In the summer of 2016 the Green Party of the United States adopted a platform plank that committed the party to a rejection of both capitalism and "state socialism," and to embracing instead an economics "based on ecology and decentralization of power" that was characterized as "eco-socialist." Subsequently, the Youth Caucus of the GPUS changed its name to the Young Eco-Socialists (YES) Caucus. As of this writing (summer of 2020) the GPUS presidential nominee is a professed socialist, Howie Hawkins, who in fact previously received the 2020 nomination of the Socialist Party USA and has taken another member of the SP-USA, Angela Walker, as his running mate. Hawkins' success in winning the Green Party nomination is a testament to the comfort with identifying as socialist among a large segment—perhaps the majority—of the Green Party membership.
While many members declare that the Green Party now simply is a socialist party, many other members are more reticent, noting that the United States already has a socialist party (in fact more than one), and declaring that the Green Party's roots and fundamental principles are essentially different from those of socialism, even if they are not necessarily incompatible with socialism. In light of the developments outlined above, it is clear that the tension over just how socialist the Green Party can or should be is mounting, and must reach a resolution sooner rather than later.
The purpose of this essay is to answer the question, "Ought the Green Party to be (or be considered to be) a socialist party?" Any answer to this question, to be compelling, must take into account not only the tenets of both the Green and the Socialist movements, but also the present political, social, historical, and ecological context in which they exist.
Before I begin, I need to anticipate certain presumptions. First, I am neither a capitalist nor a socialist, not at least in the common senses in which each of these terms is used. It bears emphasis that it really is possible to reject both. After a century and more of relentless propaganda, most people on both the political left and the political right have internalized a false dichotomy that places capitalism and socialism as the only and necessary poles of economic analysis. Indeed, one of the main impediments to useful political dialectic is that we can scarcely talk about contemporary politics without using the language of a left/right, socialist/capitalist paradigm. My own political and economic convictions do not fall neatly anywhere on that spectrum.
Second, I will not treat socialism as a monolith that must be embraced or rejected in toto. Socialism in its fundamental idea is straightforward enough; it can be stated simply as the moral principle that those engaged in a productive enterprise ought to have ownership in that enterprise, that is, they ought to retain the privilege of deciding the nature and conduct of the enterprise, and the distribution of its costs and rewards within the community. In this respect "socialism" is simply a word for economic democracy, an ideal that Greens have long espoused. Generally, however, people take the word "socialism" as meaning rather more than simply the democratic principle extended to businesses. Socialist economics is a sophisticated economic theory developed by Karl Marx and his many associates and successors, working within the European philosophical tradition. It is a theory founded on a materialist analysis of the nature of ownership, of value, and of social and economic relations, and it posits all of modern history as a class struggle that must ultimately be won by an egalitarian worker class. Socialism therefore entails certain philosophical commitments as well as ethical ones, commitments moreover that have very practical consequences.
Socialist politics carries this analysis over into the realm of political praxis, historically giving rise to a spectrum of political systems, from authoritarian communist regimes with centrally planned economies to anarcho-syndicalist communes, and even encompassing "democratic socialist" governments that implement some socialist reforms while nonetheless retaining capitalist economic institutions. Thus, "socialism" is a word that too readily connotes more than a person usually intends when they use it. For this reason, if the Green Party is to be in any sense a socialist party, the exact sense(s) in which the word applies to it must be thoughtfully, explicitly defined.
Finally, to the extent it becomes necessary for me to address capitalism as an economic system, I want to make very clear what is meant. I do not use the term "capitalism" to mean free-market systems, or economic regimes in which employment and production are controlled by some sort of ownership hierarchy. That would be merely to describe all but a very tiny part of human history. Capitalism should be understood, for purposes of this essay, to be a system of economics based on the issuance of investment capital, either as credit to be repaid with interest or as shares earning dividends, such that legal ownership of enterprises is always retained by the owners of the investment capital who derive income from the interest or dividends. This system, the progeny of earlier forms of organized and financed production and trade, came into being after the development of investment banking in the 14th century in Europe, and has been the dominant economic system for several centuries. Because capitalism by design requires an unending expansion of monetized value, in which money is created as interest-bearing debt, that is, as a claim on future growth in economic activity, it is intrinsically unsustainable. Capitalism is presently undergoing its final collapse, having come up against absolute and global material limits to any substantive further increases in real economic activity.
The Green Party and Economics
Economics is the science of economies, where "economy" refers to the administration of goods and services within a community, be it a small community such as a household or village, or a city, country, or indeed the globe. An economic theory may be merely descriptive (what is observed to happen) or to some extent prescriptive (what ought to happen), but in either case aims to give an account of the natural and social forces that give rise to and constrain an economy. An economic system is the actual structure and operation of the economy.
The Four Pillars of the Green Party, Peace, Democracy, Social Justice, and Ecological Wisdom, do not in themselves point to any particular economic system, although of course they preclude systems based on conquest, slavery, or ecosystem destruction. Capitalism, as defined in the introduction above, is insupportable because of its demand for endless growth, which violates the principle of Ecological Wisdom. In contrast, the principle of economic democracy, the "socialist idea" that the person doing the work should be vested in both the means and the products of their labor, is not only compatible with the Four Pillars but arguably demanded by them.
Moving to the Ten Key Values we find the Four Pillars restated among additional values, including an explicit statement about economics: that it be "community-based." This value does not so much specify the nature of economic relations as their scale. It suggests that economic institutions should be of a size and type that fits the communities within which economic activity occurs. This is weak guidance, given that economic activity occurs at every scale. Many commodities, fossil fuels for instance and other industrial feedstocks like ores and minerals, are necessarily traded globally. The intent of the "community-based" value is that economic activity be constrained to the smallest scale that makes sense in any given case; that food, for instance, should be locally or at least bio-regionally cultivated and consumed; that in general economic activity should be diverse and decentralized. This value also suggests that the economic system should serve communities' interests, and not vice-versa.
The platform of the Green Party expands on this in planks that were adopted at various times and which are not, in consequence, completely internally consistent. However, taken together they sketch many features of a Green economy. That economy must first of all be sustainable, must be in harmony with the natural world, and must be just and democratic. Enterprises should support and be accountable to a healthy community. Consumption should be restrained. Workplaces should be democratically organized. There is an emphasis throughout on situating economic activity within the ecosystem, with calls for closed-loop production, 100% recycling, minimizing toxins, and so on.
As regards an actual economic system, the platform suggests a flexible, localized mix of institutional types, including privately owned businesses, public works, communal enterprises, and "alternative economic structures." The plank adopted in 2016 calls for enterprises to be "democratically owned and operated by those who do the work," a phrase held to be definitive of Green economics by those lifting the eco-socialism banner. Additional planks include the abolition of the Federal Reserve System and a return to public currency (to be spent rather than loaned into existence, as new capital), public banking, full employment, living wages and a universal basic income, ending "corporate personhood," progressive taxation, support for local economies and small businesses, and of course a dramatic reduction in spending on the military-industrial-security complex.
Clearly, however, the platform planks on economics remain more a collection of progressive desiderata than the components of a single vision; apart from the primacy of ecological and social justice considerations, the economic platform of the Green Party is devoid of any theoretical foundation. That is, the Green Party remains without a unified economic theory to explain how—or why—the economic system it outlines will actually work. It is this vacuum that the Green-Marxist sensibility is beginning to fill, with its materialism, historicism, class analysis, and promise of a techno-utopia in tow. This absence of economic theory is a gross defect in the political identity of the Green Party. Politics is often defined as a social process that determines who gets what, when, and how. For this reason economic and political ideologies are inextricable. It follows that without an economic theory worthy of the name the Green Party cannot offer a fully mature political vision.
