Image: Valentine in Things City, a research and design project that imagines the future of post-human spaces like Google data centers and Amazon warehouses. Directed and designed by Viviane Komati and produced by Liam Young.
For a series Infinity Essays, STRP invited artists from her network to reflect on this year's theme (The end of infinity) and explore other perspectives, raise new questions, give personal interpretations or share ideas. Read the first essay by Emerita Professor of Philosophy Kate Soper below!
Imagine an economy in which most of us work for no more than three to four days a week and have more than doubled our free time. Where the priority is not to produce as much as possible in the shortest amount of time, but to enhance the quality of the products and of the work that goes into them. Where advertisement no longer holds sway over desire, and the eccentricities of those who opt to travel slowly and to make and do for themselves have become the norm. Such an economy would be committed to circular production and zero waste methods of production, with its technology deployed, not to foster, but to block built-in obsolescence, and to eliminate rather than increase the desolate mounds of first-world electronic detritus in the poorest peripheral economies.
Imagine an environment where cities had been largely freed of cars and fully redesigned for cycling, walking, and boating; where the ‘clone town’ shopping-malls and Amazon fulfilment centres had given way to local commerce and artisan workspaces centred on communally owned enterprises and cooperatives. In such an environment, motorways and airports would have receded rather than expanded, and much of urban and rural space would have been reclaimed from private ownership for rewilding projects and sustainable forms of public recreation.
Imagine an educational and techno-cultural milieu in which the school day began with an hour of music and art, and all children spent a day a week growing and preparing their own foods; in which higher education prepared us for the enjoyment of free time as much as for work and career; and in which media and IT were directed to promoting peace and meeting earthly needs rather than the extra-terrestrial interests of the billionaire CEOs of Apple and Microsoft with their crackbrained schemes for geo-engineering and space tourism. A society, then, in which technology is no longer welcomed as a way of profiteering and enhancing GDP but as an aid and enhancement of green ways of living and the fulfilments of a less instrumental, more ludic culture – of what Kant called ‘purposeless purposes’ (artistic creation, sex, play, conversation, …).
All this would become more possible were we to commit to making the transition to a post-growth order of existence. So, too, would redressing oppression and aﬄiction, in the most impoverished communities (ending poverty for the 21 per cent who live on less than $1.25 a day would require just 0.2 per cent of global income)^1. Admittedly, it strains the imagination to think we could do it. Industrialization and economic expansion have, after all, been synonymous hitherto with conceptions of progress and development. They have also gone together with secularization, social and sexual emancipation, and other progressive cultural movements. The resulting integrated structure of modern existence, the subordination of national economies to the globalized system, and the continuing Canute-like defiance of the rising waters by governments bent on business-as-usual are all major obstacles to any rethinking of the politics of prosperity. So, too, of course, is the collusion of many consumers themselves. That Elon Musk is one of the richest on the planet is in part due to the very extensive and continuing support for a car culture that, even when electrified, is likely to prove unsustainable (as also dangerous and massively constraining on access to and use of space)^2. That Jeff Bezos is likewise amassing his billions is due to the countless purchasing decisions of those who have so readily cooperated in the maintenance and expansion of the Amazon emporia.
Yet the obsession with economic growth has now brought us to the brink of environmental collapse. It not only undermines the idea of any infinite continuity, but it also casts a shadow over the very survival prospects of those alive now. It is, in truth, quite unrealistic to suppose that we can continue with current rates of expansion of production, work and material consumption over coming decades let alone into the next century. Recent advances in IT, self-driven cars, and other automation technologies, may seem to promise an era of greener growth, but all of them require massive increase in the availability of renewable energy, and human- and resource provision (of a kind as yet un-devised) for all aspects of manufacture and disposal of waste. And even if – impossibly - we could continue with business-as-usual, where is the pleasure to be had from being locked into an ever-repeating cycle of work-and-spend, subject to its stresses and insecurities, its constant commodification and commercial development?
Rather than trust simply to the ‘greening’ of capitalism, we might do better to explore the potential of a less intensive work culture for introducing more gratifying forms of work, evolving new skills, and reverting to some earlier ways of doing and making. These can draw on hybrid production practices that combine the smartest ecotechnologies in such fields as medicine, transport, energy provision, with older craft-based methods and slower mobility. A post-work order of this kind, supported by some form of UBI or citizen’s income, would be neither uncritically committed to technology, on the one hand, nor overly ‘back to nature’ in outlook on the other, but grounded in new ways of working and spending leisure time and the sensual and spiritual pleasures they can provide.
Such a radical re-thinking about individual well-being and collective prosperity will not come easily, least of all within the affluent communities whose consumption is doing most damage. I have compared the forms of enlightenment and personal epiphany it will demand of people to those required in the case of other major historical movements for emancipation such as feminism, or the campaigns against slavery and racism. But by opening ourselves to a post-growth future, we also restore the prospect of having a future to plan for.
^1. Kate Raworth, on ‘Doughnut Economics’. Source
^2. Cars are 50% plastic, and dominate urban space. On the electricity needed, how it is to be generated, and the less than green nature of the batteries, see Seán Clarke, ‘How Green are Electric Cars ?’ in the Guardian, 21 September, 2017.
Kate Soper is Emerita Professor of Philosophy at London Metropolitan University. She has had a long association with Radical Philosophy, been an editorial collective member of New Left Review and a regular columnist for the US journal, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. She has translated works by Sebastiano Timpanaro, Noberto Bobbio, Michel Foucault, Cornelius Castoriadis and Carlo Ginsburg. Her books include: What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human (1995); (with Martin Ryle) To Relish the Sublime? Culture and Self-Realisation in Postmodern Times (2002), and co-editor of Citizenship and Consumption (2007) and of The Politics and Pleasures of Consuming Differently (2008). She was lead researcher in the research project on ‘Alternative Hedonism, and the theory and politics of consumption’ funded in the ESRC/AHRC Cultures of Consumption project, 2004-6. She has been involved in a number of research projects on climate change and sustainable consumption, most recently as a Visiting Fellow at the Pufendorf Institute, Lund University, Sweden. Her Post-Growth Living: for an Alternative Hedonism was published by Verso in 2020.