by Adam Smith
As technoscience and rationality have emerged as the dominant languages of environmental policy and management, there has been a consistent effort to define the limits of contemporary societies in these terms (Lovbrand et al. 2015; Dryzek 2013). One such example is Rockstrom et al.’s (2009) demarcation of planetary boundaries – a balance of 9 variables necessary for ‘safe operating’ amongst volatile biophysical systems. Essentially, these approaches identify abstract and quantifiable limits, framing climate change as a material-economic/scientific problem of restraining or offsetting certain outputs (pollutants), so that the flawed element is seemingly nature’s faltering abundance (Kallis 2019). This fails to account for the ethical, political and cultural dimensions of the problem – where the systems of production and consumption which threaten this ‘natural harmony’ are not inherent, but situated within a particular historical and political context (Castree et al. 2014). Scientific notions of limits therefore enact a nature-culture dualism, obscuring the subjective lens with which human politics views externalised environmental problems (Latour 2004). Through this separation, the limitless pursuit of growth endemic to capitalist politics can be ideologically preserved despite its contradiction to the natural order, because by definition, human society has transcended nature.
Kallis’s statement is therefore a declaration for “decolonizing the imaginary from growth” (Kallis and March 2010, p360-1) – to utilise the radical potential of wants to re-embed human society within ecological balance. For degrowthers, the self-limitation of wants is a free choice in line with a higher principle, ‘frugal abundance’, dissolving the notion of scarcity by socially restraining human desires for perpetual growth towards (or beyond) a limit (ibid.; Latouche 2012). This essay will argue that wants are an important aspect of political change – but desire is emergent amongst material-economic, cultural and institutional relations, which means that creating abundance through wants depends on their ability to create new institutional arrangements. I will firstly situate wants within a Deleuzian politics of desire, to refine how capitalist politics engenders wants through intertwined material-economic and political relations of production and subjectification. Secondly, limits will be discussed in their relation to the de-politicisation of environmental matters through ‘post-politics’ (Swyngedouw 2011), the emergence of a consensual sphere of techno-managerial governance which excludes certain perspectives from making valid contributions to policy. I will then discuss the potentiality of new wants as “think[ing] the possibility of real alternatives” (Harvey 2000, p156), focusing on how grassroots movements articulate new worldviews within politics.
“Desire belongs to the infrastructure, not to ideology” – Deleuze and Guattari 1988, p348
Although multi-scalar analyses have emerged as a key epistemology of geographical research, there is still a tendency to speak of the different ‘levels’ of life; from the all-encompassing planetary imaginary to localities and individualised social/political subjects (Katz 2004). In such a hierarchal framing, while there may be some dialecticism between say, individual wants and macropolitical governance, ultimately, problems are compartmentalised within certain spheres which are ‘better equipped’ for particular subjects (Castree et al. 2014). Different aspects of environmental management are bounded within various disciplines that see little mutualism in their strivings, where scientists feel hindered by the imposition of political-ethical concerns from the humanities, and inversely, social researchers feel like their work is overlooked in favour of natural-scientific knowledge (Bulkeley 2019). Scholars have highlighted the potential of multidisciplinary approaches, particularly in addressing the ‘knowledge-action gap’ (Hulme 2020) whereby there is a surplus of information on how human activities damage the environment, but making change is difficult because any particular scientific fact can cast multiple plans of action – as seen in the diverse stances of ecomodernism, ecosocialism, degrowth, and so on (ibid.). To enrich action, we need critical understanding of limits and our relationship with them – where and how should limits be posed, on who and why? Compartmentalising where valid knowledge can be created is harmful it gives uneven authority in negotiations, meaning we are not fully considering our options and thus, we are not synthesising actable principles (Beck and Mahony 2018).
