Alf Hornborg on Ecology, Economy, and Technology

A few excerpts from professor of human ecology Alf Hornborg‘s book The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001).

Alf Hornborg

“We seem to have difficulties understanding exactly in which sense human ideas and social relations intervene in the material realities of the biosphere. Rather than continuing to appraoch ‘knowledge’ from the Cartesian assumption of a separation of subject and object, we shall have to concede that our image-building actively participates in the constitution of the world. Our perception of our physical environment is inseparable from our involvement in it” (10).

“Calling world trade exploitative, I insist, is more than a value judgment. It is an inference based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If production is a dissipative process, and a prerequisite for industrial production is the exchange of finished products for raw materials and fuels, then it follows that industrialism implies a social transfer of entropy. The sum of industrial products represents greater entropy than the sum of fuels and raw materials for which they are exchanged. The net transfer of ‘negative entropy’ to industrial centers is the basis for techno-economic ‘growth’ or ‘development.’ In other words, we must begin to understand machines as thoroughly social phenomena. They are the result of asymmetric, global transfers of resources. The knowledge employed to keep them running would be infertile if the world market did not see to it that the industrial sectors of world society maintain a net gain in ‘negative entropy’ (or in exergy). Inversely, the non-industrial sectors experience a net increase in entropy as natural resources and traditional social structures are dismembered. The ecological and socioeconomic impoverishment of the periphery are two sides of the same coin, for both nature and human labor are underpaid resources of high-quality energy for the industrial ‘technomass.’ In not reckoning with the intimate connection between economics and technology–the social and the material aspects of industrialism–we tend to talk as if technology were primarily a matter of knowledge. We imagine that education and ‘technology transfer’ might solve problems of ‘underdevelopment,’ forgetting, as it were, that new centers of industrial growth require new peripheries to exploit…The science of technology is not simply a matter of applying rational thought to nature, for the ‘natural’ conditions for matter-energy conversions in privileged, so-called developed areas have been transformed by world trade…Conventional economics, in recognizing no other concept of value than exchange value, tends to conceal this inequality” (11).

“Money in itself is merely an idea about the interchangeability of things and about the mutability of the rates at which things are exchanged. In practical, social life, it is a regulation of people’s claims on one another” (14).

Corporations are egregores (reflections on #Occupy protests)

Yesterday, I had to decide whether I’d go downtown to protest, or go to class. I ended up going to class. Why? I was confused, and honestly a bit deflated, by ontological questions. Where is Chase? Where is Goldman Sachs? Where is Bank of America? These entites are not located in downtown SF, nor even on Wall Street in NYC. Nonetheless, they are considered “persons” and have the same legal privilages that you and I have. Only, they don’t have to pay taxes for the income they earn in this country. Their personhood is no doubt a legal fiction, but if the financial crisis has taught us anything, it’s that fictions can still destroy the world. Alongside the material and ideological aspects that go into making up the massively distributed existence of a corporation, there is also an occult dimension. Corporations are “egregores,” a term referring to the collective mind that emerges as a result of some coordinated social activities, especially those associated with ideas and brands. Eliphas Levi associates it with the nephalim written of in the Torah.
These nephalim were depicted as giants with voracious appetites. They are mentioned just before the story of Noah’s Ark. Levi writes of them that they “crush us without pity because they are unaware of our existence.” Sounds familiar. And it speaks to the sense I had yesterday that shouting at the logos of tall buildings from the street is entirely ineffectual. Corporations don’t have ears to hear us.
How can we influence them, then? I think we need to counter the black magic of their fiat currency. I mused yesterday that, if the protests do balloon beyond all expectations such that the corporate execs watching on the 70th floor began to take notice, they would only have to push the emergency button installed in their board room causing the ATMs across the city to begin spewing money onto the streets. I imagine that this would send protesters into a frenzy. We’d drop our signs and run to collect the cash. This is, after all, exactly what the 99% are asking for, is it not? We want our money back! But if this were to happen, it is the corporations who would win again. So long as we all walk around with dollar bills printed by the privately owned and controlled Fed Bank, or with Visa, MasterCard, and AmEx logos in our pockets and purses, so long as we depend on the systems of signification the mega-banks have concocted for us to play their game of monopoly with, then we remain their prisoners, their wage-slaves. Shouting at logos is completely ineffectual. And so long as the FBI continues to arrest those who try to create alternative currencies, breaking free of this corrupt money system will remain difficult, if not impossible. But it is clear to me that there is definitely an occult dimension at work, which is not to say that invisible demons and dragons are waiting to eat us, but that the meaning-making capacity of our souls, as free members of democratic communities, has been infected and distorted beyond all recognition by the psychic power of corporate symbolism. Our biggest enemy is not just on Wall Street, it is inside each of us. We have been raised to be consumers. We do not know of another way to survive in the corporate environment. Our food and even our self-esteem are increasingly woven into corporate webs of semiosis. How can we fight back? By continuing to create and support culture free of commodification and branding. By working to free ourselves, body and soul, from the black magic shaping our lives. By continuing to fight to take our government back, broken as it may be, since it is only by organizing ourselves politically that we can mobilize our democratic power as the 99% against the magic monetary power of the 1%. This is going to be a long and difficult war of ideas, and there will be no visible victories for some time, I’m afraid to say. But the people will win eventually, I’m sure of that.

