For an anti-colonial, anti-racist environmentalism

| 14th May 2018
Limits to Growth

Figure 4-11 Scenario 1: A Reference Point. From Limits to Growth.

General Systems Theory can be a useful tool for understanding nature, and how society can exist in harmony of nature. The seminal book Limits to Growth used a systemic analysis - but was itself limited. Dr ROBERT BIEL examines how the systemic view can shed light on the colonial history of the North / West and the role it plays in the world's extractive present

In fact, it’s the global South which can be the standard-bearer for a new economy premised on sharing. After all, such a solution presupposes stewardship with respect to the ecosystem, which is still a living tradition in indigenous approaches. 

This series is about general systems theory, which explores the common principles on which all systems work.  The point is to cure our alienation from the environment, by bringing social systems more into sync with natural ones; and also to bring us into harmony with ourselves, learning to function and think like the natural systems which we in fact are.

A major theme is the link between ecological sustainability and social emancipation.  Historically, the exploitation of people - class, gender, ethnicity etc. - has been associated with the control, by dominant groups, of nature and its resources.  

Thus, the ecological cause is inseparable from redressing these injustices.  The sustainability transition will be so radical, it can only be a movement of society as a whole, not of elites.  The energies - expressed as human capacity - unleashed by destroying oppressive systems can then be substituted for fossil fuels, while new social institutions (commons, peer-to-peer) mirror those of nature, expressing an emergent order greater than the sum of its parts.

Ecological economist

In this article, we address an important concept in environmental debates: the notion of ‘Limits’.  Industrial/capitalist society is on a trajectory threatening to destroy the ecology, and our place within it.  This signifies an incompatibility between two systems.

While destructive growth should be halted, we need to be less limited in our capacity to envisage and implement alternatives! But historically, the notion of limits has often been used to curtail the very creativity and imagination we need to escape our predicament.

A landmark in environmentalism was the 1972 publication, Limits to Growth.  Though later updated, notably in 2004, the original is still highly significant as an historic document.  

Although one of its authors, Donella Meadows, was to later to become an important systems thinker, the original document was in some respects weak on understanding systemic features, notably the bad climate feedbacks, as well as the benign feedbacks which counteract exponential growth (for example, the rate of population growth tends to fall with rising development).

Even so the original Limits had great merits.  It explicitly calls for halting accumulation (thus correctly hinting that capitalism is to blame), and makes a wonderful point, quoting ecologial economist Herman Daly, that “The problem of relative shares can no longer be avoided by appeals to growth”.  In other words, in a finite world, we’ll have share! 

Economic theories

The way I’d interpret this systemically, is that a physical ‘limits’ situation is actually optimistic: it prods us to unshackle our creativity, and rethink societal structures, including the (re)discovery of old/new solutions to sharing (commons, peer-to-peer).  In an equitable setup, self-organisation generates a ‘free energy’ more than compensating for material restrictions. 

In fact, such a concept had been anticipated long ago.  Thinkers of the the radical era (late 18th– early 19th century) of the Enlightenment, French Revolution and Utopian socialism, had an intuitive grasp of the social application of complexity theory: get rid of parasitic rulers, and we’ll unleash capacity!

This argument terrified the ruling classes, who responded by promoting a fatalistic and restrictive interpretation of ‘limits’, notably Thomas Malthus’ theories.  

There’s a misconception in much environmental literature that capitalism has always trumpeted limitless growth.  In fact nothing could be less true: Malthusian limits formed a crucial prop of ruling-class ideology.  As the 19th century wore on, this acquired a pseudo-scientific form in which classism was intertwined with racism: namely, ‘social-Darwinism’.

Darwin’s immense achievement was to open the way, for the first time, to seeing nature as a true self-organising system. But because his insight was so radical and new, formulating it was not easy.  Striving for a metaphor for natural selection, Darwin hit upon Malthus’ economic theories. 

Dire legacy

This unfortunately set the scene for an interpretation of nature derived from ultra-conse rvative social doctrines, which in turn feeds back into the social sphere; thus, universal competition is made to seem ‘natural’, as the essential regulating property of all systems.  

Feedback loop between survival of the fittest and reward for competition. 

This had two bad impacts: it distorted the potential of Darwin’s own theory; and had terrible implications for society.

The ill-effect within biology was to overestimate conflict as a driver of evolution, at the expense of symbiosis: the result, as Brian Goodwin explained, is to  neglect the complexities which produce emergent order, the holistic nature of organisms.

The ill-effect within society was to open the way to racial theories of selection, which inspired colonial genocides, and subsequently Hitler.  

Working in University College London, I’m specially conscious of this dire legacy, encapsulated in so-called ‘eugenics’, the pseudo-science of breeding a master race. 

Anti-racist systems theory

A secret conference on eugenics held in UCL was recently exposed, but actually this should have come as no surprise: Francis Galton,  Darwin’s cousin, endowed a professorial chair in eugenics at UCL in 1911; its first occupant was  Karl Pearson, who still has a UCL building named after him.  This is a legacy which needs to be confronted.

Pearson’s work was among Hitler’s favourite reading.  But actually the foundation for nazism was the whole colonial project: if resources are scarce, the white master race should grab them … and hone their supremacy in the process.

In fact, the unrestricted growth ideology which the Limits was critiquing only fully emerged after World War II, when Malthusianism was temporarily pushed onto the back burner.  The theories of US economist Walt Rostow absurdly claimed the whole world could undertake US-style growth simultaneously.

But even Rostow didn’t really believe this: as a leading member of the inner circle of US foreign policy, he was a key advocate of the Vietnam War, itself premised on the ‘domino theory’ which aimed to ensure that scarce resources would remain forever in the hands of the West/North.

The postwar order thus remained extractive, premised on grabbing resources from nature and the global South.  Such an understanding is central to the 1970s writings of Walter Rodney, which I would see as a key component in a truly anti-racist systems theory; even today,  Ghana’s president rightly highlights extraction as the basis of the South’s predicament.

Presupposing stewardship

At the very moment of the original Limits, Southern states were collaborating in an attempt to implement a New International Economic Order (NIEO), which would redress extractivism by raising commodity prices.  The North managed to smash this, but an interesting argument can be made  for reviving the NIEO today.

The Limits to Growth, despite its many strengths and good intentions, was basically oblivious to this context.  That’s why the South was understandably suspicious: the Limits discourse seemed to say, OK let’s freeze things where they are, with the North developed and the rest of the world in perpetual servitude.

So it’s necessary consciously to purge the ‘limits’ idea from its colonial/racist baggage.  Yes, the environment poses strict limits.  But in fact it’s the global South which can be the standard-bearer for a new economy premised on sharing.  After all, such a solution presupposes stewardship with respect to the ecosystem, which is still a living tradition in indigenous approaches. 

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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