On Planetary Limits and Political Limitations

Astrid Zimmermann
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15.11.2022

When I was invited to go through the materials of the Pinkus Archive*, which is part of the Archive of the Avant-gardes at the State Art Collections in Dresden. I picked up an old issue of the Marxismus Digest on a whim—simply because it stood out among the colorful zines and pamphlets that I intuitively gravitated towards due to their aesthetic quality, which I found dashing and refreshing in comparison to the kind of leftist outlets I’m used to reading these days. This journal, however, was all black. It looked plain, austere, and dry—pretty similar to what most Marxist journals often still look like today, out of a fear of otherwise conveying a lack of analytical rigor, it seems. Being involved in leftist publishing myself, I picked it up and flipped through it, mostly to just briefly chuckle at how little has changed. Then I couldn’t put it back down. I was struck by how timely the writing seemed to me. Archives are often perceived as somewhat static. They look back, they conserve, they remember. But the thinking that was present in the pieces I stumbled on all addressed ecology, extinction, and political agency in ways that not only extend into our present, but into our future. Decades after being written, they have not lost, but gained their urgency.

—Berlin, July 2022

Now is not a good time to be a Marxist. When talking about the unfolding ecological crisis, there is a widely shared conception that it defies the traditional left–right divide of politics. As a commonly used metaphor implies, we are not up against adversarial political forces. Instead, it is Earth itself that “strikes” back against human hubris and the desire to tame, exploit, and control nature. A crisis of this scope, as is implied, supersedes the explanatory capacities of Marxism. This surely sounds convincing at first glance: The world is finite, resources are limited, and human impact on the environment has come to threaten the natural foundations upon which further human existence depends.

Theorists like Bruno Latour, for instance, offer a theoretical framework for this kind of thinking when insisting that the polarity between being a conservative and being a progressive has become superfluous amidst the civilizational crisis we are experiencing today. Climate politics, as he contends, still holds on to the same kind of anthropocentric worldview that unleashed this crisis to begin with, which is why we must now radically shift our focus instead and finally become Earth-bound, “terrestrial,” and establish novel ways of relating to all life-forms around us. The philosopher Timothy Morton is another prominent figure of this philosophical turn towards object-oriented materiality. Climate change, as Morton argues, should be understood as a “hyperobject” with an agency of its own.

Latour and Morton are just some of the most prominent figures of this new focus on the materiality of life-forms that has gained traction in the last couple of years. It has come to be known as the material turn and developed in reaction to the representational limits of the discursive turn that superseded it. Consensus is that we are living in the Anthropocene, an epoch where Earth is not simply acted upon, but instead itself reacts to human actions. And with this in mind, it only seems right to zero in on human–nature relationships and wonder about the agency of nonhuman life-forms. In the same way as the Copernican turn made a geocentric worldview obsolete, the material turn, it seems, will now make an anthropocentric worldview obsolete.

As we slowly come to realize that the modern promise of limitless growth may not be compatible with the limits of planetary resources, I will admit that the persuasive power of turning towards matter in this way is not lost on me. However, I do think it is peculiar that we are experiencing a paradigmatic shift towards materiality and not materialism in a Marxist sense. The latter is based on an unapologetic insistence on human agency, which the thinkers of the material turn have rendered inadequate for our current predicament. As the argument goes, the origin of this crisis is human agency itself and not the social system, in which we—as humans—exercise that agency. This kind of thinking hinders us in understanding the difference between planetary limits and political limitations, which should never be understood as synonymous.

Resisting Climate Doom

The question about planetary limits and how to respond to them is not a novel one. Way before climate change was even part of the discourse, a similar debate unraveled in the 1970s and gained considerable traction after the publication of The Limits to Growth. This report, commissioned by the Club of Rome and financed by the Volkswagenstiftung, was the work of a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In the face of population growth, malnutrition, globalization, an ever-increasing demand for natural resources, and environmental degradation, the research group used computer simulations to extrapolate whether exponential economic growth was feasible in the long term. Current actions, as the report stressed, may lead to unintended and possibly irreversible consequences. If we go on like this, the future will become unlivable, as the message went. The model they proposed instead was that of a steady-state economy that reaches natural equilibrium—a conservation of the status quo, so to speak.