The political foundations of the Green Party are perhaps best exposited by John Rensenbrink, one of the founders of the Green Movement in the United States. In his 2017 masterwork, Ecological Politics, Rensenbrink traces the historical developments that led to the present political, social, and environmental crises, and lays out a compelling case for a new kind of politics based on communalism and ecological wisdom rather than on competition and economic exploitation. Concerningly, however, out of 250 pages, the book's chapter on "Economy" is a mere 10 pages, the first of which are spent lionizing the early centuries of capitalism while eliding from its account the early privations capitalism inflicted on the world, such as the enclosure of the European commons and disestablishment of the populace, colonialism, slavery, and genocide. Rensenbrink condemns the modern tyranny of giant corporations, but without giving an account of the economic forces that created them. He then turns to the question of whether socialism is "the answer," gives a short critique, and ends the brief excursion into economics with the conclusion that the ecological economy will be "mixed."
The Green Movement is a young movement; some of its earliest activists remain active members. Despite its growth and global reach it remains institutionally immature. Moreover, the accelerating pace of the collapse of global industrial civilization threatens to overwhelm the capacity of even the most radical thinkers to get a handle on the political moment. Without a more solid foundation, such as may only cohere around a robust theoretical framework, the continuing relevance of the Green Party is a matter of rising doubt.
Socialism as a modern economic theory arose during the decades of rapid industrialization in western economies, when the newly invented heat engines, particularly the steam engine, made it possible to exploit the extraordinary energy density of fossil fuels, just as assembly-line manufacturing technologies dramatically increased the efficiency of their use. However, socialism's roots lay in the previous century's philosophical trends, particularly the works of Hegel, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill. Idealism, progressivism, and utilitarianism were dominant ideas of the time among European thinkers and heavily influenced both Marx and Engels, whose own philosophical and economic theses were developed as an extension and in some degree as a critique of these ideas. Socialism in our day still bears the indelible stamp of Marx's ideological framework: that history is a story of progress; that industrialization, urbanization, rationalism, scientific and technological advances, and increasing efficiency and rates of production are all signs of such progress; that the final step in history's progress will be the elimination of all economic classes except the worker class; that thereafter all people will live freely and in comparative leisure and plenitude in a worldwide worker's utopia characterized by democracy, common ownership, and the fruits of a rationally designed, technologically advanced, industrial system of production.
The broad outlines of the socialist world-view have been remarkably stable in light of the splintering of the movement that took place, almost before the ink was dry on Das Kapital, into many irreconcilable factions. Although it is fundamental to socialist thought that the end of capitalism and of class conflict are inevitable—that history must culminate in the socialist revolution—it is nonetheless a universal belief of socialists that history needs a little push from revolutionaries to get over the finish line. The devil is in the details. Should the revolution work from within existing political structures, or should it violently overthrow them? Should the socialist economy be organic and localized, or should it be rational and planned? If the economy is to be planned, should the planning be minute and detailed, or only indicate the general direction of macro-economic sectors? Should there be a central government? How strong should it be? What institutions are needed, and how should they be designed, to ensure democratic decision-making is realized at all levels of the economy?
More than a century of real-world political experiments in socialism have shown that none of these questions has an easy answer. Virtually every purely socialist state became authoritarian, at least, and some, like the historically most significant case of the USSR, were totalitarian. Most have failed to realize the goal of economic prosperity or equality, although Cuba has done remarkably well in light of the economic warfare waged against it by the United States for over 60 years. On the other hand, socialist reforms in countries that are not purely socialist can be credited with greatly improving the lives of the working class, and with increasing social equity.
But the fact remains that socialism is now something of a hard sell. Even laying aside a century of propaganda demonizing socialism, it has few real-world successes to point to in trying to convince today's working class of its promise. Despite its growing appeal among the young—and among the swelling numbers of the economically disenfranchised—even the watered-down democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders wasn't popular enough to overcome broad skepticism, much less entrenched political opposition, even after 12 years of steep decline in most Americans' real wealth amid the compounding failures of global capitalism. Given its very considerable historical and ideological baggage, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the present revival of socialism may have more to do with the lack of other, more attractive alternatives to the evident calamity of capitalism than with its intrinsic appeal.
It's the Energy, Stupid
James Carville's famous remark about politics, "It's the economy, stupid," begs the question, what is the economy? An economic theory must begin with the answer to that question, with an organizing principle, that is, which can be used to explicate all the rest. Capitalism has the exchange theory of value, which says that a product or service is worth what a buyer will pay for it. On this principle is built the edifice of free-market, laissez-faire economics, which posits that free and independent people will, through rational self-interest, tend to act in a way that maximizes the efficiency and fairness of the marketplace. Socialism, by contrast, has the labor theory of value, which says that a product or service is worth whatever amount of labor is generally required to produce it. On this principle hangs the socialist critique of capitalism, that the capitalist extracts a profit by denying the worker just compensation for the full value of their work. This exploitation is what the socialist revolution is called upon to redress.
Neither the capitalist's nor the socialist's theory of value is satisfactory. The exchange theory of value conflates value with price, which leads to the curious phenomenon of the value of a thing varying capriciously, one day extremely dear, the next almost worthless, and the next dear again. Under this conception nothing has intrinsic value. The price of a single barrel of crude oil has varied in just the last several months from a high of around $60 to a low of $-37. That's right, the price really was negative at one point, as the catastrophic drop in demand when the pandemic hit left nowhere to store more oil, and producers had to pay to get someone to take their crude. Obviously, however, oil does have intrinsic value, and that value is constant: it represents work, a lot of work. At typical efficiencies, the 1700 kilowatt-hours-worth of energy in a barrel of oil can be used to perform as much physical work as would take a typical human being more than 11 years to perform, working 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, with a little vacation time thrown in. This bears emphasis. The value to the economy of a barrel of oil is an amount of work that is equivalent to 11 years of human labor. Supposing a minimum wage of $15 per hour, that is more than $330,000 worth of work. That is the actual value of a barrel of oil to the economy. Clearly then, the exchange theory of value, while perhaps well-suited to the trading of abstract financial instruments, is an absurd basis on which to analyze the real economy.
The socialist also misconstrues value, by confusing it not with price but with time. This error has its roots in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations:
“If among a nation of hunters, for example, it usually costs twice the labour to kill a beaver which it does to kill a deer, one beaver should naturally exchange for, or be worth two deer. It is natural that what is usually the produce of two days’ or two hours’ labour, should be worth double of what is usually the produce of one day’s or one hour’s labour.”
The reason this is an error is because in either case, beaver or deer, it is the energy the hunter must expend that determines the cost, to her, of the hunt. Her energy does not come from within her, but must be acquired; it is exogenous. When the only energy expended is the physical and mental effort of the laborer, then the exogenous source of energy is food. When, as in all modern production, the efforts of the laborer are leveraged by machinery, the exogenous source of energy is electricity or liquid fuels, with only a comparatively tiny fraction of the energy coming from the food the laborer herself eats.
To illustrate this, suppose I wish to pay a fellow to use my pickup truck to deliver a box weighing 200 kilos to an address 10 miles away. Assuming highway speeds he should be able to perform this chore in less than half an hour. If I pay him $20, that's pretty good pay for a short and not very tiring task. The fuel the truck will use is a gallon of gasoline, costing less than $2 presently, and weighing only about 6 pounds. That fuel will power my truck 20 miles, down the road and back, in 20 minutes. So, is the value of his service really measured by his time? What if there were no gasoline? How long would it take my delivery guy to push my truck 20 miles? The fact is that the service he performs for his $20 is mostly performed not by him but by by the gasoline. It is the fuel that does the work.
Of course he wouldn't push the truck, he'd load the box on a wagon. But he can't really pull that either; the load is too heavy and the distance too great. So now he needs an animal or two, with harness and tackle, and the job is going to take pretty much all day. The real cost of the job is still the exogenous energy needed, in this case his food and that of his draft horses.
The essential point is that, whether by modern truck or old-fashioned horse-cart, the value of the work is measured by the amount of energy required to perform the work. Moreover, the speed with which the work is performed is determined by the energy density of the energy source. Horses "burn" hay, which is not nearly as energy dense as gasoline. There's less than a thousand calories in a pound of hay, and more than five thousand calories in a pound of gasoline. That is why it takes the horses and driver all day to do what it takes the same driver with my pickup truck less than half an hour to accomplish.
