Towards a permacircular humanity: An illustrated lecture

This is kind of a continuation, by other means, of the musings I offered in my earlier post on “native wisdom” and “Native Modernity.” At the beginning of March, 2017, I gave a half-hour lecture, complete with PowerPoint slides, to a group of about twenty Master’s students from the University of Lausanne, where I work here in Switzerland. The context was an interfaculty course on “Global Warming and Societal Change” (conducted jointly with the University of Lancaster) in which a colleague and I were to teach one session on homo economicus and the overcoming of “petro-anthropology.” You may wonder what those words have to do with permacircularity. Read on and I trust you’ll get some useful pointers.

Please bear in mind that this was a university lecture and that, while I made every effort to be accessible and catchy, I was mainly addressing prospective research students. Being in a half-hour format, it was also necessarily sketchy – but at the same time, that’s what helped keep it fun and exciting. There are 28 slides in total, so this is going to be a very long post. I hope you enjoy it! (… And if you’re really in a hurry and have been visiting my blog regularly, you could focus only on slides 3, 4, 11, 24, 25 and 26. They speak for themselves and will get you thinking.)


[Slide 1] The objective of the lecture is to initiate a multidisciplinary group of MA students – coming from the humanities, the geosciences, and economics and business – into the rationale for, and the logic of, a perma-circular critique of the currently dominant economic system. The prevailing “humanism of oil” (or “petro-anthropology”) is intimately connected with the theoretical figure of “homo economicus.” Overcoming the humanism of oil – which lies at the heart of today’s unsustainability – requires that we reflect on a new model for being human which I call “perma-circular humanity.”


[Slide 2] The lecture has two sections. In section 1 (slides 2 to 18), I will offer some thoughts on the reasons why our modern economies have become so unsustainable. In section 2 (slides 19 to 28), I will venture some ideas as to how we might overcome this predicament by becoming a “perma-circular humanity.” At the heart of the whole lecture is the figure of homo economicus and how it’s been shaped by, and has in return shaped, the mechanisms and institutions of our unsustainable world. So first, in this section, I’ll discuss three determinants of our contemporary lack of sustainability: our “love of growth” (physophilia), our unhealthy and destructive use of petroleum and fossil fuels (petropathology), and our reliance on petroleum-derived products and processes to give meaning to our lives (petroanthropology).


[Slide 3] The key figure of homo economicus is a somewhat absurd but also very intriguing character in the history of Western social thought. He’s a man – there’s a sort of “existential sexism” involved here which presumes that production and growth are a matter mainly for males, at least when it comes to understanding the underlying mechanisms. In the Scottish Enlightenment where this figure originated (through the likes of Adam Smith and David Hume), economic man was a rational but also emotion-driven creature whose  goals in life were twofold: to perpetually improve his material condition and to gain his fellow men’s sympathy and admiration through the accumulation of wealth. Other currents of thought, such as Bernard Mandeville’s idea of the “human beehive” and the “Calvinist entrepreneur” analyzed by Max Weber, contributed to solidifying this figure of a man propelled by the perpetual desire for more and by the acceptance of work as a necessary evil. Within this cultural and anthropological universe, economic growth was seen as a providential collective outcome: no individual really aimed for the community to get wealthier (everyone was out for himself), but all individuals’ combined actions conspired, “as if by an Invisible Hand” (Smith), to the enrichment of the whole. This inaugurated modern Western man’s — if not woman’s… – love affair with economic growth.


[Slide 4] The love of growth can be called “physophilia”. (I got this term from Juliet Schor’s 2012 book Plenitude, which I strongly recommend.) For most economists who defend and analyze it, economic growth has become much more than a mere economic phenomenon – much more than simply a mechanical wealth accumulation machine. It’s a cultural and anthropological project, and it’s (as a result) also a political project. Economic growth needs to be engineered and maintained by the “right” kind of collective institutions (social peace, property rights, human-capital formation, etc.), and it needs to be supported by the “right” kind of human beings – the kind that will adhere to the necessity of growing the economy constantly and will find existential solace, and even meaning, in the path as well as the result of growth. The Scottish Enlightenment, as well as later liberal thinkers such as Hayek, harbor a rather Stoic image of what economic growth requires: one must be prepared to suffer the failures of a market economy just as one must strive to enjoy its successes and spoils, and this requires everyone to see that there’s something metaphysical going on beyond the physical. Growth economics has gradually become a kind of spirituality: it embodies the secularist version of a providential divinity looking out for humanity as a whole – although at the cost of some individual scarifices which can’t be avoided if the collective is to work at its best. (If you’re wondering why this sounds so much like collectivism, that’s because it actually is a particular form of collectivism; look, for instance, at the more recent writings of economist Deirdre McCloskey and her defense of the “bourgeois virtues” as well as her praise of inequality as a necessary, positive feature of growing economies. She recently came out against the idea of income redistribution in the United States.)