The entire project was, however, grounded in a technological fetishism that obscured its true ideological underpinnings, as Richard Clarke stresses in a piece in the journal Marxismus Digest from the late 1970s. The Limits to Growth seemingly presents itself as politically neutral; after all, the findings are based on the supposedly cool, disinterested, and incorruptible logic of data. As Clarke points out though, the data that was fed into these computer simulations were not de facto representations of the real world, but a reflection of the worldview of the scientists that operated those simulations. Statistics representing global inequality, for instance, were not a matter of concern.

The projections thus had less to do with the “real world” and were less able to project the challenges of the ecological crisis than they proclaimed. The report, as Clarke stresses, would do little else than foster an intensely apocalyptic mood that urged society into passivity while concealing one of the most pressing problems of modern civilization: the real-life brutality of global inequality.

Passages like this evoke associations with present day “climate doomism” and the political lethargy that comes with it. Clarke’s insistence on inequality as a driving factor sounds almost prophetic these days, when global institutions like the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund—neither of whom are radically leftist organizations by any means—repeatedly stress that climate change not only exacerbates poverty, but that social inequality also accelerates climate change. The two biggest challenges of modern civilization—poverty and the climate crisis—are not only simultaneously unfolding, they are interdependent.

The skepticism vivid in Clarke’s writing speaks to a more general hesitation with which The Limits to Growth was received by many leftist thinkers of the time who felt that it presented a diversion from politics. Amidst this apocalyptic mood set by The Limits to Growth, Clarke instead talks about the potentials of tidal energy, hydrogen energy, solar energy, wind energy, and other forms of energy sources, whose potentials were being overlooked, not sufficiently researched, and mocked as unrealizable musings of naive “eco-freaks.” Yes, the situation is dire, as Clarke admits, but now is not the time for resignation. And so he laments that the plans to move toward energy sources which we would today categorize under the rubric of “renewables” were put on hold in favor of quicker, cheaper, and more profitable energy sources like fossil fuels.

It would be difficult, as Clarke writes in 1974, to look at the world and not notice that human impact on the biosphere had taken up a decidedly different character than it did decades before, and that it had reached an extent that would compromise any prospect of a future worth living. And for that very reason, he presents an idea of “environmental protection” that calls for nothing less than the total transformation of our social script.

He goes on to cite Barry Commoner, a leading figure of the environmental movement and radical ecologist, who pointed to the fact that the ecological issues of his time were less an outcome of population growth and the general increase in human activity in different sectors of life—as The Limits to Growth suggests—and much more related to qualitative changes in the means of production. The economy after the Second World War, as Commoner argues, had a different production regime than prior economies. As an example, he refers to the textile industry that started to rely more and more on synthetics rather than natural fibers. Synthetics not only relied on nonrenewable energies like oil and gas during the production process, but also created more pollutants and waste. To make matters worse, synthetics were mostly produced in formerly colonized, developing nations that were harshly exploited. At the same time, countries like India, whose economy had become highly dependent on cotton monoculture farming due to decades of imperialism, were pushed into economic recession with the rise of synthetics.

This is just one of many examples that illustrate how capital interest maximizes the ecological footprint of countries in the Global North while simultaneously minimizing the capacities of countries in the Global South to lift themselves and their populations out of poverty. Instead, global power and wealth asymmetries worsen. The deepening of poverty and the exacerbation of environmental harm are, as this example shows, both animated by capital interest and its monopolizing, expansive tendencies, rather than being brought on by seemingly disinterested, objective matters of fact like “population growth” or “limited resources.”