This is not to say that time is without value. Each of us has a finite number of hours to spend between cradle and grave, and they are precious. If someone wants my time for their own purposes I would certainly expect them to pay me for it. What is argued here is that time is not a good measure of economic value, because the amount of work performed is a function of the quantity of energy used, and the time a product or service takes generally depends on the quality (i.e., the density) of the energy source.
It might also be objected that it is the truck, which is to say the technology, that is the crucial element in this scenario. Without the truck the gasoline is no help at all in delivering the box. However, the technology doesn't perform the work. In physics, "work" is defined as force times distance. The truck converts the chemical energy in the gasoline into mechanical energy, that is, force. The truck is an engine connected to wheels, and like all engines it harnesses an energy source to perform mechanical work. But the amount of work it can perform is always directly proportional to the quantity of energy it consumes. Although both are necessary, it is the energy and not the technology that measures the amount of work being done.
Additionally, both the truck and the horse-cart are themselves embodied energy, because they are the physical result of the application of energy to do work. Analyses have shown that the amount of energy required in the manufacture of a product correlates very strongly with its price, that in fact the price of a product will tend towards the price of the energy it embodies. As one study put it, this is because goods are material rearrangements, and humans can only rearrange matter with energy transfers. This is general: every artifact is embodied energy, and consequently energy measures not only work-value but the value of products too. Look around you: the screen or page on which you read this essay, the chair on which you sit, the clothes you wear, the room that shelters you, and everything in it, is the product of energy being applied to perform work, to produce each artifact. This was as true 1,000 years ago as it is today; what has changed is the amount of energy that can be harnessed by the economy and—crucially—the energy density of the energy sources.
Therefore, whether we consider products or services, whether made by automation or by direct human labor, the correct measure of economic value is energy. In view of this, the socialist's labor theory of value is of no better use than the capitalist's exchange theory of value for understanding how the real economy works.
Having the right measure of economic value is essential, but it cannot alone provide the depth of analysis of economics that we will require. To reach the answer this essay is meant to provide, it will be necessary to probe a little into the nature of human civilization, and into the trajectory of the present one in particular. This will seem like a detour; it is not.
The Tragedy of Our Success
Ecological Wisdom, if it means anything, must encompass the knowledge that we are not merely situated in a living world, but that we exist—can only exist—as an integral part of the living world. Further, all living systems are dissipative, including the life-upholstered surface of Earth itself. Useful energy in the form of high-frequency solar radiation strikes the surface, and that same energy is eventually returned to space as dissipated, low-frequency heat, but in the interim life uses it to do work. The work is first of all chemical in nature; photosynthesis uses the sunlight to combine carbon from the air and hydrogen from water into carbohydrates. The organisms that do this, and all the other organisms too one way or another, use this chemical energy to maintain themselves, to grow and change, to make the tapestry of terrestrial life.
Further, all organisms modify their environment: every organism does so individually; social organisms do so collectively; complexes of different organisms adapted to one another do so communally, and we call the result an ecosystem. When the organisms are sapient, the result is a civilization. Ecosystems and civilizations alike are dissipative systems, using energy to grow and maintain themselves and to modify their environment, producing waste heat in the process. It is the nature of their existence. The only way humans could stop having an impact on the living world would be to no longer exist—but our existence itself is both a product and a feature of the living world.
A defining feature of civilizations is that they have an energy capture strategy. It is a commonplace that civilization began with agriculture; agriculture was the first communal energy capture strategy. Rather than chasing all over the landscape to hunt or gather food, we domesticated the food sources. Instead of spending almost all of the energy we acquired from food on the task of acquiring more food, we could spend some of that energy on physical structures, useful artifacts, and social specialization. The better we got at agriculture, the bigger and more complex our civilizations became. New energy capture strategies were found as well, in the form of machines to harness the kinetic energy of streams and wind.
Every fire consumes its fuel source as quickly as it can. Fires are dissipative, converting concentrated forms of energy into heat. Provide a fire with a steady fuel source and it will burn steadily. Provide it with lots of fuel all at once and it will quickly burn ever hotter and hotter, until the fuel is exhausted. Organisms, by analogy with fire, tend to do the same thing. Give a species everything it can use and no competition from rivals or predators, and it will expand exponentially. When this happens, and it often does, the result is called ecological overshoot, and it always ends the same way. The fire dies, the species collapses, sometimes permanently.
In the 12,000 years since the last ice age humans covered every part of the globe, built civilizations, and expanded and contracted in their numbers, not infrequently going into ecological overshoot locally or regionally, dying off, recovering, and continuing. Climate, as often as not, was the most influential factor. In the thousand years leading up to the modern period the climate was especially temperate, and our numbers by the year 1800 CE reached a billion for the first time. Our social complexity was also at a new maximum, with innovations in administrative governance and economic efficiency that permitted a larger than usual segment of the population to devote itself to scientific and technological development. The result was a new energy capture strategy: the heat engine.
The result was an explosion. For millennia people had tinkered with the black ooze that flowed from the ground in places, and it was well known that certain kinds of flinty black rock would burn even longer and hotter than peat or hardwood, but not until the heat engine was invented was it possible to realize the potential of oil, coal, and natural gas as energy sources. Quite suddenly human civilization had an energy capture strategy that was unprecedented in every respect. One can scarcely overstate how much energy was made available to civilization by this development. Taking oil, coal, and natural gas together, and assuming minimal efficiency of the heat engines in which they were burned, the energy unleashed in the last 200 years represents the amount of work that could be done by 500 billion people, each working full-time for 50 years. It is as if every human born since 1800 benefited every day from the work of dozens of their very own slaves. The fire analogy is apt but hardly conveys the enormity of the change. Civilization went from a fire burning a steady source of fuel to one having unimaginably vast quantities of gasoline poured on it all at once. It literally exploded.
The previous steady source of fuel was solar radiation, converted first of all by plants into chemical energy, which was then used directly and indirectly by humans to sustain themselves and their society. The vast wellspring of new energy was also, as it happens, solar in origin. It was the chemical energy accumulated by plant-life over half a billion years or so of sunshine, that was then sequestered by geological forces and safely locked away in the Earth—until humanity found a way to use it, and in an instant went into an ecological overshoot such as life on our planet has never seen, not since the first complex terrestrial ecosystems formed half a billion years ago. The graph below shows how closely the increases in our energy use and of our population correlated. (Source: Penn State University, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, Creative Commons license.)
The impact of the heat engine on human civilization has unfolded over nearly three centuries, which seems like a long time in human terms, but in the context of ecosystems that take thousands of years to establish themselves it is the blink of an eye. One way of measuring the impact on ecosystems is by measuring the proportion of nature's production that humans have appropriated for their own use. The productive capacity of nature can be measured: it is the weight of carbon that is converted from atmospheric CO2 into organic matter each year. This is called Net Primary Production, or NPP. The amount of it that is co-opted by humans has risen on the same curve as our energy use and population growth, and now represents more than a fourth of all terrestrial NPP, and over 80% of NPP in agricultural regions. In other words, in the parts of the world that are fertile and temperate enough to grow food, humans take more than four-fifths of all that nature produces. This is extreme ecological overshoot, and it cannot be sustained even in the very near term.
It is not the purpose of this essay to review in any detail the consequences of our ecological overshoot; those consequences are now widely known, especially to Greens. The short of it is that all of Earth's ecosystems are in a state of accelerating collapse, and tipping points are being crossed in biodiversity, climate, and the loss of ecosystem services from which the biosphere will not fully recover for several million years at least, even if humanity were to disappear completely tomorrow. The asteroid impact that extinguished the dinosaurs was scarcely more destructive, or more sudden.
The reason overshoot is reviewed here is to expose a conceptual failing shared by many Greens and almost all socialists, a failing that directly impacts the question this essay is meant to answer. Ironically, it is a failure of ecological wisdom. Greens generally, when they review the horrors our species has visited and still visits on the living world, rightly declare that the principle of ecological wisdom would dictate that we stop causing such harm, for our own sake no less than for the sake of other living things. The subtext of such a declaration is the assumption, usually left unstated, that people—all people—can if they so choose adjust their behavior in such a way as to cease causing harm, to "live in balance with nature."