Cosmopolitical Reflections upon leaving for Black Rock City

Since the dominant narratives bringing forth the ongoing misadventure of industrial capitalism fail to properly situate the human soul in its actual time and place, any serious inquiry into the nature of our individual and collective situation must begin with an act of counter memory: we must ask afresh in each generation, who are we, and where did we come from? As Emerson suggested in his lecture on the American Scholar, we must discover an original relationship with the universe.

This does not mean we should jettison tradition. The “chronological snobbery” (Owen Barfield‘s phrase) of the progress-obsessed modern world is nothing to be emulated; rather, tradition must be consciously integrated instead of reactively rejected or habitually assumed.

In a cosmological sense, we are star stuff come to life upon a planet of immense but limited means. Our existence has taxed to the point of bankruptcy the potential energy of earth’s systems. Ecological entropy now threatens to destroy the monetary meaning that has replaced culture with commodities and nature with machines. Absent this monetary meaning, many of us no longer know how to eat or how to sleep, nor how to love, and especially not how to die.

Life on earth in 2011 is precarious, even doomed. And yet, isn’t this message of doom now also woven into our official narrative? Isn’t apocalypse the best selling plot in today’s mass media market? Everybody knows the old world is coming to an end, but because the horror of this reality is too much to take responsibility for, the majority of us sit on the couch and pretend it is all just another form of entertainment. Fantasy has replaced forthrightness, and imagination has withered to make way for shallow ideological affiliation with merely symbolic causes.

Of course, symbolism is no mere trifle: our sense of meaning is precisely what is at stake. How are we to conceive of the human presence on the planet? Are we a cancerous growth, or the incarnation of God on earth? Are we to become once again a spiritual instead of a consumptive and pleasure-driven species? Are we to replace industrial with initiatory cosmology? Is our role to worship, celebrate, and create, or to use, abuse, and destroy?

These are questions of the ultimate meaning of the universe, and their answers determine how we inhabit the earth. As the geologian Thomas Berry put it, ecology is simply functional cosmology. An integral ecology implies an awareness of the way our images of the cosmos quite literally come to transform its material reality: the mechanistic and disenchanted imaginary of industrial cosmology, for example, has pushed the planet into climate change and mass extinction, forever altering the future course of every species’ evolution. Clearly, such a cosmology does not function adequately as an ecology. It is based upon the mistaken assumption that profit is genuinely productive, when in fact, rising corporate profits are perhaps the best indication of declining ecosystemic vitality. Only plants are truly productive, since only they are capable of eating the celestial energy of the sun that produces and sustains all life on earth. All other biotic activities, human and otherwise, function only by transforming terrestrial energy originally captured by plants.

“Like all structures,” writes Alf Hornborg,

“the biosphere is composed of differences. If it is humankind’s mission to devise a coded system of signals to integrate this most inclusive of living systems, our monetary system must recognize those differences or continue to annihilate them” (p. 174, The Power of the Machine).

Modern industrial cosmology has lead to the dissociation of the human economy and the earth economy. Earth is a diverse community of organisms delicately balanced by millions upon millions of years of co-adaptation. This variety is crucial to its ongoing resiliency. Capitalism seeks to homogenize culture and nature in order to more effectively market its mass produced products everywhere on the globe. It has entirely transformed Gaia too quickly for Her species, including the human, to adapt. We are increasingly threatened by the worldlessness produced by an economic system that values profitability (the replication of money) over productivity (the recreation of life).

Only the “subversive implications of genuine spirituality” can reverse the spread of worldlessness, since, says Hornborg,

“the concept of sanctity is diametrically opposed to the notion of generalized interchangeability on which modernity is founded. To suggest a mountain or a person’s time are not for sale is incongruent with the basic premises of the modern project” (p. 236, ibid.).

