Verdant Optimism: On How Capitalism Will Never Save the World
together with Cymene Howe
Earth systems continue their collapse and the shadow of recognition spreads that humans (northern capitalist moderns anyway) are to blame. Still, a weird optimism rings out, promising a sustainable way of doing more of the same—the same consuming, the same ways of moving, the same models of living in the world, the same impulse to growth and ballooning wealth. The optimism roots in the idea that capital can be dyed green rather than the tar-gray that shades everything in these days marked “Anthropocene.” In this green imaginary, renewable energy operates with a salvational promise to retain the status quo, undo past bad practices and generate a more verdant future. A better future is not impossible. But it is certainly not likely if the plan is to rely upon an imaginary future capitalism to solve the problems that actually existing capitalism has wrought (Rajković, this series). And, as we have found in our research over the past decade, achieving ecological equilibrium will almost certainly not come through the capitalist growth-logic, which inherently militates against any steady state. To paraphrase Marx, capital knows no color; what sustainability aspirants might wishfully view as green only appears to capital and its agents in the monochrome of profit and accumulation.
Our research on wind power in Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Boyer 2019; Howe 2019) addressed a central question of our anthropocenic times: what are the political forces that shape the possibilities for low carbon futures? Who sets the agenda for transitions and who—human and otherwise—is affected by massive infrastructural shifts to the energy systems upon which the whole world now runs?
The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is home to the densest concentration of terrestrial wind parks anywhere in the world. What we found blowing in the turbulent and powerful wind of the Isthmus were what we called “aeolian politics” (Howe and Boyer 2015). These politics involved hierarchies of access to renewable futures and the marginalization of indigenous people and mestizo farmers. Our research illustrated that it is all too easy for renewable energy development to occur with little or no social, political, or economic “transition” attached to it. We often heard wind parks likened to mines and Walmarts by those who viewed the wind sector as the latest chapter in a centuries-old colonial process of exploitation. Under the mantel of green capitalism it is both possible and, often, commonplace to revert to models of resource extraction that mirror those of global fossil fuels and mining (Howe and Boyer 2016). Where human desires for energy take no heed of environmental context and carrying capacity, and where corporate and private finance (often in partnership with governments) are allowed to lead, there is little hope of remediating the ill effects of climate change either locally or globally. And yet that is what we must do. To put it more bluntly, we have seen that there will be no “renewable energy transition” worth having without a more holistic reimagination of relations in order to avoid simply greening the predatory and accumulative enterprises of modern statecraft and capitalism.
Capitalist flows of value, energy, and power reinforce one another, buttressed by intricate legal regimes, national and international, which are only slowly becoming informed by scientific diagnostics of climate and ecology. Ornate webs of policy, infrastructure, and governance both actively enable climate change and actively resist energy transition, especially when those policies presume that the logics and actors born from fossil fuels will facilitate that change. Even as nation states adopt bold energy transition targets, as Mexico has done, the methods of transition can turn out to be deeply problematic. And while renewable energy development and climate change mitigation are most commonly left in the hands of engineers, economists, climate scientists, and politicians, we might do better to think of energy transition and a decarbonized climate as problems that necessitate broader and more inclusive conversation and experimentation.
The chaotic forces of the Anthropocene, and the relative novelty of renewable energy forms, which continue to grow and transform, demonstrate the experimental plasticity of our era. The planet is thirsting for change. Capitalism, on the other hand, is playing its same old games, extracting value and propagating itself. Sustainability is anathema to the petrocapitalism that continues to govern the global order today (Mitchell 2011). Rather than recommitting to the global capitalist relations promoted by northern elites for their own luxury, we ought to be looking to the creative energies emerging in the global South as well as among indigenous communities with long records of relatively innocuous co-habitation between humans and ecological systems (Simpson 2017; White 2018; Estes 2019; Gilio-Whitaker 2019). We should be committing to developing communal models of renewable energy oriented to humbler kinds of sustenance rather than the juggernaut of high-energy modernity. There are pathways to better political, social, and ecological futures; to achieve them, we need to leave capitalism behind.
Boyer, Dominic. 2019. Energopolitics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Estes, Nick. 2019. Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. London: Verso.
Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. 2019. As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock. Boston: Beacon.
Howe, Cymene. 2019. Ecologics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Howe, Cymene, and Dominic Boyer. 2015. “Aeolian Politics.” Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory 16, no. 1: 31–48.
Howe, Cymene, and Dominic Boyer. 2016. “Aeolian Extractivism and Community Wind in Southern Mexico.” Public Culture 28, no. 2: 215–35.
Mitchell, Timothy. 2011. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso.
Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. 2017. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
White, Kyle Powys. 2018. “Way Beyond the Lifeboat: An Indigenous Allegory of Climate Justice.” In Climate Futures: Reimagining Global Climate Justice, edited by Bhavnani, Kum-Kum, John Foran, Priya A. Kurian, and Debashish Munshi, 11–17. London: Zed.