Socialists are not without their own ecological principles: Marx recognized that nature provides the physical basis for all human production, and included the unsustainable and acquisitive exploitation of nature's productive capacity among his critiques of capitalism. But the socialist, even more so than the Green, is committed to the presumption that the harm we cause to the natural world is solely the result of deliberate choices by those in power. Indeed, most contemporary socialists, reviewing the facts of our ecological overshoot, declare that it is entirely a consequence of capitalism, and that under a socialist order our overshoot would no longer even exist as such. Some even insist that another 25% increase to 10 billion humans is not too many for the planet to support in comfort and prosperity, not only for humanity but for nature too.
In short, Greens and Socialists alike look upon the frightful outcome of industrial civilization as tragic, but only in the modern sense, as something that might so easily have been avoided if only we'd made better choices. This is insupportable. Our story is not merely tragic, but a tragedy in the original Greek sense of that term, in which the downfall of the hero is no mere matter of choice or chance, but is predestined by the hero's own tragic flaw. The failure to understand this is a failure in ecological wisdom, as it will now be my purpose to show.
There Is No Script
Complex systems may be designed, but most are not. The ones that are designed are limited in their complexity by the capacities of their designers. These include computer systems, political systems, and business organizations, among many others. In contrast, complex systems that are not designed are limited in their complexity only by the quantity and quality of energy available to them. Systems in this category include the evolving organisms of life itself, as well as the ecosystems, social systems, and civilizations that the organisms collectively give rise to.
That a complex system could exist without being rationally designed is difficult for the human mind to accept. The mythologies of the world, from prehistoric animism right through the major religions to today's pervasive scientism, are each, in their own way, an expression of the difficulty of conceiving of a complexity for which no plan exists. Before the 20th century there was no theoretical paradigm that could account for such a thing. Now, though, we have a science of complexity rooted in mathematical and computational laws that are reasonably well understood. What they show is that not only does a blueprint for any given naturally-arising complex system not exist, but one cannot exist, even in principle.
A standard example is that of an ant colony. Ant colonies are highly organized, with each ant occupying one of several roles in the colony: foragers, workers, nurses, soldiers, drones, and the queen. In addition to collecting food and nursing larvae, the ants can display complex, coordinated behaviors such as raiding other ant colonies, responding to threats to the colony by fighting invaders, moving eggs and larvae to safety, and repairing damage to the nest. Some species even herd and milk aphids, or interact in similarly remarkable ways with other organisms. However, no ant carries within its brain or any other organ the master-plan for an ant colony, not even the queen. No such plan exists. Instead, the colony arises spontaneously out of the behaviors of the individual ants and the interactions that take place between them, as each responds both to stimuli in its environment and to the signals (mostly chemical in nature) from other ants. It is commonplace for people to say that the colony has a "hive mind" or "super mind," but these terms are strictly metaphorical. There is no singular consciousness, no scheme, no general set of instructions. The colony is simply self-organizing, and is said to be an emergent property of the ants themselves.
Similarly, as ecological succession builds an ecosystem, the individual species within the system adapt and evolve into a cooperative whole, until, in the climax state of the system, the inter-adapted species of plants and animals collectively maximize their use of the available energy and resources. The mature and stable ecosystem is an emergent property of the organisms that constitute it. No single species or group of species controls or directs the system—it just happens. Nevertheless, each species depends on the continued functioning of the whole system in order to thrive.
The complexity in these examples arises because ant colonies and ecosystems are dissipative systems; a concentrated source of energy is available in the form of sunlight; as that energy flows through the physical and chemical structures of life it does work; the work it performs depends on the laws governing the structures through which the energy flows; the structures themselves are altered by the work done by the energy; this is a dynamic process, and the resulting variations in how energy is expressed ultimately result in the complexities we observe. This is not a process that may or may not occur, but one that must occur as a matter of physical law. The next paragraph outlines the physics, but it can be skipped without losing the thread of the argument.
An energy gradient, that is, the existence within a system of an energy source of significantly greater density than the ambient heat of the system, forces two consequences. First, the density of the energy source must somehow decrease, and the ambient temperature rise, until the energy of the entire system reaches equilibrium. This fact is known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Secondly, as the energy flux is realized through physical matter an amount of work must be done on the matter that is proportional to the increase in ambient heat. This is a consequence of the First Law of Thermodynamics. A dissipative system doesn't just happen to channel a dense energy source to ambient heat, but is actually forced to do so by the energy gradient, and the resulting work is expressed as an increase in complexity.
The upshot is that when energy flows through a system the system is forced to rearrange matter, and therefore to become more complex. The extent to which matter is rearranged, and the degree to which complexity increases, is proportional to the amount of energy transferred from the dense source to the ambient temperature. Moreover, the speed with which these effects occur is proportional to the difference in density of the energy source and the ambient temperature.
Critically, however, the nature of complexity is such that it doesn't arise solely from a mechanistic process. This is because at the root of all physical processes lies a potential for uncertainty, a fundamental chaos, that can be realized whenever a system is pushed too far from equilibrium by an energy gradient. As physicist and Nobel laureate Illya Prigogine and philosopher Isabelle Stengers put it in their book Order out of Chaos:
Every existence above a certain rank has its singular points: the higher the rank, the more of them. At these points, influences whose physical magnitude is too small to be taken account of by a finite being, may produce results of the greatest importance. (p. 144)
Consequently, they note, "There is no longer any universally valid law from which the overall behavior of the system can be deduced." As noted, this is frustrating. We feel—we intuit—that every actually-occurring physical phenomenon should be accessible to our rational analysis. This faith is the foundation of the scientific world-view that is so essential to modern humanity's sense of itself. Nor is it wrong, exactly; we can indeed analyze phenomena and discover the physical laws that explain their behavior. What we cannot do is use that knowledge to predict the evolution of a complex system. This is because one of the physical laws we've discovered, comparatively recently, is a law governing complexity in dynamic systems, which tells us that chaotic behavior occurs in these systems, even, remarkably, in fundamentally simple ones, and that such behavior cannot be analyzed into rules that we can use to predict what the systems in question will do.
The best that can be achieved is to make projections based on past behavior and our knowledge of any applicable physical laws. However, such projections are necessarily probabilistic: every conclusion has a likelihood attached to it that never adds up to certainty. Moreover, the probabilities invariably worsen on a steep downward curve as projections are made farther and farther into the future, such that beyond a certain point a projection is no better than a wild guess. This is why the weather (another dissipative system) can be predicted with a useful probability (but never complete certainty) a few days out, but God alone knows what the weather will be in any particular spot, on any particular day, a month from now. Famously, a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the globe could make the difference between sunshine and a hurricane.
Because human civilization is a dissipative system it exhibits irreducible complexity. Civilization isn't—can't—be scripted. Like the ant colony it resembles in so many ways, civilization is an emergent property of human society, arising out of the countless daily interactions of 7 billion human beings with one another and with their environment.
This fact, integral to ecological wisdom, has urgent implications for both the Green movement and socialism. The presumption that we can specify a new design for civilization must now be seen for what it is: an error. We can indeed make changes; we can embark on new policies; we can redesign our political systems and our institutions. But we cannot do so with any rational confidence that what will occur in consequence of these changes, as their effects propagate through the system over time, is going to look like what we intended.
A beautiful example is furnished by a recent report on traffic density in cities. Between 1993 and 2017 the largest cities in the United States added more than thirty thousand new lane-miles of roads to relieve traffic congestion. This increase in road capacity was bigger, proportionally, than the increase in these cities' populations in the same period, so it should have resulted in lower traffic density. Yet, traffic congestion didn't go down; it increased 144 percent. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars to relieve road congestion perversely caused road congestion to become much worse. With the benefit of hindsight the effect can be explained, but there was no reasonable way to determine beforehand that this would be the result. Examples like this abound; they are the topics of countless feature articles and many books, and they all point to the same fact: Complex systems will not yield to analytical predictions of their behavior.