In my presentation at Burning Man this year (2pm on Tuesday, Aug 30th @ Camp Cosmicopia located ~ 8 A), I want to suggest that ancient cosmology, specifically that emerging out of the Platonic tradition, has much to teach the modern mind about what it means to be human on planet earth. Modern cosmology is disenchanted, which is to say that it no longer integrates the reality of soul, whether that of the individual or that of the universe. Each human being is conceived of as an isolated atom of tragic identity lost in an immense storm of random, chaotic change. To even call this a cosmology is to stretch the meaning of the term, since industrialism offers no explicit vision of the universe as a whole. It denies wholeness, instead encouraging each separate individual to pursue its own selfish ends in the hope that its sense of dissatisfaction with life might find some temporary reprieve in the fleeting pleasures of consumption.

Platonic cosmology, in contrast, situates the human being in a living and intelligent universe. The life of the individual soul is understood to participate in the life of the World Soul. Though the trauma of birth makes it forgetful, the individual soul is said to be capable of remembering its origin in the everlasting Soul of the World by looking skyward and contemplating the holy rhythms of the circling stars above. The movements of the heavenly bodies are the visible signs of the World Soul’s invisible formative power. The heavenly motions reflect the earthly soul’s emotions, mirroring (not determining) its inner life.

Plato’s vision of the universe is initiatory, since it is a cosmology –a way of speaking the cosmos– that goes beyond mere secondhand description to direct participation in the meaning of the world. Modern cosmology tends to speak at or about the universe, while Plato sought to speak to and with the universe. The earth and the other planets are not merely chunks of rock, but ensouled creatures — gods, even. It is my opinion that we are approaching a crisis in scientific cosmology not seen since the time of Copernicus. We are on the verge of a new consciousness of a new cosmos, a transformation in our fundamental image of the world no less profound and earth-shaking than the emergence of the heliocentric theory. With this new cosmology will come a new culture, a new way of being human, based not on work and the replication of money, but on play and the recreation of life. Perhaps Burning Man provides a small a preview of the possibilities…

[Update: Sam Mickey over at Becoming Integral has recently posted on the religious significance and ecological impact of Burning Man]

From Means to Ends, From Work to Play, From Number to Pneuma

When was the day that money became an idol instead of an instrument? Was it August 15, 1971, when Nixon shocked the world by erasing the Gold Standard, thereby unilaterally making the value of the US Dollar the standard of the world economy? Or was it in the waning months of 2008, when the central banks of the industrialized nations purchased $2.5 trillion of debt from certain corrupt institutions operating in the private sector (the largest single transfer of wealth in the history of the world)? When was it, exactly, that money became the lifeblood of our civilization? I ask not to condemn this elevation of the symbolic above the material, but only to wonder at what will become of it once the material can no longer provide what the symbols demand of it. The human economy has almost entirely detached itself from the earth economy. Economics has been designed as if human civilization were a closed system capable of perpetual motion. In reality, the technoindustrial machine within which our daily lives take place must seek out ever-increasing amounts of exergy (usable energy) extracted from the non-human and human environment (in the form of oil, coal, minerals, labor, knowledge, etc.) in order to sustain its constant growth. The earth system is not “external” to the human economy; the human economy is within the earth economy.

Perhaps it does not matter when money became an idol. It may be more important to recognize how it is that such a fetish is able to take root and sustain itself in the collective psyche. To do this, let us examine the categories through which we perceive the world we live in. Most fundamentally, the postmodern person relates to the larger world and greater society mediated by monetary instruments. This mediation takes place primarily in the workplace. Work, above all else, defines the individual’s life in the techno-industrial capitalist system. Among the first questions asked in polite conversation among newly aquatinted strangers is “what do you do?,” as in “what do you do for work?” Work is what earns us money, and money is what makes the world go round. Or so it seems.

Even in physics, the very stuff, or process, out of which everything is “made”–that is, energy–is defined in socioeconomic terms as the ability to do work. Wouldn’t it make more sense–and in fact, wouldn’t it have world-shaking effects–to redefine energy as the ability to play and to creatively reproduce?

Why would it make more sense to say this? Because energy, as Blake put it poetically, is eternal delight; which is to say that energy is not merely the mechanical transfer of force, but the spiritual and emotional conveyance of value.

How would an economy of play work? This has always been the question, if energy is truly disporting in its own light. The human economy has never truly separated from the earth, though it may have made the pretense of such a separation the basis of an imperial fantasy. How can money continue to breath life into the human adventure if its value is detached from the cosmos, from something alive and real? How can merely working for a living motivate us to wake up and bring forth civilization each morning? The ends of all work should always be to secure more time to play. Money is not an end in itself, unless it has become an idol. Working for money is worshiping a false idol. No amount of money or number of notes will ever buy us the pneumatic gnosis we seek.