Malthusianism 2.0

Clarke’s critique sounds especially pertinent to our present time when he starts criticizing claims that ask us to “develop backwards” as biologist Paul R. Ehrlich—and others that revived Malthusian thinking and warned against the dangers of “overpopulation”—demanded. Ehrlich, who was author of the controversial, but widely received The Population Bomb, argued that American society would have to develop backwards if it intended to mitigate environmental collapse. The ethos of growth had come to an end, and society would have to tighten its belt if it wanted to survive. This line of thinking harbors a certain proximity to current articulations of “degrowth” that are skeptical about economic development. The living standard of Western industrial nations is deemed unsustainable. Production and consumption must thus be reduced to respect the planetary limits.

As such, this critique appears to respond to the incentive of capitalist growth, and we are experiencing a moment in which the question of economic systems is once again up for debate. Interestingly, however, there is also a prevalent assumption that the kind of materialist politics of traditional Marxism has reached its limits, implying that it is unable to respond to the ecological crisis of our time. The effects of climate change, as the argument goes, differ so widely across spaces that no unified reaction is possible. And this assessment, in turn, suggests that we have moved beyond the possibility of collective political agency that resides in any one collective political subject such as “class.” Marxism, with its emphasis on the contradiction between capital and labor and its politics centered around class, is therefore deemed incapable of addressing the complexities of climate change.

This assessment speaks to a more general criticism of Marxism being a somewhat “unecological” school of thought, an assessment that is not only prevalent today but was very much present in the 1970s when Clarke wrote his response. Marxism, however, does not need to be “greened.” The question of ecology is already implicated, since Marxism centers political struggle at the point of production—and the control over resources is a paramount aspect of that question. When The Limits to Growth was published, Marxist economist Ernest Mandel therefore fittingly noted that modern-day capitalism had become so dysfunctional that even bourgeois science had come to the same conclusion Marx had already formulated in the second volume of Capital: that capitalism is bound to erode the basis for its own reproduction—that is, nature and human labor.

The depletion of natural resources, the growing social and economic asymmetries, the neocolonial exploitation of countries like Bolivia or Chile for cheap raw materials needed for green technologies, the political hesitation around rapid decarbonization—these are all symptoms of the same social contradiction. They are the outcome of an economic system that is not centered around human need but capital accumulation.

If we take an honest look at the climate crisis and how it is managed today, we can clearly detect a conflict that unfolds between those who have ownership over natural resources and who control to which end they are being used and those who neither own nor control said resources but are left to bear the consequences of decisions which are not their own—in other words, we are faced with a conflict that unfolds between capital and labor.

We Can’t Return To Nature

The same issue of Marxismus Digest features an interview with biologist Vincent Labeyrie, head of the environmental committee of the French Communist Party at the time. When confronted with the question of production and whether it must be reduced for ecological reasons, he responds: “We’re Marxists, not neopositivists.” The development of the productive forces within a different economic system could, as he points out, be a source of liberation if it were animated by a different political actor. In that case, it could foster a kind of energy politics that would be more adequate to respond to the needs of both the environment as well as the majority of humanity—the working class. To Labeyrie, the ecological crisis was just another confirmation of the irrational, destructive nature of capitalism that would lead to a gradual depletion of the world’s resources—a projection that rings painfully true today.

Against a kind of anti-civilizatory impulse of wanting to limit human impact on the environment as much as possible, Labeyrie reminds us that this romantic idea of natural restoration is an illusion. Decades before the term Anthropocene had entered our collective awareness, he stressed how nature had evolved in the absence of human society and how it had continued to evolve in the presence of human society: “Natural nature no longer exists, its restoration is a myth.” Against the somewhat conservative longing for landscapes untouched by human society, he stresses that nature had been humanized for thousands of years. Humanity cannot undo and limit its agency. Instead, it must rather humanize nature in a more humane way—that is, in a sustainable, future-oriented way.