In fact it's worse than that. The most complex systems are also the most fragile, and their fragility is of a peculiar and frightening kind. Rather than being vulnerable to obvious, large-scale disturbances, as one would expect, they generally manage such adverse events well. But small changes, mere tinkering, as it would seem, a tug on a thread, can cascade into a sequence of effects that ends with the system collapsing suddenly and completely. History is rife with examples, and one of the best known is the Roman Empire. The Collapse of Complex Societies, by American anthropologist Joseph Tainter (1988), reveals how the cascading crises that caused the empire to collapse, in a matter of just a few years after centuries of growth and magnificent institutional and cultural achievements, were a direct consequence of the civilization's complexity. This characteristic of complexity means that any tinkering is fraught with peril; the introduction of a benign new policy or the elimination of some minor tradition or institution is freighted with the possibility that it is—this time—the single beat of a butterfly's wings that will sow the seeds of cataclysm.
For Greens the realization that a just and sustainable society cannot be scripted is not fatal; positive change is not precluded by this understanding, indeed it should encourage rather than discourage deep thinking about how to effect both justice and sustainability.
For socialists the matter is much more serious. Marx lived and worked in a century in which a mechanistic conception of nature and of human systems was a seemingly settled and scientific certainty. If both nature and human economic relations are reducible to mechanistic principles, then we can design our productive systems and political institutions along strictly rational lines in such a way as to ensure the outcomes we desire. This certitude was foundational to Marx's political and economic program. On this basis were constructed the socialist experiments whose failures littered the 20th century, failures generally all of the same kind; the effort to prescribe a planned human economy resulted in systems of production and distribution that stubbornly refused to work as intended. Hopelessly complicated internal feedbacks (including especially human behavioral responses) made the economies oscillate randomly between lethal shortages and absurd surpluses, exhibiting far less efficiency than the market economies they were meant to outshine. It was like trying to operate a machine with too many levers, levers moreover each of whose effects would change dramatically and unexpectedly without any discernible reason. What the planners didn't know is that the system behavior they were witnessing was characteristic of inherent and irreducible complexity, and that the resulting chaos was unavoidable in principle.
Present day socialists can often be found expressing the confidence that, with our far greater practical and theoretical knowledge, especially of systems and networks, and with the power of modern computing and maybe even artificial intelligence—that surely a modern planned economy would work far, far better than such efforts did in the past, ensuring a fair and sustainable system of production and distribution. But this is the just the same old error dressed in a new suit; it is still an expression of the mechanistic assumption that the economy must ultimately yield to rational analysis in such a way as to permit its behavior to be predicted and prescribed. But human economic relations are inseparable from all the other kinds of human interactions and behaviors, from the aggregate of which emerges a civilization that is irreducibly complex. An ecological wisdom that was actually informed by the up-to-date science that socialists appeal to would recognize the futility of attempting to make human society follow an economic script.
Not all socialists are committed to a planned economy, and those that aren't will be less disturbed by the facts explained in the foregoing section, but even anarchist and libertarian socialists share with their more orthodox comrades, and with most Greens, a Utopian vision of what human society can and should become, a vision that presupposes a path of enhanced (but sustainable!) material well-being and social progress. The idea that the human story is one of general progress is not limited to socialists; it has the status almost of a modern religion. Of all the feedback I have received on my writings and presentations, the bitterest and most strident always comes from the futurists. A recent comment on the YouTube video of a talk I gave at Virginia Tech read in part, "In a thousand years hundreds of trillions of people will be laughing in Dyson swarm, looking back at doomers like this."
This piety toward the mythos of progress and technological miracle has no place in a conception of the human future that is informed by ecological wisdom. Nevertheless it can be challenging to remove this bias from one's own vision. John Michael Greer, in his essential book The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered, observes that,
The faith in progress has drawn strength from the unquestionable fact that for the last three centuries those who believed in the possibilities of progress have generally been right. There have been some stunning failures, to be sure, but the trajectory that reached its climax with human footprints on the Moon makes a potent argument for the claim that technological complexity is cumulative, irreversible and immune to economic concerns. (p. 150)
Human history, however, is much much older than three centuries, and the exceptional trajectory of modern civilization is explained not by any innate tendency toward progress, but rather by a burst in complexity owing to a sudden flux of vast amounts of energy flowing through the system.
Stars produce complex chemical elements, life produces complex ecosystems, and humanity produces socially and technologically complex civilizations. Each is an instance of the laws of thermodynamics at work, as explained previously. But there is a catch. For a complex system to maintain itself it must expend energy on its already existing structure. In the case of civilizations, each new road must be repaved at intervals; each new machine means a new maintenance regime; each new technology requires new specialties, with new educational and professional organizations to support them; each increase in population means more food is needed, and housing, and clothing, and schools, and hospitals, and services. These metabolic costs increase with each new increase in complexity, and so must eventually consume the total energy flux available. This is the curse of dissipative systems, the Achilles heel of every ecosystem and every civilization, that ensures an eventual complexity collapse.
In the climax stage of an ecosystem the use of sunlight and material resources is optimized by the complex of organisms within it, but the result is fragility. Any permanent change in conditions, such as a small shift in climate, makes the system unsustainable on its energy base because it lacks the surplus energy to adapt, and this brings about a collapse in complexity of the system. Because energy in the form of sunlight is still available, and many organisms survive the collapse, eventually a new ecosystem rises to take the place of the old one. This is called the adaptive cycle, and it explains the plot-line of life on Earth and why it is so diverse across time, from dinosaurs to giant mammals to hominids like us. The rise and fall of civilizations in human history is much the same; in The Collapse of Complex Societies Tainter explores this process in great detail.
The mythos of inevitable human progress doesn't fit a model of collapse and renewal. On its account no new Dark Ages, such as bridged the seven centuries from the fall of Rome to the full flower of Medieval Europe, is in the cards for us. And to be fair, modern civilization is a very different kind of story from past civilizations. Not since the dawn of agriculture has so profound a shift in human dynamics taken place as occurred with our sudden capacity to exploit fossil energy. Our present mastery over nature is profound, whether one measures it by our depth of knowledge or by our sheer physical impact.
Nevertheless, as this essay has been at pains to show, the reason fossil energy was a change in kind and not just a change in degree was because of its extraordinary energy density. The shift from hunter-gatherers to agricultural civilization over a period of thousands of years resulted in energy use per person roughly doubling, whereas the shift to fossil energy resulted in average energy use per person increasing by a factor of 4 in just a few generations, while at the same time our population increased more than seven-fold. In consequence of this we have built—and arguably couldn't help building—a civilization that now demands that such an amount of energy, and indeed ever more and more, must continue to flow through the system or it cannot pay its own metabolic freight.
There are thus two kinds of people among those who think about it: those who believe we can adapt and modify our energy capture strategies indefinitely to keep industrial civilization going, and those who think we cannot. Those in the optimistic camp include the apostles of techno-utopia, who believe that by converting to "renewable" energy systems (or "clean" nuclear power) we can avert climate catastrophe and continue the march to our grand destiny among the stars. This camp also includes most Greens and socialists, even if their vision has less of the element of futuristic fantasy. Indeed, what is called the Green New Deal is founded on the notion that we can sustain social and material progress by simply switching energy sources to those provided unendingly by the Sun and its servants, the wind and the rain. As every enthusiast knows, the Sun showers the Earth daily with vastly greater amounts of energy than we could ever conceivably use.
Suppose for a moment we join in the hymns of the futurists and the Green-New-Dealers, and see what the song entails. The future that is envisioned, at least in the near term, is one of solar panels and dams and windmills, of locally sustainable communities with housing and workplaces, of efficient transportation, and of systems of communication and distribution that can sustain a rationally integrated and networked economy functioning at appropriate scales. Necessarily, there will have to be industrial processes to produce the feedstocks these elements of the future will require, including iron and other metals for structures and machinery, copper and other conductors for electricity, silicon and rare earths for integrated circuits, ceramics, lubricants, resins, and so on. Without these materials civilization necessarily looks more like the 15th century than the 21st. But here we find that something has been overlooked. The Sun provides unending energy, but the raw materials needed to capture it, or to capture any energy source at the rate a technological civilization requires, are finite. Indeed, the physical materials are themselves a form of embodied energy just as fossil fuels are, and subject to the same thermodynamic laws.
