The Limits to Growth

The intensity of the crisis —its repercussions worldwide— are such that even time feels broken, punctured in its flow. It is as if the present may just implode and crumble into a void of free-floating social forms and technologies. We have been here before though. Since 2008, every time a mass protest subsides, it is as if one has been sent back to 1972. Or Warwick University in 1978, when Paul Volcker said, “[A] controlled disintegration of the world economy is legitimate for the 1980s”1. This time, however, you know what disintegration means, you’ve lived the future once and you intend not to go through it again. This was four years only after Nixon, upon Volcker’s advice, decoupled the dollar from the gold standard, and henceforth the economy from the social, finance from economics. Three years only after an energy crisis that is said to have lasted well into the 1980s, but which has persisted ever more intensely, like the peaks and busts of financial markets.

Confronted with the work/energy crisis and the ecological revolutions of the time, in the early 1970s industrial capitalism reached a threshold only financialization, and further global disequilibrium between rich and poor, managed to surpass2. Having already lived Volcker’s disintegration of the world, you know that the 1970s work/energy crisis will be written down as the historical supplantation of Keynesianism by neoliberalism. However, The Limits to Growth, a MIT lead, Club of Rome funded report on the human environment published in 1972 and presented at the first “United Nations Conference on the Human Environment”, is an artifact that contributes to the demystification of such dualistic view3. The report systematized the limits to industrial growth in the form of variables such as resource depletion, pollution, capital, arable land, and so on, thus tying future environmental shocks to capitalism’s exponential growth. Structured by a system-dynamics simulation of the world and a future model of cause-effect, however, the report stood in disagreement with the rising abstract violence of economics more in terms of content than of style or procedures. Retrospectively, the Limits to Growth may be understood to signal the fusion between the Keynesian managerial and the anti-humanism model of neoliberalism.

The rise of neoliberalism, and its current survival, was possible not because of the fall of Keynesian ideals but because the latter had laid out an economy of ‘scientific’ modeling as a naturalized self-regulating system, no longer strictly based on the equation man-environment, or ends-resources, but rather on the monetary flow of the GNP model. That is “a measure not of the accumulation of wealth but of the speed and frequency with which paper money changed hands”. This was an economy that “could grow without any problem of physical or territorial limits”, which “could expand without getting physically bigger”4.

In the 1970s, neoliberalism became the willful mind in the skeleton of the Keynesian machine, occupying the economy’s acquired autonomy from the social. Equipped with such instruments it was easy for capitalism to twist itself out of its limits by way of the detached virtuality of finance, accelerating money flows, globalizing markets via the inherited defense of the corporate model (as proposed at Bretton Woods), and dragging workers into the inhuman velocity of 21st century algorithms. Instead of any social deal between capital and workers, this is perhaps Keynes’s last lesson. Put differently:

The optimization of ‘order at the edge of chaos’ is probably the last of the great revolutions of the capitalist revolutionary form: the fusion of managerial techno-economics with the chaotic instability of free markets. At this stage, once neoliberalism eats the ‘apolitical’, ‘natural’ scientism of Keynes (so as to separate capital from the surface of the Earth) neoliberalism is no longer capitalism, but a statism out of dynamism.

Today, will capital be capable of surpassing its limits once again? The fact that financial profits have grown since 2008 is only illusive, for these are only the profits of the capitalist elite as it accelerates into yet another crash, leaving the corpse of the middle-class behind. Finance is like a chicken running with its head cut off, a lizard’s tail cut off but still swinging. It is said that when a body dies, sound is the last sense to fade — the first to go is the worker’s body – and so finance may very well be the auditive capacity of capital. In disbelief, capitalism shows its core barbarism, transforming the capitalist law of value destruction into a generalized pauperization of both workers and the Earth’s resources, rather than into the renovation of capital’s own mode of production.

Faced with the work/energy crisis, Midnight Notes wrote “The apocalypse is no accident; whenever the ongoing model of exploitation becomes untenable capital has intimations of mortality qua world’s end. Every period of capitalist development has had its apocalypses”. If crisis-ridden apocalyptic visions populate intellectuality today, it is only because “functional apocalypses mark every major change in capitalist development and thought”5. In this respect, capitalists know better: they see the current moment for what it is: capitalist revolution. As capital scans the Earth looking for new escape routes, pushing desperately for the totalisation of the enclosures across the globe’s biome and in every atom of life (from molecules to network technology, nothing must be spared from privatization and rent: this is what Wikileaks’ recent leak on the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently under discussion by major global economies is all about), it is clear that if capital is looking for a new body it will soon find it6.

