Money, Ecology, and Burning Man: Inquiries into the Thermodynamics of Capitalism

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I’m headed back to Black Rock City for the 3rd time in 4 years later this week. I’ll be camping with Cosmicopia at 7:15 J if you want to stop by. I’ll be giving a brief talk on the need to ecologize economics on Tuesday at 11am. The title of the talk is actually a set of related questions: “Why is the sky blue? Why is money green?” The sky is blue because of the way Earth’s atmosphere scatters the light streaming in from the Sun during the day. At night, the sky turns black to reveal the swarm of distant suns populating the Milky Way. All the energy powering the human economy, and the greater part of the intelligence engineering it, originated in the sky. The daytime Sun is the most important source of free energy for all living things, while for one species in particular (ours) the rhythmic revolutions of the nighttime stars served as the catalyst for the evolution of symbolic consciousness (some of the earliest known forms of writing, for example, are marks carved into bone, apparently to count the phase cycle of the moon). Gazing at the stars and planets circling overhead night after night taught us how to keep track of time and how to travel long distances over land or sea. Our ability to plan months and years in advance, to draw maps and send satellites into orbit: we owe it all to the stars. And to the Sun we owe our very life, our vitality, our source of absolutely free energy. The original biotic economy of Earth (here long before the emergence of the human economy) consists of two main economic actors: the Sun and the photosynthesizing plants. This cosmic economy is the original gift society. The Sun is slowing burning itself up to release the warmth and light necessary for life on Earth. It asks for nothing in exchange for its exuberance. Plants absorb this free energy, transforming themselves into food for the rest of the biosphere all the way up the trophic ladder to Earth’s apex predator, the human being.

American money (at least for a little while longer the world economy’s gold standard), like plants, is green. Perhaps this is just a coincidence, but if we consider the capitalist world system as a form of sorcery (as Isabelle Stengers does), then this choice of color reflects the extent to which money has been fetishized, as though the symbolic power of green paper was somehow a replacement for the photosynthetic energy captured by the leaves of plants. General purpose money truly is the life blood of global capitalism; but plant-like it is not. It should be printed red, instead. That would remind us how much blood has been spilled on its behalf.

Political ecologist Alf Hornborg (author of “The Power of the Machine”) describes general purpose money as an “algorithm of destruction” because of the way it systematically cancels the living diversity of both culture and nature by converting usable energy (labor, soil, minerals, trees, rivers, etc.) into disposable products sold in order to make more copies of itself. For this reason, an increasing GDP is typically a great indicator of decreasing societal and ecological well-being. Global capitalism is converting more and more of the free energy brought into the biosphere by plants into money. To date, geneticist David Suzuki estimates that the global economy has re-directed about 40% of the net energy intake of plants to serve its higher purposes (i.e., accumulating money). Its no wonder the planet is entering the 6th mass extinction.

In my talk at Burning Man, I hope to make apparent how incongruent the human economy currently is with the earth ecology. I also want to begin a discussion about the role of Burning Man in all this. According to the festival’s founder, Larry Harvey, the Burning Man ethos is just good ol’ fashioned capitalism. He’s not entirely off the mark. I’d agree that the extravagance of Burning Man wouldn’t be possible without the huge surpluses produced by California’s digital economy. But this is not the same old capitalism… I’ll be trying to dig deeper into these and other internal contradictions.

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