Consider iron, a fundamental requirement for any level of technology, even a plowshare. Iron is the most abundant element in the earth, but not in the crust where it can be reached. Also, to be usable, iron ore has to have at least 20% iron content. There are about 80 billion tons of iron in known reserves of usable ore, which at the present rate of iron production will last about 60 years. The Earth is now very well mapped and searched, so discoveries of significant new deposits of iron are unlikely. Of course iron and steel can be recycled, so it won't vanish. However, with every passing year some percentage of the iron already smelted is lost to the environment in the form of rust, and this can never again be recovered. Consequently, at some point in the future, almost certainly in the lifetimes of those now living, the amount of usable iron in the world will go into permanent decline, and must eventually decline to zero.
This is the Second Law of Thermodynamics again, this time applied to the embodied energy of the iron ore. The iron was created in long-dead stars, exploded out into space, and eventually aggregated into our planet, where tectonic and chemical forces combined it with the other elements, mostly oxygen and silicon, found in the ore. Humans apply still more energy to it to concentrate it into pig iron and steel, but eventually it must be dissipated back into the environment in a diffuse and unusable form. In an important paper on energy and complexity in 2010, E.J. Chaisson wrote,
Technology is a cultural practice that decreases entropy locally by artificially manufacturing complex products, yet only with the expenditure of energy that inevitably increases entropy in the larger environment of raw materials used to make those goods. (p. 38)
With few exceptions, every inorganic material we use is subject to this outcome. A certain amount is available to us in a usable concentration, but by using it, we ultimately dissipate it. Such essential mineral resources as iron, aluminum, copper, phosphorous, silver and many more will be exhausted within a matter of decades, sooner if we continue to expand their use at present rates of increase. While many of these can be recycled, inevitably a significant proportion is lost every time it is re-used, so the amount available to civilization must finally decline. Moreover, recycling is itself an industrial process that requires energy and materials, and therefore contributes further to environmental entropy.
The version of the second law that applies to matter is, "uselessness always increases." If we succeed in adjusting our energy capture strategies to replace our current rate of fossil energy use with a similar rate of "renewable" energy use, we ensure the demise of industrial civilization within a generation, maybe two, just on resource depletion alone. All use of energy has this effect. From the point of view of the iron ore it makes no difference whether the smelter is a coal-fired furnace or an arc-furnace using electricity from windmills. The outcome is the same as regards the declining stock of usable iron.
The outcome is not the same for the arc of civilization, however. Switching to renewable energy requires retooling industrial civilization from the ground up, with new infrastructure, new manufacturing methods, new machines for every purpose, especially heavy transport. This will demand the expenditure of vast amounts of energy in its own right, and consequently must accelerate resource depletion. If the goal is to maintain our present material standard of living, then far from dodging civilizational collapse the switch to 100% "renewable" energy will accelerate it significantly.
But that's not the worst part. The worst part is we can't stop. So long as energy is available, we'll use it. That is because our civilization is not scripted but emergent. Chaisson again:
Wherever and whenever optimum energy is available, systems capable of drawing power competitively, thereby building structures or functions needed to engage those energies, are favored; selection from among many energy-based choices rewards and nurtures dynamic steady states that create pathways capable of utilizing power per unit mass. Those systems using energy ... too little or too slowly are rejected. (p. 36)
The systems behavior Chaisson describes is a consequence of the Maximum Entropy Production Principle (MEPP), which is an axiomatically proved law of formal information systems as well as an empirically observed law governing the behavior of real dissipative systems, including living systems. Briefly, it says that such systems will always tend to evolve in ways that maximize the rate at which they dissipate the available energy.
The use of an energy resource typically rises until it is being used as fast as possible, and then, if the energy source is finite, its rate of use declines with the declining supply until the source is gone. The peak in the middle is what is referred to by such terms as "peak oil." When it comes to fossil energy, we are in the period of peaks. Conventional oil production peaked in the U.S. in 1970, and globally in 2005. Tight oil (oil shale, tar sands) peaked in the U.S. (and probably globally) last year. Coal peaked in the U.S. in 1998, and globally a few years ago. Natural gas will peak within 10 years.
This rise and fall for any finite resource follows a trajectory known as the Hubbert curve, after the American geologist who first described it. In the ideal case the curve is symmetric; if it takes a given number of years to reach peak use, it will take about that many more years to reach depletion. However, the curve for fossil energy is subject to two factors that make the downside of the curve much steeper. This is not because fossil energy is depleted differently than other resources, but because the capacity of civilization to use it becomes increasingly impaired as it declines.
The first factor is that it costs energy to extract energy, and in the case of fossil fuels in particular the cost increases rapidly post-peak. When conventional oil was first used, a shallow well in a good field would produce a "gusher" with an Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE) of about 1%. That is, it only took one barrel-of-oil's worth of energy to get a hundred barrels of oil from the well. By the time of peak conventional oil in the U.S. the ECoE had increased to about 4% because the gushers had all been exploited, and new wells had to be deeper and in harder-to-reach places. Now, new fields of conventional oil have an ECoE of at least 10%, and rising fast, because the only reserves left are under the sea or otherwise require very expensive technologies to extract. Tight oil has an ECoE of at least 20%, and generally much higher. A similar story can be told about coal and natural gas.
The result of the ever-increasing Energy Cost of Energy is that, as our energy resources decline, the net energy available to civilization—what's left after paying the energy cost of extraction—declines at a much faster rate than the energy resources themselves. For this reason alone the downward slope of the curve for fossil energy must be much steeper than the upward slope. But that isn't the only problem.
The second factor is that unless the total energy available to civilization continues to grow, it soon requires all the energy it can get just to meet its own metabolic costs. If the energy supply then begins to decline, even slightly, decay and fragility set in. This is reflected in neglected infrastructure, declining social and economic sectors, and most importantly a squeeze on the ability to pay for further energy extraction. This is the paradox of peak fossil fuel; those who first understood peak oil expected the price of oil to rise relentlessly as it became more scarce, but instead the opposite has happened. Although the price has had wild swings, the trend has been steadily downward. The reason is that oil isn't just one commodity among others, it is the ur-commodity, the one from which all other commodities are made. (This is a restatement of the principle that energy is the measure of economic value.) Consequently, as it becomes scarce everything becomes more expensive in energy terms, and a crisis of affordability causes monetary deflation as demand is relentlessly suppressed. The consequence for oil producers is that the remaining reserves that are affordable to extract are shrinking at a much faster rate than the resource itself; as the price of oil falls, fields that were previously profitable to exploit cease to be so. Producers are having to write down their assets, and bankruptcies are rising.
Industrial civilization is caught in an energy trap. It needs more energy than it has just to extract the energy that it needs. There is no solution for this. Solar and wind energy don't help because, despite impressive growth for decades, they still represent a tiny sliver of overall energy use. In particular, they have done nothing to dent the need for liquid fuels for heavy transport and main industry. Also, their energy costs are all up-front, and we increasingly can't afford to pay them. That's why after years of rapid development of government-subsidized wind and solar farms, 2019 saw scores of cancellations of planned projects all over the globe, largely because they weren't affordable.
For the first time in more than a thousand years, humanity faces a general, civilization-wide complexity collapse; it has already begun, and it is global. Decline and disruption—rather than growth and progress—will define human economic systems and social institutions going forward. Like any species in overshoot, we are the final victims of our own success. An ecological correction is underway and accelerating rapidly. At this point reason demands that we put down the hymnals of the futurists and consider our realistic options.
The Real Future
It's not all bad news. Popular entertainment has embedded in people's imaginations the idea that if the system fails the world will soon look like a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Just because the world represented by Star Trek isn't in our future doesn't mean that the world represented by Mad Max is.