[Slide 5] This secular collective providence called modern economic growth has never been able to dispense – not even for an instant – from massively employing so-called “energy slaves,” that is to say, sources of energy and work (in the physics sense) that are as cheap to extract and use as can possibly be. Read Andrew Nikiforuk’s 2012 book The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude, as well as Vaclav Smil’s many fascinating books on how the modern world was made through material and technological “progress.” (Smil is not a radical critic of that modern world, but he does recognize that it has reached some thresholds of difficulty, which we will look at in a moment.) The diesel engine and the gas turbine have propelled economic growth worldwide, making globalization (as Marx had pretty much correctly predicted) the continuation of the colonial plunders of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the multinational growth projects that ruled the second half of the 20th. What’s next? Energy slaves cheap enough so that humanity can expand into “deep space,” effectively continuing the planetary growth project by becoming what the space exploration and Mars colonization advocate Robert Zubrin has called a “spacefaring civilization”?…


[Slide 6] The ever closer interconnection between the collective project of economic growth and the collective endeavor to secure cheap fuels and machinery as energy slaves, has gradually (with a couple of jumps along the way) led to the advent of the petroleum age. When oil was discovered and became easily harvestable, the energy returns on energy invested (EROEI) skyrocketed: you could funnel 100 or 200 barrels of oil out of the ground by expending just 1 of them to build and power the simple oil rigs involved. Getting energy cost almost no energy. The meaning of our lives could begin to be reconstructed around the spoils of the oil glut – and thus came the advent of “petroanthropology.” It had many life-changing impacts on Western humans and their social as well as emotional lives. One area was “petro-mobility”: the age of the automobile was born; our relationship to space was irreversibly altered, in ways we haven’t fully fathomed yet.


[Slide 7] In the wake of petro-mobility came petro-eroticism and the whole identification of beauty, attractiveness, and intimacy with the possibility of owning and using an automobile.


[Slide 8] As already mentioned, the petroleum age ushered in “petro-globalism”: Goods and people could crisscross the globe more and more frequently, at higher and higher speeds, thanks to the rapid progress of combustion engines and gas turbines. None of this was innocuous; it carried human as well as cultural costs (globalization crushed many people and cultures), and environmental ones as well, as we’ll see in a moment. Yet, it also deeply affected the manner in which we give meaning to our lives. Could we imagine feeling fully human today without global supplies? (If you’re thinking yes, you’re either a bit deluded and need to think again – or you’re already squarely on the path toward a new type of humanity, which we’re going to investigate in the second part of this lecture.)


[Slide 9] As an obvious centerpiece of the petroleum age and its globalized opportunities for trade and profit came the exponential development of industry, propelled by the availability of cheap fossil fuels. There’s probably no need to belabor this point. Industrial production has come to structure the meaning of our lives as human beings – the way we consume, the way we work, what we expect to be able to purchase cheaply and quickly, even the way some of us hark after a “post-industrial” age.


[Slide 10] The influence of petroleum on what gets manufactured, and how, became all-encompassing as plastics increasingly ruled the day. An amazing array of products we use daily have oil in them in one way or another. East Germany even used to have a plastic car – the Trabant – back in the 1960s. We’re set to have more of those as lighter hulls need to counterbalance more expensive gasoline, and as the industrialists who have polluted the planet on our behalf scramble to sell us new techno-fixes and engage in “industrial ecology” so that we (and , not unimportantly, they) can keep on living the industrial dream…


[Slide 11] In short, fossil fuels have gradually made us into “petro-humans”: the way we see ourselves and give meaning to our lives is closely linked to oil and other fossils. They’re not just elements of technology; as continuations of our bodies (as prosthetic tools) that have enabled certain specific meaning structures, oil and the machines it drives have become elements of how we became human (in our own eyes at least) during the 20th and early 21st century. This “petro-humanism” of today – anchored as it is in an oil-propelled globalization where we connect more and more blindly across vast geographical distance – now has some of us feeling like we’re dehumanizing ourselves at a rapid rate. We’re no longer aware of our connection to the biosphere and most of us no longer care about how much damage the burning of fossil fuels does. We seem to have lapsed into what I would like to call “petro-pathology.”