The same is true today. If we want the world to remain livable for the majority of the world’s population, human agency and its impact on the environment must be extended, not reduced—but it must serve a different cause. In the light of the crisis we face today, retreat and humility ultimately means accepting climate collapse and turning a blind eye to those who will have to bear the brunt of it. If we take the principle of solidarity seriously, we are faced with a task of historic proportion – rapid large-scale energy transition, effective climate protection, elimination of poverty and guaranteeing food and energy sovereignty to all people are just some of the necessary undertakings ahead of us. And all of this necessitates an unrivaled concerted effort of international cooperation, which will ultimately transform our environment in a substantive way.

This also brings me back to one of the biggest blind spots of degrowth and its present-day revival. The broad-brush critique of growth and productivity per se turns a blind eye to the real inequalities persistent in our societies. In the period from 2009 to 2019, the emissions of middle- and lower-income households reduced, while the emissions of higher-income households rose. Degrowth is not something we need to call for, because it is already in full effect—but only in the lower social strata.

One should note that calls for a kind of ecological austerity, reduction of living standards, and economic “degrowth” are mostly voiced and most popular among a decidedly academic milieu. But the living situation of the majority of the human population is not matched by the social reality of that milieu. The everyday experience of most people is not one of abundance or extravagant habits of consumption. It is marked by scarcity and precarity—scarcity in resources, financial precarity, and an intense insecurity with regards to how livable the future will be. And all of these aspects are especially true for those who are most affected by climate change and who are the least responsible for its onset.

The climate crisis thus manifests itself through class relations. The lower classes are already being hit hardest by the effects of climate change, and our world is transforming momentarily on the basis of class-based parameters. But as this unfolds, we are trapped in a stagnant discourse that insists on the outdatedness of “red politics,” instead preaching asceticism and reduction while large swathes of the Earth’s population have little left to reduce.

Against Atomization

Truly acknowledging the global and historical proportions of the crisis we are in therefore necessitates us truly addressing the destructive force of capital rather than the destructive force of human agency, as Latour, Morton, and others would have it. Overcoming these forces can only be done with a grander societal transformation and not just a plea to limit consumption and production or relate to our surroundings in a humbler way. We must therefore differentiate between limits that are actually “natural” and limits that are imposed by a political system that neither serves humanity nor the planet.

I understand the inclination to want to look for different ways of making sense of the world in light of imminent ecological collapse. But the situation we are in today is not a consequence of us not having the right metrics to understand the extent of this crisis or of us lacking the means of articulating the scale and temporality of climate change, or of us not acknowledging the agency of nonhuman life-forms. The situation we are in today remains—and this brings me back to the beginning of this essay—a question of political human agency.

The similarities between today and the debates I was reading in a now almost half-a-century-old Marxist theory journal were astounding to me. Then again, there are many similarities between our current situation and the 1970s, when the issue of the Marxismus Digest was published. Both times, the end of the world seemed within reach—back then, the world was dominated by the atomic arms race of the Cold War, the military intervention of the United States in Vietnam, and the oil crisis, which triggered a heightened awareness of the finiteness of resources. Our current political predicament too is marked by military conflict and sharpened geopolitical confrontation and the unfolding of anthropogenic climate disaster. Both are times in which we are reminded of the horrifically destructive capacity of human agency. But that is no reason to give up on the potential of human agency altogether.

The unsettling inertia we are experiencing in light of this crisis has less to do with our supposed epistemological incapacities and inability to grasp its magnitude, and more to do with our incapacity to challenge the power of capital in a meaningful way. It is easier to look for other reasons to make sense of our inept response to what we already know about climate change than to accept the somewhat depressing insight that the left as a political actor simply was not able to be a true opposition to the forces of capital and that we might have simply been defeated.

If we do not want to cynically accept that defeat, if we want to go beyond capitalist realism, if we want to keep wondering and speculating about different ways of being in the world, and if we don’t want these ideas to remain beautiful but unattainable abstract visions, then we must also be aware of the forces that stand in the way of us turning those visions into a social reality.