Of necessity, complexity collapse will result in a dramatically lower use of fossil fuel, making the worst climate outcomes less likely and reducing our impact on ecosystems. Capitalism has already ceased to be a viable economic system, so nationalization of key economic sectors and some degree of social ownership is a given. Globalization is dead, which means a dire outlook for transnational corporations. Localization of economies and the need to cultivate resilience, along with the end of capitalism, will tend to counteract the previous century's extreme commodification of popular culture. These are just a few examples of things to look forward to with more optimism than despair.
From its beginning until the late 20th century industrial civilization was in an anabolic phase, which is to say it was a period of economic expansion. This was the period during which abundant energy was embodied in increasingly large and complex physical, social, and institutional structures, from high-rises to highways to high schools. We have now entered the catabolic phase, the period when metabolic costs can no longer be met, and so some of the energy in our physical, social, and institutional structures must be continually reclaimed. This can happen constructively, by adapting them to new uses, but in many cases they will simply be abandoned, like the "economic disaster zones" that Chris Hedges wrote about in his 2012 book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. This process is most likely to unfold in a stair-step fashion, with a general decay punctuated by shocks like the 2008 financial crisis, and more dramatically such as is now occurring with the corona-virus, that force the sudden destruction of businesses, institutions, and communities, while the periods in-between provide some measure of stability and even modest recovery.
Just as in the anabolic phase social roles and specializations proliferated, so in the catabolic phase the varieties of employment will become less numerous as the economy undergoes a delayering and decomplexifying process. Production modes that rely on energy-intensive machinery, layers of management, and far-flung supply chains will gradually lose their advantages over modes that can make use of human labor and modest energy, have few managers, and source locally. Rural communities will reintegrate, with general stores that feature local products alongside national brands replacing Walmarts and Dollar Generals, and they will gain population as farming deindustrializes and the need for agricultural laborers increases. Suburbs will either become economically coherent communities or be abandoned. Cities will eventually cease growing and probably shrink, as their efficiencies become less relevant in an era of reduced technology, their density more burdensome, and their opportunities less attractive. Altogether, the economy of the late 21st century will reflect its per-capita energy use, which will be closer to that of 1910 than that of 2010,
The social and political implications of this economic readjustment are fraught. Just as the extremely rapid expansion of industrial civilization brought about novel social stresses and great social change, its swift contraction will create additional, likely extreme social stresses, with the possibility of sudden shifts in our institutions.
The most severe global danger is hunger. The industrial food system is utterly dependent on cheap and abundant liquid fuels, and this fact, together with a steep decline in soil and water resources and growing climate chaos, has stark implications. It is a near certainty that famines are going to occur on an unprecedented scale. The food crisis of 2008 was a key factor in the violence that swept southwest Asia and northern Africa in the years after; that crisis and its aftermath should be taken as no more than a foretaste of the catastrophes to come. Wars and mass migrations can be expected in many parts of the world.
The United States, although it benefits from having a large and diverse continent buffered by oceans, faces a unique challenge because it is experiencing imperial collapse simultaneously with complexity collapse. The psychology of the American people has been shaped by historical accidents that have privileged them for several centuries. First was the biological luck-of-the-draw that the European colonizers had the infectious diseases to which the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas had no immunity. With 90% of the original inhabitants wiped out, the colonists faced only token opposition as they took possession of a vast and rich continent. This advantage meant that the subsequent age of fossil fuel could be an age of relentless expansion, allowing the United States to lay claim economically to the entire hemisphere. When the 20th century brought with it the destruction of the European empires in the conflagrations of two world wars, the United States, with the only industrial economy left undestroyed, was able to assume the position of global hegemon. This was underwritten by the Bretton Woods Agreement, which granted the United States seigniorage, a license to print dollars without fear of inflation because it was the international reserve currency. When the United States defaulted on its currency in the early 1970's, coincident with U.S. peak oil, its position of dominance allowed it to switch to the petro-dollar system that is still in operation today, enforcing United States control of international finance and its system of rewards and punishments that maintains American hegemony and underwrites its global military occupation.
These advantages have permitted Americans to consume at a rate far exceeding their relative numbers, and to be largely immune to the strains and setbacks that most societies have faced during the previous century and a half. In effect, Americans as a people have been the most privileged in history, a state of affairs that has been slowly unraveling for nearly 50 years, and is now so unstable that its final end must follow soon and swiftly as the general complexity collapse unfolds. Because Americans believe that their privilege was earned (American exceptionalism), the cultural and psychological shock of the ongoing, rapid, and permanent decline in their fortunes has undermined their mythos; they can no longer maintain a coherent narrative about who and what they are.
This gathering social crisis is visible in the collapse of the political center, as the public polarizes around partisanship, race, and religion. It is visible in the ever more violent divide between the public and the legal system, in the pandemic of mass shootings, in burgeoning suicide especially among the middle aged, in exploding rates of homelessness, mental illness, destitution, dependency, and despair. It is visible in the shocking dysfunction of our educational, healthcare, and governmental institutions, and in a financial system that is corrupt beyond measure, preys upon the public, and is completely unmoored from the real economy. America is descending into a mob, seething with misdirected anger, deeply fearful of the future, easily swayed by mindless suppositions and soulless demagogues, indifferent to facts and immune to reason, and marbled through with heavily-armed bigots and miscreants drawn to violence and mayhem like flies to shit. Like all privileged people faced with inescapable challenges to their privilege, Americans are ensnared by fragility, unable to step back from themselves, to make common cause, to re-calibrate their expectations and rethink their future. Half won't even protect themselves or others during a plague.
As the economic impact of the present crisis deepens over the course of the next two years, the economic tail-spin that began in 2008 will gather speed. The international monetary regime the U.S. has ruled for 70 years will likely break under the strain of a general default, and with it the privileged status of U.S. currency. At that point our overseas bases will quickly have to be withdrawn, and Americans will find themselves paying real-world prices with dollars set to undergo hyper-inflation as the trillions of them we've printed and sold around the world since World War II suddenly lose their value. This outcome may unfold in two years or ten, but at this point it is baked in.
For these reasons the near-term situation for the United States is extremely perilous, and it is possible its present institutions won't survive in their current form—or even its geographic unity. At some point it will be ripe for an authoritarian regime to seize control in a setting of rising social unrest, as history teaches us to expect. These are possibilities, not certainties, but the United States now finds itself on a ledge overlooking a precipice of great height, and it has lost its balance.
The collapse of industrial civilization is certain, indeed underway, but that is not in itself something to mourn. The collapse of American or global society into chaos, however, is worth every effort to try to prevent. When anyone asks, "why are you a Green?" my answer is always some version of "to prevent the looming catastrophe." The reason the Green Party came into existence when it did was to found a political movement in opposition to the systems of violence, oppression, exploitation, and ecological destruction that are the hallmarks, indeed the pillars, of industrial civilization. The Four Green Party pillars of Peace, Social Justice, Democracy, and Ecological Wisdom were formulated as deliberate counterpoints to those of the dominant political and economic culture. A quarter century later the Green Party alone offers a political vision that is future-oriented and people-centered, a vision that has significant if largely unacknowledged influence on the national political discussion.
Now, however, when we are on the cusp of the very crisis Greens foresaw, the Green Party finds itself caught in the maelstrom, still weak and worryingly fractious, struggling to find solid ground on which to make its stand. This essay has argued that its defects are in part owing to its lack of a cogent account of economics to gird its political framework, and most of the foregoing text was written with the aim of identifying the necessary elements of such an account.
The first element of Green economics must be the correct measures of economic value and activity, and the fundamental measure is now clearly understood to be energy. Whether through machines, or people, or animals, or simply natural processes, the quantity of energy transferred is the measure of the work performed. This understanding requires no abstract defense; it is just physics. The work performed, in turn, is the measure of the transformation of matter, whether into food, or goods, or housing, or some service. Our impact on both the human and the natural environment is then measured in its turn by the extent to which matter is altered, and eventually dissipated.