[Slide 12] The next group of slides simply quantifies and makes visible this petro-pathology. All through the 18th century – when the Scottish Enlightenment started to develop its notion of homo economicus and his preferred economic world – through the first decade of the 21st, CO2 concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere have steadily increased, going from about 280 ppm to close to 390 ppm. As US activist Bill McKibben and his colleagues at have so insistently reminded us again and again, this is a recipe for prolonged climate hardship. We seem to not yet have wrapped our economic minds around this – at least not those of us who stand to lose the least environmentally, but the most financially, from global warming. As Trump would tweet (though not exactly about this precise problem, which he denies even exists): “Sad!”


[Slide 13] Unsurprisingly, this increased concentration of CO2 has gone hand in hand with a massive and sustained rise in per-capita CO2 emissions by us humans, showing that natural factors can’t account for most of the concentrations and that these higher concentrations are anthropic – that is to say, caused by humans.


[Slide 14] Also without a surprise, the consumption of petroleum by humanity over the same period has skyrocketed. That’s what justifies speaking about petro-pathology when looking at what mainly causes the damage to our biosphere and our atmosphere.


[Slide 15] And finally, for those of you who might still be slightly under the thrall of the climate deniers, here’s the synthesis that should clinch it: the global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning have followed the exact same skyrocketing path that we’ve witnessed on all the previous graphs. So let’s rest our case and agree that the expression “petro-pathology” is, indeed, the right way to describe what’s been happening since before the Industrial Revolution (as coal was gradually supplemented by oil – which only made the problem of CO2 emissions that much more alarming).


[Slide 16] Indeed: the whole petro-pathological sequence that’s been unfolding in our modern, physophilic times is rooted in petro-humanism. The love of growth fired by the explosition of our oil-enabled human “needs” (mostly cravings and desires) has started to destroy the planet. It’s a crucial issue. It needs urgent political action, obviously – but also academic research.


[Slide 17] If you’re not really interested in research right now, you can scroll down directly to section 2, which begings on slide 19. But for those who are, here’s a first research question that I think is both relevant and exciting if one is working in the environmental humanities. (I’ll offer a second one later, on slide 27.) We saw that there’s a global “oil culture” that now supports an economy of growth – a “physophilic” economy – which grew out of the Scottish Enlightenment, with its idea that an Invisible Hand is guiding us collectively on the path to material growth and enrichment. Is there not, then, a close link – that hasn’t yet been investigated all that much in academia – between (a) on the one hand, the development of our modern “atomized” geographies of mobility, mass living, and consumption, and (b) on the other hand, the development of a theory of human motivation based on homo economicus as an absurd existential figure who – like the Greek anti-hero Sisyphus – endlessly lives in frustration and feeds the Providence of growth by constantly wanting new things, only to feel empty once he has acquired them? (You can see the beginning of such a research program in Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth, but he doesn’t pursue it very far. I’ve written extensively about it, but for now only in French…)


[Slide 18] This is the research question, but in the original Academese 😉


[Slide 19] Now that we have our diagnosis, let’s reflect on the cure. I won’t indulge in the umpteenth techno-optimistic rant, claiming that better carbon capture, or more fuel-efficient planes, or the artifical biospheres developed by some “industrial ecologist,” can allow us to go on living exactly like before. You can hear about those spaced-out eco-modernist fantasies in the media at any time. You can follow courses in most engineering schools and economics departments, and those fantasies are what you’ll mainly get. No. I want to argue that we can’t use technology or even generalized recycling to address the fuel-burning-driven-global-warming issue. We need to deliberately build a new economy and to willingly become a new kind of human being. We’re flexible and smart – just like our engineers and technophiles believe we are, only differently so – enough so that we have the capacity reflect and mutate. We’re human, and therefore able to reshape ourselves. We have what I call “anthropological plasticity.” This second section explores what that implies, and argues that in order to overcome physophilia and petropathology we need to go fully perma-circular.


[Slide 20] There’s a fundamental illusion underlying the growth economy and our idea that being human is loving growth: the illusion that growth isn’t bounded and that all taht’s needed is a good takeoff. In reality, no economy can grow forever because the biosphere and the atmosphere are finite. The sky’s – literally – the limit. We’re protected and kept alive by a very thin layer of supporting mechanisms, cycles, and substances. Biogeochemists know that; economists seem not to. We need to look for alternatives to the linear growth model.


