Towards a 'green wave'

| 13th July 2018
We are surrounded by systems - the economic system, our social system and the ecological system in which they are both situated. So if systems have distinct patterns and phases, how will we experience this as a community. Dr ROBERT BIEL investigates

The structures fuelled by environmental degradation also serve to degrade society … this, I would say, is a clue to the deep connection between ecological and social exploitation.

There is a rhythm in everything. All our attempts to understand systems are, in a way, attempts to experience the rhythm through which they change and develop.

Nothing exists in isolation. A system must, as Ilya Prigogine pointed out, be  ‘open’ to its environment, which it exchanges matter and energy - for example, a local ecosystem is part of the earth system - and this enables it to build its structures.

Once you’ve managed to build a structure which is stable, that’s pleasing and reassuring … but only up to a point, because if your system becomes too stable, it will be ossified and die. 

Forest ecosystem

Hence the importance of criticality, the capacity to access, when required, the creative edge of chaos. This makes it possible to undertake phase transition: once you’ve exhausted the potential of one phase, you must be bold enough to embark on a new one.

To tell the story of a system’s history is therefore a bit like scripting a TV drama series across several episodes: each episode follows a similar pattern (tension-resolution etc.), so in this sense our series is cyclical and repetitive.

But there’s an overall story-arc … and, crucially, not a deterministic one. Each episode is similar in structure, different in content!

For this reason, development tends to proceed through waves or cycles … moving from order, through disorder, then back to a new order.

For a natural ecology – e.g. a forest ecosystem – this was nicely depicted by C.S. Holling: each cycle comprises four episodes, “exploitation, conservation, release and reorganisation”.

Beginnings of imperialism

In a similar way, human systems have historically built their structures, nourishing these through a relationship of exchange with the wider earth-system, and developing through cycles.

What about capitalism? Its relationship to the environment is peculiar, because the structures it builds are fuelled by depleting it, thus undermining the basis of future development.

Hence, the periodic regeneration of nature - highlighted in Holling’s cycles - is blocked by the regeneration - reproduction - of capitalism.

Capitalism is nonetheless a real system, so it shouldn’t surprise us to encounter a cyclical pattern. 

In particular, since roughly the beginnings of imperialism (around 1900), several commentators have identified ‘long cycles’ - each lasting maybe three decades or so).

Social exploitation

Attempts to classify these are somewhat scholastic, and we needn’t enter into details, but the ‘wave’ theories developed in the 1920s by Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev provide a good example.

I was fascinated to notice that, like Holling, Kondratiev divides each wave into four parts: “recovery, prosperity, recession, depression”.

While this terminology differs from Holling’s, the basic idea is surely similar: systems flourish, then get stuck, break apart and eventually regenerate.  Joseph Schumpeter’s term ‘creative destruction’ strikingly captures this.

But of course what’s being ‘destroyed’ is not merely the structures of the previous phase, but the environment itself.  Capitalist phase-transitions are funded by an unrestricted degradation of energy/materials and ejection of waste; each successive cycle simply found new ways of doing this.

The structures fuelled by environmental degradation also serve to degrade society … this, I would say, is a clue to the deep connection between ecological and social exploitation.

Deeper re-alignment

To correct the technological determinism of some ‘wave’ theories,  I earlier explored  the following representation.

Here, the ‘high’ episodes are ones where the system runs smoothly (good for capitalism but bad for the environment!); the down phases are ones of crisis … when both environment and society somehow assert their resistance:

A chart

That diagram was drawn up three years ago, but a lot has changed since. So, in the continuum of cycles, where do we stand today?

A new cycle fuelled (like previous ones) from environmental destruction would be unthinkable. So there’s an argument that we are approaching a new, green Kondratiev .

But this fudges the key question: can it be a form of capitalism? Lovins and others believed so, but  I would rather say the new phase must signify a deeper re-alignment of human society, a kind of ‘creative destruction’ of capitalism itself.

Death throes

The fuelling for this would no longer be environmental degradation, but rather the free energies unleashed by human creativity and social networks, as we explore the vocabulary of a new, sustainable exchange with the ecosystem.

Nonetheless, precursors of a post-capitalist order would necessarily emerge while the old one is still in place … and may in many cases initially occur under the guise of adjustments within capitalism.

Let’s consider one key parameter of a green future: energy. As Prigogine and Isabel Stengers say, systems approaching phase change “seem to ‘hesitate’ among various possible directions of evolution …”.

And indeed our system has seemed, very recently, to oscillate in its attitude to energy.

When oil prices are high this is conducive to renewables, whereas when they are low, this dis-incentivises the costly and dodgy techniques (fracking, tarsands) invented to stave off peak oil. This has lead Fred Pearce to remark: “Maybe we are seeing the death throes of our addiction to fossil fuels”.

Movement of communities

Could this fluctuation resolve itself into a post-carbon order? Arguably, 2015 marked a turning point, and since then, the renewables transition may have acquired an intrinsic momentum, which no longer depends upon policy intervention (i.e. Trump can’t stop it).

While this is encouraging, I would still say an explicit critique of capitalism is needed. Otherwise we’d lose the window of opportunity to push for a more profound phase-change.

The impetus for this must come from a deep mobilisation of society, which can’t happen if the vast majority is marginalised. So we must find a way to ensure that the renewables transition directly contributes to social equity.

For example, in California , the solar transition creates many jobs - even in some instances strengthening trade unionism - while revenues from renewables can be invested in communities which historically suffered environmental degradation.

At the same time, it’s important to treat solar not just in a top-down, technocentric way, but as a movement of communities. 

This was already demonstrated in an interesting project in India, the Barefoot College, which has spread its influence globally, notably by inspiring similar projects in London.

These are examples of what’s beginning to be spoken of as ‘just transition’.  The concept is important. But crucially, environmental justice is not about being charitably ‘kind’ to deprived communities: it’s about recognising and respecting them as the driving force for radical phase-change.

This Author

Dr Robert Biel teaches political ecology at University College London and is the author of The New Imperialism and The Entropy of Capitalism. He specialises in international political economy, systems theory, sustainable development and urban agriculture.

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