Green economics must therefore reject "domestic product" as a measure of overall economic activity, and replace it with "total use of energy." The amount of appropriated Net Primary Production from nature will always and inevitably be the largest portion of the total use of energy, encompassing food first of all but also organic materials like structural wood, textile fibers, biomass, organic oils, solvents, chemicals, and so on. The other segments of measured energy use would be of energy captured from inorganic and fossil sources, "renewable" or otherwise.
With energy use as the scale, measurements must be made of the rate at which the stock of non-renewable resources, including mineral resources that are essential to organized human society, are being depleted. Knowing how fast we are drawing down non-renewable resources enables informed decisions about when the use of such resources is truly needed, and when it should be foregone and the resources banked for the use of future generations. Careful measurements must also be made of the impact of human activity on ecosystems, on the climate system, and on important geophysical cycles such as the carbon cycle, the hydrologic cycle, and the nutrient cycle. These too are essential and essentially economic measurements, for only by these measurements can we always ensure that the primary and largest input to the human economy—the global bio-system itself—will continue to sustain us.
The second element of Green economics is the understanding that the economy is an emergent property of human society, irreducibly complex, and cannot therefore be scripted. Further, as a living system, the economy will tend to ebb and flow, producing new patterns and dropping old ones, reflecting shifting social trends as well as external variables like the climate. In a post-growth economy such spontaneous changes will usually be more measured and less stressful than in the centuries of crazed growth just behind us. Nevertheless, the controls imposed on the economy by politically-determined programs must generally be adaptive rather than prescriptive. Controls intended to optimize the economy with respect to any standard, whether of efficiency, or of fairness, or of some other standard, must be light and responsive or else positive feedbacks will quickly defeat the effort and lead to unpredictable economic and social disruptions.
The third element of Green economics is the principle that the pursuit of economic growth must inevitably damage the ecological balance on which the economy itself entirely depends. This principle must be understood in light of the fact that growth will always tend to occur in conditions of plenitude. Simply outlawing growth won't work, for the reasons given in the previous paragraph. Instead, political praxis must find ways to disincentivize growth, and redirect excess resources in ways that don't increase total economic activity.
The principle against unconstrained growth is really just one aspect of a more encompassing principle, that the human story will have an end just as surely as it had a beginning. There is no life without death, because each is only an aspect of a larger unity. The Earth is not done making new species and new ecosystems, and our existence is not a permanent feature of the planet. The time-scales on which Life's changes are wrung span ice ages and the drift and crashing of continents, periods of greater expanse than the human mind can conceive in a manner that is relatable to experience. Our past and our future are part of a comparatively small tapestry, and it is by fashioning the present that we make it whole.
In the near term, nonetheless, and for at least the foreseeable future, it is relentless and sometimes rapid de-growth that will characterize the human economy. Population and economic activity alike will be on the decline until some sort of equilibrium is once again reached. The economic challenge of the future is no longer managing growth or limiting its harm, but instead ensuring that the catabolism of de-growth is managed in such a way as to ensure economic and social justice, and preserving as much as possible a viable future for humanity.
Unsurprisingly, the existing economic planks of the Green Party platform are already generally consistent with the elements of Green Economics outlined above, but the platform should be revised in light of the certainty of complexity collapse and effectively permanent economic contraction. Such planks as Greening the Dollar, localization of production, and economic democracy are excellent as they are, but many others subsume an incorrect understanding of economic value, or of thermodynamics, or of our condition. Those demanding that the economy "eliminate waste," or claiming that "everything recycles" and that "closed-loop production" is possible, need to be rewritten to reflect the understanding that these goals are no more achievable than un-burning a match or building a perpetual motion machine. Instead, use of unrecoverable resources should be minimized to bare need wherever possible. Planks that implicitly call for proactive controls, like "true-cost" pricing, should be revised to reflect the understanding both that "true-cost," along with all other kinds of purely economic value, is measured by the yardstick of energy, and also that an economy will not yield to proactive controls in ways that we can rationally predict.
The Green New Deal should remain a core project, but it must not be understood, characterized, or sold as a panacea to replace fossil energy or preserve the present economy. It should be understood as a project to soften our landing from the crash of industrial civilization, and to provide a means of working toward sustainable ways to live with a greatly reduced use of energy overall. Such technologies as electronics, advanced medicine, communications, and others that promote physical and social well-being may perhaps be preserved with sufficient capture of energy from the Sun, but this will only be possible if the transition is pursued diligently.
We must acknowledge that the pace of economic activity is not a matter of the amount of energy available, but of its density, and that there is no means on Earth to create a substitute for fossil fuels in this respect. The only way we get concentrated forms of energy in the future is to concentrate it ourselves—using energy that is not yet concentrated—while dissipating non-renewable resources in the process. That means a civilization running on an entirely different economic basis than the one we are leaving behind, and it will take centuries to sort itself out completely. In certain respects the next civilization may well resemble the medieval world as much as the modern one.
It need hardly be pointed out that humanity's future looks nothing like the one Marx envisioned. This is not Marx's fault; the framework he had for understanding how the world works was a mechanistic paradigm which the disrupting discoveries of thermodynamics, mathematical complexity, and ecological succession had not yet shattered. But the fact remains that Marxism as such is no longer tenable, either as an economic theory or as a political program. Labor is not the source of economic value. Capitalism is already dead. And neither society nor the human economy can be planned or prescribed.
Most importantly, the human story is not one of steady progress characterized by technological advance or scientific and industrial achievement. Instead, human civilization is a naturally-occurring dissipative system, and like all such systems it experiences succession; civilizations rise out of the ruins of previous civilizations, achieve their climax state, and then undergo collapse and eventual renewal in their turn. While not all civilizations undergo a dramatic, fall-of-Rome-style collapse, all undergo succession one way or another. Our civilization, having burned many times hotter and brighter than any before it, is due for the most dramatic burn-out in history. It is not certain that it won't end us. But if it doesn't, the steepness and drama of our decline will nonetheless revoke every conventional expectation. However it pans out in the generations to come, we are like every past civilization in this: we have exhausted our energy-capture strategy, and we can no longer pay the band.
The socialist ideal of the democratic workplace is not only still relevant but will become more so. In contrast to the last two centuries, the economy of even the near future will increasingly favor localized, community-scale enterprises. Although there will still be those who aspire to the owner-class, and to businesses so massive they can bully governments, their programs will cease to be viable because they depend on capitalism to establish and maintain themselves. The diseased fantasy of the capitalist era, that great wealth is naturally owing to anyone capable of "creating" it, is already exploded and will soon be a curiosity of history, like the divine right of kings. In an era of de-growth, the only path to privilege is by hoarding diminishing resources. If we can preserve democratic institutions, such behaviors can easily be dealt with. And if our democratic institutions are really and finally lost, then there will come a time for political revolution.
A note of caution should be sounded here, however. Most of the progressive reforms we presently celebrate, such as the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, the protection of workers and of children from exploitation, and many other social liberties, all occurred well after the advent of the industrial age, during a period of quickly rising material wealth. An era of economic decline, and therefore of declining material wealth, will tend to be an era of social decline as well if history—and present trends—are any guide. It is in such times as these that social stresses will boil into civil conflict, with authoritarianism rising in response. Now more than ever do the political culture and the popular zeitgeist need the leadership and values of the Green Party.
Is the Green Party a socialist party? It partakes of the same spirit of democratic idealism, and always has. The democratic principle must be extended to economic decision making, for otherwise, ultimately, there can be no political democracy. The United States' present damnable condition illustrates just how egregiously democracy fails when the real levers of power are held by an unaccountable owner-class rather than by the people. Our existing economic planks were written with this understanding. Workplace and production decisions must be made democratically by the real stakeholders, including the workers and the communities affected. The government's own spending priorities and regulatory regimes must support this. All financial institutions must be publicly owned, along with all other municipal-scale or larger institutions providing essential services, not least because they can no longer be run for profit.
Beyond this, however, we must admit that the Green Party is not a socialist party, not in the sense in which that term has historically been understood. The world we are headed to is a new one, de-industrialized, de-globalized, as wonderfully diverse both culturally and politically as present-day global commercial society is depressingly uniform. A fire is sweeping the garden, and afterward new things will grow. No one will tell them how.