[Slide 21] Should we instead investigate models of non-linear growth? What about the circular growth economy? What about the whole cottage industry of business models now suggesting that economic growth could be sustained forever if only all businesses went “circular” and – with the help of expensive consultants… –  created cyclical metabolisms whereby they re-use, repair, re-manufacture, and recycle 50 or 60 or even 80% of the raw materials used in their manufacturing processes? Isn’t that the solution? Unfortunately not. A growing literature (and this blog itself) has begun to show that as long as an economy grows, it will offset the beneficial effects of circularity. You can’t have a sustainable circular growth economy. Just think of it: what if you recycle everything you use (an incredible feat) but add in even just 2 or 3 or 5% of newly extracted raw materials every year? Soon you’ll be recycling huge amounts and you’ll hardly know what to do with all the new stuff that keeps flowing in every year. Your economy will be both efficient at the micro level and wasteful at the macro level – all the more so if what you recycle has been “residing” inside durable goods for a long time, while your growing economy was adding more new raw material flows and output every year. In other words, circularity may not be enough: you want to avoid to have the mass of stuff that your circles and cycles are moving grow every year! A constantly widening circle or an ever larger, upward spiral (as depicted) would defeat the global purpose of sustainability, even if certain businesses or cities might look good locally by having made themselves “circular.” It’s not just the fact that you recycle that matters, it’s how much more you need to recycle each year that will gradually do you in…


[Slide 22] Recycling is largely ineffective if economic growth is even moderately strong. As the engineer François Grosse has shown (see the posts by and about him in this blog), if aggregate growth exceeds even 1%, recycling merely allows you to bide some time and push out the time of reckoning – the day when resources will be exhausted – by a few years or decades. If we are to respect the biosphere’s cycles, we need circularity of course – but circularity within permanence. And for that to be possible, energy descent and the reduction – pretty drastic at that – of humanity’s globalized flows of materials are paramount, even in a circular economy. This can’t happen as long as we’re in the grip of petroanthropology, and as long as strong political as well as economic interests are in place that want and need the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels to continue thanks to our petroanthropological oil addiction.


[Slide 23] What we need is a circular economy, yes – but one that’s not also a circular growth economy. We need remanufacturing, re-using, repairing, and recycling, yes – but we need to do all that in the context of a generalized trend towards reducing our material flows and, ultimately, our carbon and ecological footprint. In short, we need a perma-circular economy.


[Slide 24] The expression “perma-circular” is made up of two terms: circularity and permaculture. Both the circular economy and the permaculture approach fundamentally rely on cycles and recycling. What only permaculture is able to add, however, is the crucial dimension of permanence or, more technically, of “stationarity.” This doesn’t mean stagnation or immobility. Not at all. It means simply that we inscribe our circularity within a closed “ecological budget” so that we don’t keep widening the “ring of Saturn” of additional, multiply recycled materials we need to deal with year after year. Permaculture is a holistic design approach that insists on both closed micro-loops and a finite macro-budget. This doesn’t get noticed so much by those who mainly approach permaculture from a gardening or agriculture perspective. If you take the broader view advocated by the founding fathers of permaculture, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren (but also, more recently, people like Toby Hemenway and Charles Eisenstein), you realize that the “permaculture flower” depicted here generates a coherent worldview, in which all elements of society and culture – education, health, money, land use, tools, construction – conspire to form one single perma-circular whole. A genuinely circular economy is subsumed within the permaculture design paradigm. What needs to vanish is the love of growth – not the love of growing plants and people, the love of spiritual or personal growth, but the obsessive attachment to economic, material growth as a linear destiny for humanity, lending unsustainable meaning to our lives and guiding our values and goals towards collective failure.