Deleuze and Guattari’s (1988) metaphysics denies separations, conceiving of categorisations and boundaries as socially emergent from the coding and de/re-coding of diverse entanglements (relations, processes) between things (subjects, objects, concepts). Essentially, a thing has content (e.g. objects occupy physical space, concepts occupy ideological domains) and a form (the coding of how a thing differs from other things). The substance of things is therefore constructed through the relation of content and form, not literally where the two elements can be neatly disentangled, but rather, in the manner of continual reiteration, whereby the inclusion or exclusion of content can require a new code for describing the form of the thing, or a new understanding of a thing’s form requires a shifting of its bounds (ibid.). Capitalism is a driver of this endless ‘de/re-territorialization’ because it perpetuates by appropriating new domains (discovering new resources, or more efficient methods of extraction), and heterogeneously reiterating relations through the (re-)coding/valuation of objects/subjects involved (Harvey 2018). Furthermore, a system of production is inextricably a system of subjectification – for each process of value-extraction engenders a particular subject for its purpose, with particular obligations, desires, social & political relationships, and worldviews (Read 2008). Subjectivities are therefore formed amongst this ever-changing terrain. These perpetually shifting notions permeate within, and distort, the thought of subjects, meaning wants are never a static nor individualistic matter. Rather, they are calibrated through the social, through discourses of truth and goodness – simultaneously conceiving of the present and the future, history and modernity, the individual and collective, the local and the global (Foucault 1978).
This dynamic can clearly be seen within the emergence of neoliberalised subjectivities. Neoliberalism refers to the broad field of ideologies – including privatisation, marketisation, individualisation of responsibility, de-regulation of systems, and market-based/led governance (Castree 2010); which affect both institutional arrangements and the way that subjects, individuated and responsible, engage with the world. Carbon footprints have become an everyday discourse which relates consumption and climate change. Specifically, this idea has several constitutive elements: 1) the interrelation of planetary and local scales; where everyday actions have global effects, ‘glocality’ (Pratt and Rosner 2006); 2) the discursive power of fungible carbon; in essence, making it seem that pollution in one area is part of a global challenge through abstracts of carbon equivalence – which denies the local specificity of pollutants and their effects (Swyngedouw 2013); 3) the individualisation of responsibility for pollution; where everyone has a carbon footprint (Malm and Hornborg 2014). Carbon footprints create an individuated subject responsible for their emissions, who should be driving systemic change through consumption, shopping knowledgeably and ethically (Pollan 2006). Through this, powerful actors are absolved from the disproportionate responsibility they deserve because all individuals are equally implicated in this glocal problem – problematising individual consumption rather than production. This subjectification therefore serves a particular mode of production – of mass-industry and monopolisation, which are unquestioned as part of this ‘environmentally-friendly’ notion; masking power dynamics which give institutional actors the ability to reshape production, distribution and consumption in a way that no individual consumer can (ibid.; Howard 2016). Instead, it is the consumer’s wants which are reshaped, where individuals are supposed to conceive of their own limits within a deregulated system.
Consensus is the means through which the relationship between capital and environmental politics becomes neutral – where the underlying ontological and political pre-suppositions of institutions are so contingently agreed upon that they appear an objective fact (Kenis and Lievens 2014). This depoliticises the arrangement of power, making its function an uncontestable outcome of human and non-human nature (ibid.; Moore 2015). The resulting post-politics therefore enforces certain perspectives and ways of communicating as valid forms within the “technical, managerial and consensual administration (policing) of environmental, social, economic or other domains” (Swyngedouw 2011, p266), normatively or institutionally excluding dissent from decision-making. For example, in land disputes between indigenous peoples and globalised neoliberal megaprojects, science and rationality are already the default languages of discussion – so when an indigenous representative speaks of their ancestral and spiritual ties to the land, or emotional experiences of colonialism, these statements are not even admissible on the same level (Zhouri 2018). From the naturalised perspective of post-politics, these are subjective concerns in an objective matter – where ideas of connection to the land and the real presence of ‘earth-beings’, e.g. sacred, sentient mountains like Quilish, are not borne out of a different set of ontological and epistemological presuppositions about the world, but are just beliefs which distort objective reality (de la Cadena 2010). The result is the consolidation of institutional power, where certain parties are given more power to enact change, or more weight in discussion – whether it be due to their expertise giving them authority, or their position granting them privileged speech (Swyngedouw 2011).