The jobless, the dispossessed, and the ages of life

Many like me spent their childhood among visions of disaster and world ending, with the pedagogic specter of a weak ecology and, when coming of age, with a horizon of unemployment, receding retirement funds, no social security. The predictions made by The Limits to Growth match reality. World catastrophe is not waiting for us in 20, 50 years time; it has already happened. It may very well have begun in the early 19th century, when those first puffs of burned coal rose high over cities like Manchester, and workers were repeatedly united and defeated. It may have begun earlier still, with the 16th century enclosures of land. Welcome to the Capitalocene.

The Social Limits to Growth, a book by Fred Hirsch published in 1978 is a little known companion to The Limits to Growth, yet its narrative proved as premonitory as the latter. Hirsch’s predictions read like a recipe cooked by the IMF or any neoliberal ideologue: welfare is cemented by consumption, but as consumer demands rise so social structures become eroded. An irresolvable pressure on social services drags quality down and pushes maintenance costs up, leaving no alternative but to facilitate the expansion of private investment; either that or taxation must increase. Education, for example, is prolonged and turned into a product. Students become simultaneously consumers and workers, yet their work is revealed as commodity, something they own or not, while themselves (the fundamental commodity) become something they must master through self-corporatization.

Recent revolts may have arisen out of the fears of the petty bourgeoisie (the trembling middle class) falling back into the proletariat, or, inversely, of being incapable of rising further in society7. However, demanding jobs is pointless without untangling jobs from work, wages from leisure; even if, or rather because, the latter too is being subsumed in advance by a pricing system which leaves no exteriority to life: all must be patented or algorithmically attributed a value8. From the elites’ perspective, today, unemployment can not be corrected, it is structural. This is what distinguishes current unemployment from that of the 1970s. The jobless are no longer simply a reserve army of labour, but rather disposable people, people capitalism does not wish for anymore — even though such human waste may fall ever further into debt, and be instrumental for the ‘expand and privatize’ strategy of neoliberalism. Entrepreneurship too is not an option; it is said to be structural. But entrepreneurship without protection is an illusion that serves only to further separate the elite from the poor — the survival of the fittest over the weak has always been a corrupt idea. Alarmingly, entrepreneurship is a logic that is easily breaking with the lawful regulation of child work. Everywhere a sixteen-year-old run startup is praised for its success, its apps bought by a big enterprise, a genius sold to a corporation, the faster we are thrown back to the 19th century. The traumatic event of the capitalist industrial revolution is ever returning: be it in the guise of ecological collapse, the break with social bonds, or human and natural rights.

And so, endlessly, we retreat back to our childhood fears, haunted early on by the poverty of old age and bureaucratic death. Both childhood and old age have become battlegrounds for and against capital. Children are injected with illusions of market individualism to the same pace as they are made to swallow ADD pills (to the profit of pharmaceuticals and the psychoanalytical industry), but as education is privatized so the will for alternative educational models grow. Retirement recedes, but as life expectancy rises so we are left with a mass of people ready for revolt and solidarity. Some of today’s most engaged revolutionaries are to be found in the elderly; some of today’s emancipatory horizons in a regression to the ecological imagination of children (beyond ontological confinements and a time defined by labour)9.

As the old adage goes, “Which is the animal that is born with four legs, grows to two, and dies with three?” and answers “Man. First as a baby crawling, then as an erect adult, lastly as an old man on a cane”. But the anecdote is a farse. Against the intensification of labour time, man's supposed three phases of life could easily multiply. The possibility of choosing which of one’s multiple phases of life,  may be freely dedicated to surplus, consumption, leisure, family, intellectuality, or art, is today economically and technologically feasible, obstructed only by an unequal distribution of wealth10. This is what those who accuse the youth of cynicism tend to forget. However, for a generation growing up under TINA (‘There Is No Alternative’), the confrontation may imply a need for mass therapy, both ideological and psychoanalytical. Ecology too has a role to play here, but only if it tends to liberation, not to a managed appeasement of repression.