[Slide 25] And here comes the next crucial point: we don’t just need new mechanisms and institutions such as those just outlined in slide 24 around the “permaculture flower”; what we need at the same time – as a condition for those institutions to work well and be accepted – is a new form of human being. This may sound alarming but it isn’t. By “new” I don’t mean that we have to engineer a “New Man” like some Leninist Dr. Frankenstein. No. Those new humans already exist. In fact, they have always existed within each one of us, since the dawn of the human adventure, and have simply been eclipsed and driven into hiding deep inside us by five centuries of Western domination and brutality in the name of collective wealth, growth, and extractive possessiveness. These “new” humans are simply who most of us used to be before physophilic modernity – driven by a minority of our ancestors who believed they could “liberate” others through wealth and, rather conveniently, enrich themselves in the process – imposed homo economicus on the planet in his various guises. Older, “traditional” or “native” models of human life aren’t necessarily something we need to literally return to. But we urgently need to seek inspiration from those whom we clumsily call “natives” – when we should perhaps more aptly call them “our gentle alter egos.” Homo perma-circularis is a new breed – dormant in each one of us – that needs to rise out of a new synthesis of nativeness and modernity. She is the “modern native.” She seeks to live as joyfully and frugally as is needed in order to make it possible for everyone to adopt a similarly joyful, frugal way of life. “Universalization” is crucial here: homo perma-circularis seeks to live in such a manner that everyone can live like she does – and that means, necessarily, leading a one-planet-footprint existence. (Please read Jim Merkel’s wonderful, honest 2003 book Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth. You’ll truly no longer see your life in the same way. You’ll get a culture shock. You’ll be on your way to becoming a homo perma-circularis.) Key philosophical dimensions of this mutation are notions such as “bioregional rationality” (the fact of starting from the place where you live and doing your utmost to get by with what the ecologically coherent biotic community that surrounds you can sustainably supply you with) and “Native Modernity” (the fact of accepting that being modern nowadays means looking for smaller, slower, closed-loop, stationary, and differently productive solutions to life’s problems, without the mediation of hi-tech growth and dirty petroleum). In my view, the attempt to become perma-circular humans can be greatly helped by looking with respect – and even reverence – at certain traditions: not only venerable traditions such as those of the Native Americans, but also more recent traditions of the 1960s and 1970s, going by such disparaged names as “the hippies” or “the archaic revival.” Young folks back then wanted to become these new/ old human beings; they were swiftly derailed not so much by their own flaws as by the oil shocks and the immediate advent, in their wake, of Reaganism and Thatcherism. Today, at least forty-five years have been lost. New tribes need to rise. … And I am so pleased to see inklings of them amomg some of my students of today.


[Slide 26] The next culture we need – the “perma-culture” that will allow us to descend to one-planet footprints in a joyful and pleasurable way – is already here. Our recent ancestors have been doing such a lot of work. Their massive “new-paradigm” work is generously made available just for the taking. From such wheels, circles or mandalas, we can derive new organizations, new “tribes,” new collectives – some of which also already exist in the form of think tanks and research centers, student groups and permaculture collectives, local-economy organizations, etc. The landscape is still a bit unfamiliar for some of us, but we can quickly learn to navigate it. The culture shock we experience when we see what they’re offering and promoting is something positive: it makes us feel that homo perma-circularis is there inside us waiting to unfold (or else we wouldn’t have looked in the first place) but that she’s hampered and held down by so many remnants of dreary, grumpy old homo economicus. That’s fine. It’s one step at a time, even if sometimes it’s painful to be in limbo between the old and the new.


[Slide 27] So here’s the second research question for those of you who want to do some academic work around these issues. I’ll phrase it in a parallel way to the first question from slide 17, do that we can all feel the change that happens between the old and the new. We saw that there could and should be a global “perma-culture” that would support a non-growth circular economy – a perma-circular economy – which could grow out of a new “native Enlightenment,” with its idea that consciousness expansion and ecological de-centering can guide us collectively towards a permanent, one-planet footprint. Is there not a close link – that needs to urgently be investigated in academia – between (a) on the one hand, the currently ongoing development of a new sense of “native modern” community, rootedness, and localization, and (b) on the other hand, the development of a new theory of human motivation based on homo perma-circularis as the cosmo-centered figure who is creating a multiplicity of place-based lifestyles through consistent self-awareness and footprint-reducing calculations? (You can see the beginnings of such a research program in Charles Eisenstein’s books Sacred Economics and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. See also David Fleming’s Surviving the Future and Mark Boyle’s Moneyless Manifesto.)


[Slide 28] And here is our second research question, stated in the original Academese. 😉

So there you are. I hope you’ve enjoyed this compact, fast, rolicking, too long but also too short, hopefully intriguing tour of the arguments and prospects for a perma-circular humanity. For me, the next task of modernity is truly to usher in this model of humanity as well as the institutions and the organizations and settlements this humanity needs in order to flourish. We’re only just barely starting. The forces presently gathering against this “Native Modernity” project are – as demonstrated profusely by the recent politics of the United States and its new, petropathological presidential administration – mean and determined. All anti-modern forces have always were mean and determined, even and especially when they paraded as “modernist” and claimed to see in the status quo the true destiny of humanity. Homo perma-circularis might not come to be, but if she doesn’t, it will be because homo economicus succeeded in destroying the very bases of meaningful life on our planet. Yet she may yet rise on the shoulders of the first pioneers who will show us the way towards a one-planet-footprint descent – courageous forerunners who realize that enough is better, that sufficiency is the new efficiency, and that reducing while recycling is the secret to genuine human growth.


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2 thoughts on “Towards a permacircular humanity: An illustrated lecture

    • I’m nothing if not devoted to serving! 😉 Seriously though — thanks! I’m glad if it helps popularize these ideas, which are the lifeblood of the work I do, and of what I believe we ought to be collectively working towards.

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