Through the flattening of diverse environmental and political-economic relations into quantifiable notions, taking a fluid situation and bounding it, trying to consensually agree upon the exact moment the system slips into failure – limits emerge as a mechanism of subjectification (Latour 2014). Limits-thinking obscures the overflow of arbitrary categories, establishing divisions between biophysical domains, between natural scientific and social scientific enquiry, between ecological and societal impacts, ultimately missing the complexity and contingency of earth’s systems (Haraway 2016). This portrait of environmental politics diminishes potential to act because it frames the apocalyptic moment as objective and foreseeable, as if we are already doomed to fail because we are continually progressing to the boundary (Kallis 2019). Yet crisis presents governance with an opportunity to seize power, to regulate behaviour more closely so that new limits can be maintained (Moore 2015); a dialectic relation between the sovereign state and capitalism where they re-shift the terrain of what is available as a resource within a biopolitics of the environment (Smith 2011). While rationalistic assessments of the earth system may premise fixed limits, the systemic desire is to ignore, to surpass, to push boundaries – for “there is no profit in resources expended to prevent bad things from happening […] The profit is in expansion” (O’Connor 1998 p317). Because of the future-orientated perspective, the eroding of natural resource pools is taken as a non-problem because sustainability is not solely a question of realism (the rational-scientific truth) but also fictitious scientific advancements (e.g., potential techno-fixes), and human resilience and adaptability – presuppositions about human potential and its ability to surpass nature (Haraway 2016).
Environmental (post-)politics is already underwritten with anthropocentric stories of progress, where scientific rationalism has enabled humanity to transcend natural limits (Daggett 2020). When impulses of enclosure, privatisation and neoliberal growth have already colonised desires, change involves re-writing the story with consideration to what wants it engenders, and what limits it imposes (ibid.). No political arrangement can be free of an institutional influence; any climate change response seeks to create new subjectivities. Ecomodernists envision the maximisation of growth, while degrowthers value frugal abundance – both self-limiting in line with neoliberal capitalist notions and environmentalist notions respectively. Both see their cause as the true solution because their wants are articulated in reference to their own ontological-epistemological pre-suppositions (Foucault 1978); demonstrating that we cannot differentiate ‘coerced’ wants (i.e. desires shaped by power) from genuine self-interest because neither idea is more or less real so long as it is believed. Acknowledging that the valuation of wants is uncoupled from ‘reality’ but instead constructed amongst specific environmental, political and cultural arrangements demands pluralism and relativity within politics (Zylinska 2014). When there is no longer one universal truth or good which can be used to rationally qualify the efficacy of ideas, actions or institutions, it is impossible to objectively hierarchalise (Blaser 2013).
An ethics of limits
The question is therefore not one of liberating ‘true’ wants, but of how a plurality of wants are dealt within the institutional arrangement. What is our obligation to the wants of others? How do we mediate good action across multiple perspectives? A productive limitation of wants is not an authoritative one, but an ethical one – a recognition that our biological survival and cultural meaningfulness rely on mutually-constituted natural-cultural worlds, and therefore renders us responsible to our co-dwellers (Haraway 2016). For a subject to self-limit means that the political occupies all aspects of life, that any desire is assessed in reference to political and cultural codes – that there is a connection between individualised actions and the collective (Zizek 2000). Decolonising desire is not just the individual limiting their wants, it is to share their ethos with society, to universalise the recognition of their wants (ibid.). This therefore problematises the institutional and normative arrangements which restrain the potential of self-limitation. Seeing biophysical and cultural-political worlds as inextricably linked and fluidly bound requires a fluid politics (Latour 2004) – so that whether our misguided wants are in the form of scientific facts or political axioms, we are taught to question openly, to expect changing wants and changing circumstances. Such a politics is not “based on moral judgment and imperative, […] only on pleasure and self-respect” (Berandi 2011, p16), which means that statements and speakers cannot be rationally excluded from discussions, but instead, should be approached with empathy and solidarity. Institutions can only implement laws and rules which rigidly imitate moralistic determinations (Zylinska 2014) – they cannot experience fulfilment, obligation nor guilt, which makes them an awful basis for acting ethically. But institutions are assemblages of subjects, their power and their resources; the fundamental entwinement of production and subjectification means that shifting one perturbs the other (Deleuze and Guattari 1988) – opening space to want and consequently do otherwise.