Ecology (then and now)

And what of the ecological lessons, the cycles of life and the recycling morality, we grew up with? Back in 1972, The Limits to Growth signaled the mutation of the political ecology of the time into the technocratic form of policy making between states or corporations, leading up to the green economy11. Instead of contributing to social equality, this portrays the cybernetic ecology of The Limits to Growth as simply one more step in the long reciprocity of composition between nature and the economy. Since then, ecology is allowed a voice only in the guise of a techno-language, not of the people, who, from the Onge tribe in the Andaman Islands to Amazonia, remain fundamentally ecosophical12. To enter the halls of international politics, such as the UN’s General Assembly Hall or any of its summits, demands that one leave all other languages at the door. Ecology is suppressed before even entering the room. It has never even been a subject of discussion.

This is why The Limits to Growth may have ultimately contributed to the schism between apolitical scientism and the ethics of activist ecologism. Climatology is a clear example of this scission. The question may be not so much if climatologists are politicized or not, but rather that it is politics which loses if action on climate change is set in motion exclusively because of the science of global warming. Climate change is not a convincing harbor for ecologism, but rather what comes with the denial of the ecological idea, the palliative used in order to keep its politics at bay13. In this respect, Philip Mirowski has recently claimed that detaching the historical link between visions of nature and the economy is essential for any political struggle which aims to break both from technocratic ecologism and the domination of markets over the social14.

Cosmopolitics may be the word that best describes such attempt. Despite its complexity, and the brevity of this text, it is worth bringing it into discussion. Bruno Latour or Isabelle Stengers have consistently debunked the idea of nature’s beautiful solitude, its separateness from the social as defended by most environmentalists; while philosophers like Reza Negarestani are committed to expand the thinking of thought itself towards an outside humans have not been made to experience and validate by their own standards15.  Consciously for the former authors and perhaps unknowingly for the latter, both perspectives define cosmopolitical guidelines for reclaiming the multiplicity of languages ecology is made of, de-cornering it from the economics. Anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro goes further though, and may more clearly answer to Mirowski’s claim. Just when capitalism’s embrace of post-humanism via bio- and geo-engineering or technological automation is in full throttle, he asks us to reconsider the meaning of humanity as distinct from mankind. By stating that there is one culture and many natures, instead of one nature and many cultures, what he has termed multinaturalism, Viveiros de Castro separates the species (mankind) from the attribute (humanity), decolonizing the human and defining the concept as that which is shared, differently yet in common16. As such,

anthropocentrism may be a useless concept for the 21st century; humanism, however, may very well be central to it. If one is to follow Viveiros de Castro’s decentering of the anthropos from the human, it is the term non-human that loses its current philosophical meaning. By exploding nature manifold, the economy too is splintered.

However revolutionary, such an investigation, philosophical in nature, may prove incapable of capturing the imagination of those struggling with so-called austerity, even of cutting across the divide between environmental demands and workers struggles. To do so one may have to stress further how ecological degradation and capital's creative destruction are complicit, and form a logic that partitions the privileged from the dispossessed, while, against it, attempt to unify the latter (be it the poor, animals, the Earth). Because the struggle for the social as such is ultimately a struggle against the return of speciesism, that is, of a construct of borders defining rights to some (the rich, the valued) in detriment of others (the poor, the devalued). The poverty of contemporary protests (from non-partisans to labor unions) may not be our lack of claims, as is commonly suggested, but our lack of ambition: that, as creators, we keep on struggling within the compartmentation of knowledge set forth by capital, replicating it with each cry, rather than searching for a political holism that may rupture the illusion of a distinction between labor and climate, corporate and state control, human rights and natural rights17

