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Planet as Prefix III
The rest of this week I will bring a planetary perspective to the topic that I think most responsible for turning humans into a planetary force: accumulation.
If the planet is the backdrop of civilization, then it must leave its traces on civilization’s central features. And what are they? We can talk about dynasties and empires that have risen and fallen with the centuries, Ozymandias style. We can talk about the humans who fought to enslave and the humans who fought to free. Ibn Khaldun would have called these stories ‘surface history,’ but if we had to discern the ‘inner meaning’ of civilization we need to pay attention to something else: accumulation.
While Shelley’s famous poem was about the folly of hubris, it unconsciously reveals the power of accumulation: for even when the great king has turned to dust, his vast and trunkless legs of stone remain, a dusting of human accumulation on the desert’s sand. And it’s not just the stones the emperor left: the desert itself might be due to the efforts of his minions.
From a planetary perspective, these wars and struggles are a sidebar to the main show, which is the story of accumulation. Accumulation has many arms and legs, from delicate jewelry made for a king’s consort to sludge at the bottom of an industrial waterway. At its grossest, accumulation can be measured in kilos and bits, i.e., ‘pure matter’ and ‘pure information’ which is the lumped quantity of all the concrete, cows and carbon we have slathered on to the earth’s surface and all the data we have collected while doing so. Even at this gross scale, there are several dimensions to accumulation:
The stuff of accumulation - we know that human caused material accumulation was greater than the Earth’s biomass by 2020.
The technologies of accumulation, which include construction, finance etc with products such as cities and stock markets.
The mindset of accumulation — ambition, instrumental reason, optimization etc.
We can think about planetary accumulation as social phenomenon or as a planetary phenomenon. When we ask: ‘who is benefiting from all this planetary accumulation’ and ‘how do they control the flows of energy and information,’ we are thinking socially. When we ask ‘what is the impact of all that extra carbon on the earth’s oceans and global warming, and on human societies’ we are thinking planetarily.
Even the naming of our era is at stake. In calling it ‘The Anthropocene’ we foreground the human as a force of nature. When Jason Moore calls it ‘The Capitalocene’ he foregrounds one strategy of accumulation. Could it have been any different? Could we have reached current levels of prosperity without accumulating the way we have? Not if prosperity means material accumulation, but there might be other measures of human flourishing in which we could have surpassed the current model.
Accumulation is a unifier of space and time, with cities spreading across the world like pimples and the wealth of their rich and powerful passed down the generations. Behind the scenes, flows of energy and information make the accumulative order possible. As in every complex system, the order so created has failure modes - on occasion, the byproduct of that order itself.
Climate change is a failure mode of the current order sustained by fossil fuel energy and textual and digitized information. But let’s not laugh at the foolishness of our ancestors in designing such an unsustainable system for there’s no guarantee that a future order will be failure free. The planetary sovereign powered by renewables could be even more unstable than the current one if it continues the strategy of accumulation.
The Climate Leviathan is an enforcer of a planetary strategy of accumulation - it might be designed to be sustainable and within our current conception of planetary boundaries but it continues, even encourages, the accumulative use of technology and finance.
What’s the alternative?