For wants to make real changes to material-economic conditions, systems of subjectification that condition people to ‘freely’ accept environmental harm and cultural subordination must be undone. Subverting this order is not a matter of totality – for there is so much power and function coded into capitalist society that it is unrealistic to think that it can be shifted by ideology alone (Deleuze and Guattari 1988). Ideas cannot assure abundance and security; they can only set the basis for engagements with the world. For alternative ways of seeing and being in the world to take root, they must concretise resistance – rather than trying to prove themselves as equals to capitalism through discussions that are already biased, wants should crystallise alternative structures that demonstrate the real utilities of making things otherwise (Papadopoulos 2018). Grassroots action should experiment with knowledge, be open to critique and re-direction, and be based in ethical engagement (ibid.). This can be seen in practice in the contestation of industrialised food-systems, where marginalised actors are articulating demands in relation to the increasing incursion of globalised capitalism into their livelihoods (Finnis et al. 2013). New paradigms like agroecology mobilise indigenous and peasant understandings of farming to see agriculture as dependent on ecological assemblages – like mycorrhizal networks, a delicate symbiosis between fungi and plants to transport nutrients throughout soil (Sheldrake 2020) – to provide the basis of fertile land, and thus, see entwinement with natural processes as an inherent aspect of farming (Conway 2012). Practices like intercropping, the planting of multiple species on a single plot so that their different soil-uses and outputs sustainably enrich the yield, mean that farmers can decrease dependence on monocultures and artificial inputs, ensuring abundance for future generations by enriching the bases of soil fertility (ibid.; Sheldrake 2020). Furthermore, agroecology sees sustainable farming as embedded in both ecological and social networks; because peasant livelihoods are difficult when monopolised agriculture is increasingly enforcing the economic necessity of growing cash crop monocultures (Conway 2012; Finnis et al. 2013). Movements like la Via Campesina (2007) are already working to create solidarities, to resist the status quo, to normalise new farming paradigms, to articulate new wants which see synergy between natural and cultural worlds, to establish peasants and indigenous peoples as knowledgeable and competent actors within the political sphere.
Constructed amongst political, social and environmental relations, wants represent an ever-changing articulation of a subject’s bridging of the individual and the collective, presenting a radical base for political reformation. Limits are cast in relation to a particular framing of the world, to particular wants of its present and future. Ideas of externalised limits represent an underlying story of nature-culture dualism, whereby the environmental problem can be separated from the ongoings of human society. While limits-thinking may premise apocalyptic moments, the ability of humanity to transcend nature is taken as an axiom which means climate response can be future-oriented despite immediate pressure to act. Evidently, establishing limits does not equal ethical obligation to them. Kallis emphasises self-limitation of wants because it foregrounds ethical desire before action. Limits must compel us to stop certain behaviours, institutions or processes – to desire otherwise and perpetuate our wants into the collective. This means that neither wants nor limits can be depoliticised, i.e., left to the realm of rational economics and science, because wanting within or beyond limits is always a political and institutional matter.
Constructing a meaningful politics of desire requires unsettling institutional and normative exclusions of perspective – because wants are always embedded in an ever-changing social and ecological context which therefore requires a flexible political system. We must question how our contemporary systems limit discussions. For example, the UN deploys a notion of nationhood which does not include indigenous nations on the same level as ‘sovereign states’; endowing them the same representational authority as any non-governmental organisation (Liverman 2018). Furthermore, the peasants of diverse nations are represented by elite bureaucrats of their colonised nationalities, and only allowed to dissent through NGO representation. If the nation-state is historically a key driver of power centralisation and unsustainable intensification of industrial-capitalist systems (Daggett 2020), how can we hope to reform an environmental politics which privileges Westphalian sovereignty? We must find ways to assert new understandings of our worlds and futures. Grassroots action must demonstrate that competent and ethical management can exist outside of technocracy and bureaucracy, and that people can be experts outside of science and rational economics – so the radical contributions of excluded and marginalised speakers can erode entrenched hegemonies through action. Only when we generate actable principles through a politics of open and pluralistic discussions of wants, limits, subjectivities, and worldviews, will we all come to enjoy an abundant world.
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