  • 1. Paul Volcker quoted in Yannis Varoufakis, “Global Minotaur”, London and New York: Zed Books (2011), p. 100.
  • 2. See Midnight Notes, “The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse”, in: Midnight Notes, Vol. II, #1, (1980).
  • 3. The aftermath of the 2008 crisis has been rich in such dualism, either a neoliberal refinement of market solutions or the defense of a social agreement, based on growth and consumption, in the likes of Keynesianism (Paul Krugman takes the crown here).
  • 4. Timothy Mitchell “Carbon Democracy”, London and New York: Verso (2011), p. 65.
  • 5. Midnight Notes, “The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse”, 1.
  • 6. Wikileaks, secret TPP report published online on November 13, 2013. The leaked report can be found at:
  • 7. Slavoj Žižek, “The year of Dreaming Dangerously”, London and New York: Verso (2012).
  • 8. The case surrounding the universal basic income is here exemplar. What many voices supporting such income tend to forget that if not properly implemented such a scheme may open the door for the privatization of basic social rights, such as free health, education, transports, and so on. That is why the idea is gaining such traction with neoliberal capitalists. The latter state that once everyone without discrimination is granted a basic income, the sustainability of social services can only be had by privatizing them. The argument suggests that there aren’t enough funds available for the maintenance of both a basic income and welfare. This was the logic proposed by Milton Friedman in 1967 (“The Case for the Negative Income Tax”, in National Review), and it is one that, again, shapes subjects as consumers and small proprietors, relying on insurance schemes to cover what, ethically, should be a free service. UBI will only be truly revolutionary if it takes part in a demand for everything, if men are to be found equal: both an unconditional basic income that frees individuals from capitalist exploitation and free social protection.
  • 9. On this matter one should consider the agency of those who came of age in the 1960s-1970s revolutions. In Europe, for example, past a phase of apparent middle-class stability (and temporary depoliticization) the disappointment of much of this generation is now fuel for fire. Furthermore, the uprisings and networking have been exemplar of the coming together of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren in the battlefield.
  • 10. The case surrounding the unconditional/universal basic/guaranteed income is here exemplar. While many voices supporting such income tend to forget that if not properly implemented such a scheme may open the door for the privatization of basic social rights, such as free health, education, transports, and so on, neoliberal capitalists too may endorse it in order to further dismantle social protection. The latter state that once everyone without discrimination is granted a basic income, the sustainability of social services can only be had by privatizing them. The argument suggests that there aren’t enough funds available for the maintenance of both a basic income and welfare. This was the logic proposed by Milton Friedman in 1967 (“The Case for the Negative Income Tax”, in National Review), and it is one that, again, shapes subjects as consumers and small proprietors, relying on insurance schemes to cover what should be a free service. UBI will only be truly revolutionary if it takes part in a demand for everything, if men are to be found equal: both an unconditional basic income that frees individuals from capitalist exploitation and free social protection.
  • 11. In the episode “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”, from his 2012 series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Adam Curtis narrates the immediate contestation that the report, and its impact on the 1972 “United Nations Conference on the Human Environment” held in Stockholm, caused in the ecological movement, which criticized it for its defense of corporate equilibrium and control. In the arts Anselm Franke’s and Diedrich Diederichsen curated exhibition “The Whole Earth and the Disappearance of the Outside” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2013) was the most elaborate attempt I know of at tracing these early, but long-lasting and structural for techno-capital, contradictions in the ecological traditions of the 1960–70s.
  • 12. The Andaman Islands lie off the coast of India, below the Gulf of Bengal. Though isolated, or because of it, all the members of the Onge community survived the 2004 tsunami that hit the region. In tune with the ways of the land and sea, the Onge were able to predict the incoming wave well before it arrived. I thank Nuno da Luz for this reference.
  • 13. Just as much, bio-engineering risks being the farce that kills the commons.
  • 14. Philip Mirowski, “The Biopolitics of Biosphere Crisis”, keynote lecture delivered to the “Life and Debt” conference, University of Technology, Sydney, July 2012, and at e-flux, New York, October 2013.
  • 15. See Bruno Latour “The Politics of Nature”, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press (2004); Isabelle Stengers, “Cosmopolitics I-II”, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press (2010); Reza Negarestani, "On the Revolutionary Earth" (2011).
  • 16. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, "Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere", HAU Masterclass Series I, Cambridge University, (1998/2012), or Métaphysiques Cannibales Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, (2009), among others. Also, in this respect, the fact that the granting of rights to nature in Ecuador’s constitution has spread to Bolivia should stand as a banner. It is irrelevant if the corrupt state of Rafael Correa soon neglected the constitution, and is now moving towards oil exploration in the Amazon. More relevant is the contamination of the ideal to other geographies, the cosmopolitical mutation it allows. For detailed information of the topic see Paulo Tavares, “The Rights of Nature” in The Forest and the School, ed. Pedro Neves Marques (Archive Books, Berlin, forthcoming).
  • 17. An interesting case in point is presented by David Uzzell and Nora Räthzel, in their research into the responses by trade and labor unions to ecological concerns (Trade Unions in the Green Economy: Working for the Environment, London: Routledge, (2012). Conversely, one should follow Timothy Mitchell (Carbon Democracy, London:Verso(2009), and place energy, its control and distribution against democracy, at the forefront of demands. Mitchell, for example, warns us of how transferring energy production to renewables within the same inherited carbon systems is politically pointless. The answer, which is actually a question, may be a system of locality and exchange beyond centralized suppliers. Is there anything more ecological than consuming the energy that oneself produces and releases out into the world?