21 August 2023

Sustainability? Of what?

The 'progressive' forces in this age of climate change and environmental degradation aim at making the (difficult) transition to a sustainable human way of life based on a sustainable, so-called 'circular', recycling economy. In the West, in particular, our relatively comfortable, even affluent, life style is to be sustained, supported by an efficiently productive economy that regulates and reduces its rate of exploitation of the Earth's natural resources. Sustainability suggests that the standard of living 'we' in the West have attained historically can be sustained and life can go on pretty much undisturbed, perhaps with some trade-offs. This is an important message for democratic electorates worried about holding on to their standard of living and also for maintaining the status quo of our present world set-up.

It seems reasonable: the Earth's natural resources are finite (message from the Club of Rome in 1972), so our exploitation and use of these natural resources must be brought within the finite bounds of what the Earth can sustain into the future, and these finite resources ought to be fairly distributed. In particular, the emission of greenhouse gases produced by energy generation must be brought under control through alternative, non-fossil-fuel technologies that can be developed and deployed at scale on an economically sustainable basis. 'Economically sustainable' translates here as profit-generating because, as everyone knows, a loss-making company or industry must inevitably disappear in the long run. On that front, sustainable energy generation seems to be a physical problem to be solved by techno-science within the parameters of economic efficiency, i.e. of profitability.

The criterion of profitability, in turn, is applicable specifically to our global capitalist economy which, in turn, requires huge amounts of energy in the physical sense to keep the capitalist production and circulation processes moving. Due to the nature of a capitalist economy, the huge amounts of physical energy required to keep the global capitalist economy ticking over and healthy are ever-increasing. Why this is so is not a question of physics and techno-science, but of the nature of a capitalist economy itself, i.e. its essence, i.e. of what it is at core; and this essence is nothing physical, but, in a well-defined sense, meta-physical, i.e. beyond the realm of what all the physical techno-sciences deal with or even know about. For the physical sciences, energy is the physical movement of all kinds generated by a power, potential or force being realized. Such forces and the energy they generate, i.e. the movement they effect, are at the core of the physical sciences all the way from quantum mechanics, general relativity, chemistry, molecular biology, biology through to even today's neuroscience.

But the circular movement of capital in its myriad circuits (an entirely different kind of circular economy that has been with us for centuries) in itself is not a physical movement. Rather this circular movement is the accumulative movement of thingified value, about which not only the physical sciences, but also the social sciences, including even economics, know nothing. Thingified value, namely, is a meta-physical or, better, an ontological idea, that 'hides' from us, i.e. it remains invisible to our thinking as long as we do not think ontologically in order to bring the phenomenon of thingified value to light in adequate concepts. Any concept worth its salt is not merely one pertaining to the modern (positivist, empiricist) sciences, but to philosophical phenomenology. To characterize the principle of global movement of the world in its essential core as the accumulative, circular movement of total global thingified value must remain controversial, to say the least. For today's scientifically based thinking and its tamed mainstream philosophy of all stripes, the very idea of thingified value must remain scandalous, ridiculous, invisible, for to conceive it, the ontological difference must be open for our thinking. But today it is not. Therefore we cannot properly decipher, interpret the world's movement and, above all, its principle of movement. Insofar, today's struggle and striving for a 'sustainable, circular' economy in the energy-efficient sense remains misguided, i.e. on the wrong track.

If the never-ending accumulation of thingified value, or, in other words, its limitless valorization, is the principle of global movement — a kind of movement sui generis that cannot be mastered via efficient causality —, it is easily seen that this principle of movement is not a physical one that could be approached by considering the 'sustainable' generation of renewable energy. Rather, it is the limitless valorization of thingified value that demands the unbounded generation of physical energy, renewable or not, for the sake of keeping thingified value valorizing. 

Moreover, the valorization of thingified value is a formal movement in which thingified value circulates through its various forms, i.e. its 'sights', 'looks' or 'forms of appearance of its essence'. The term 'form' must be understood here in the non-trivial ontological sense of a Platonic idea: as the 'sight' or 'look' of the being of a being (or more deeply: its mode of essencing*). The 'sights' or 'looks' of thingified value (such as goods, services, wages, productive capital, loan capital, interest, landed property, ground-rent, net profit, dividends, etc.) remain uninterpretable as such for as long as the essence itself remains hidden. The forms of appearance on the surface encompass what we see and understand as various kinds of private property, which functions as the perfect cover-up. The formal valorization movement of thingified value is not only limitless, but also indifferent to its content. Any and every possibility of profit-generation will do, no matter how harmful it is to humans or the Earth. In its indifference, the limitless valorization is also senseless. We are all entangled in this senseless movement that as such remains hidden to almost all.

How then, in view of this limitlessness, indifference and senselessness, is this principle of global movement of the world derived from its global capitalist economy to be reconciled with the striving for sustainability, in particular, for the sake of the so-called 'survival' of future generations of the human species? Is not this 'for-the-sake-of' already misconceived by presupposing and postulating what we are rather than insistently asking who we are? Is it not the case that we must first learn to conceive clearly the principle of movement as the endless accumulation of thingified value for us to even begin to contemplate how this eerie principle of movement of the world could be curtailed? Our continuing blindness to the medium of thingified value that intertwines and binds us together, and keeps us moving (mostly in pursuit of income of various kinds), does not auger well for the future.

Further reading: Social Ontology of Whoness.

*On Human Temporality.

Song: Extinction.