would always be nature-for-capital, not nature-in-itself.

When nature is capital and capital is nature, then, there would at last be nothing outside capitalism at all. We can trust the market even less than Žižek thinks: it is, in fact, completely incapable of even ascertaining the actual gravity of the environmental crisis, much less of recognizing its causes or beginning to offer some solution. There will never and could never be a "market solution" to a crisis caused by the market itself.