Publishing At The End Of The World

As I have said, now is not a good time to be a Marxist. Some might object and respond that there surely have been way worse times, what with the talk of a Marxist renaissance, especially in the years following the global financial crisis. And, in a way, that is true. But at the same time, this comeback has so far had very little lasting social impact. The left today is still stuck in an often-peripheral position of subcultural marginality, and its analysis of society often appears to be the product of looking at the world through an eclectic kaleidoscope of fragments of all different kinds of theory. This is as exhilarating as it is divisive. Recently, there has been a wave of social movements, which is surely encouraging. But the disparity of these movements are yet another symptom of a certain strategic aimlessness and a hesitation to return to a politics centered around class.

In relation to the scale of the problems addressed, the question of leftist publishing seems utterly banal. And in a way, it is. But if we call to mind the archival work of someone like Theo Pinkus, we might see that it doesn’t have to be. Theo Pinkus did not collect and archive books, papers, and pamphlets out of sheer intellectual curiosity. He preserved the history of the left with the aim of reviving the left. And it would be no exaggeration to say that he was in part successful in doing so—after all, his library in Zurich became an important node for the ’68ers and spurred the formation of this movement. Pinkus politicized a young generation that was intellectually disoriented, disillusioned with real existing socialism, had forgotten its own history, and therefore did not know how to move into the future. We are today again in a moment of disorientation and fragmentation of the left. Publishing must therefore follow a similar spirit. We cannot simply critically analyze the social dislocation of our present; we have to politicize it so that we can move forward into a different future.

In the beginning of this text, I brought up the supposed disintegration of the left–right political divide. The aim of this text was to show that this division is anything but obsolete; it is heightened in our present time. Rather than giving up on the idea of human agency in the face of the destructivity of human impact, we must rise to the far more daunting challenge of reimagining a different kind of human agency—that is, a collective form of agency. The atomization of the individual is a structural pillar of capitalism, it is the antithesis to the principle of solidarity. If we are serious about needing to go beyond capitalism to address the existential crisis we are currently in, we need to relearn how to think as a collective, how to address collective interests and—most importantly—how to act as a collective. The climate crisis has shown us the renewed urgency of a doing just that. Now is not the time to withdraw. We still have, as the Communist Manifesto claimed, “a world to win.”

* The Pinkus Archive is part of the estate of the publisher and publicist Theo and Amalie Pinkus, who compiled one of the largest collections of material in the world devoted to the history of global and international emancipation movements from the 19thcentury until contemporary times with a special focus on labour movements. The estate is in parts in the Archiv der Avantgarden (AdA) in Dresden and the Studienbibliothek zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung in Zürich. A large part of the Pinkus Archive accumulated at AdA consists of publications (books, journals, pamphlets, posters, etc.) that offers multi-layered insights into the conditions and processes of various forms of struggles and discourses on the concept of labour, class, and global solidarity in the context of the profoundly changing social contexts of the 20th century. The collection was acquired by Edigio Marzona in 2014 and donated to the AdA in 2016.

Bibliography

Clarke, Richard. “Mensch Und Umwelt in Der Wachstumsdebatte.” Marxismus Digest,                            Issue 2, 1977, pp. 64–107.

Ehrlich, Paul. The Population Bomb. Ballantine Books, 1968.

Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth. Potomac Associates, 1972.

Labeyrie, Vincent. “Die Kommunisten Und Die Umweltverhältnisse.” Marxismus Digest, Issue 2, 1977, pp. 128–134.

Latour, Bruno. Das terrestrische Manifest, Suhrkamp, 2018.

Mandel, Ernest. “The Dialectic of Growth.” Translated by Alex De Jong, Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Marx, Karl. Das Kapital. Band II. Dietz Verlag, 1963.

Marx, Karl, 1818-1883. The Communist Manifesto. Pluto Press, 1996.

Marxismus Digest. “Ökologie – ökonomische und politische Aspekte des Umweltschutzes.” Ed. Institut für Marxistische Studien und Forschungen, Issue 2, 1977, pp. 1-152.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Minneapolis, University Of Minnesota Press, 2013.

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