Recently, I read the book The Birth of Energy. Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, Energy & the Politics of Work by Cara New Daggett. This is a fascinating analysis of the role of thermodynamics as a worldview in the 19th century colonial and imperial expansion of capitalism. The linkage between science and ideology runs via Protestantism, with a core group of Scottish scientists and engineers shaping this peculiar intellectual synthesis. The defining conceptual cluster is energy, efficiency as avoidance of waste, and work. Work is a disciplinary regime that aims at mobilizing energy, both in terms of employing the new machines of the industrial age, and the strenuous physical effort of the worker. In other words, thermodynamics combines with the peculiar work ethic of Victorian Britain and the United States, the main references in the book. This work ethic was disseminated via the colonial expansion and imposed on indigenous populations as a ‘civilizing’ project that only thinly disguised the main interest in keeping wages low and exploiting cheap labour for capitalist accumulation. In the United States, the ideological amalgam was institutionalized in vocational schools for Black and Native American students.
This analysis reveals the cultural embeddedness of the physical relations between humans and the technosphere. A major methodological question in technosphere analysis is how the physical mechanisms of maximum power production and ensuing entropy production become binding for human action, what I call the ‘Lotka puzzle’. We fall down to Earth because of gravity, but we are free to follow technosphere mechanisms, despite their physical nature. The key to establishing this ‘culturalization’ of the physics of technosphere evolution is the work ethic of industrial modernity and its progressivist productivism. Productivism is deeply engrained in the modern economy, such as in national accounting standards of GDP. The work ethic ties this back to disciplining the individual. The important observation, also emphasized by Daggett, is that almost all ideological strands in industrial modernity emphasize productivism, which is salient in the fact that Universal Basic Income is rarely supported by socialist parties which otherwise take critical distance from capitalism. As Marx believed, communism becomes only feasible once capitalism has reached the pinnacle of productivity, though with a radically unequal distribution of wealth that would trigger the revolution.
Productivism is also implicit to most thinking about ‘greening’ the economy. Concepts such as ‘nature capital’ or ‘ecosystem services’ are deeply productivistic, almost naturalizing the capitalist work ethic. This is even more salient when considering the call for renewables which mostly does not necessarily imply the absolute reduction of energy consumption, only if achieved by higher efficiency. Daggett concurs with the point often raised in this blog, namely that the focus on global warming may distract attention to the more fundamental issue that even carbon-neutral energy use may go along with what I diagnose as the expansion of the technosphere, to the detriment of life on Earth.
Therefore, the key to regaining human autonomy from technosphere aka capitalist drivers of growth is reneging the work ethic of Western (white and male) modernity. To be precise, this relates to the productivist notion of ‘work’ which marginalizes non-productivist kinds of work. The most important one, emphasized by feminist scholars, is care. But there are many other non-productivist forms of work, once we strictly separate the social and the physical meaning. One important form of physical effort that is almost archetypically ‘non-productive’ is ritual, one of my major research topics in the past decade in the context of China (Herrmann-Pillath, Guo and Feng 2020). Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party, but also all Chinese modernizers in the 20th century condemned ritual practices as ‘wasteful’, since non-productive. Yet, ritual is pervasive in human societies, and anthropologists have even argued that it is a defining element of being human (Rossano 2016). Scholars have diagnosed the social and spiritual malaise resulting from the denigration of ritual in Western modernity (Seligman et al. 2008). Ritual was a central form of life in the highly civilized societies of East Asia, such as in Japanese Shinto. Tellingly, today Japanese researchers such as Hiroi Yoshinori consider the role of Shinto in creating a post-growth society. Shinto, like other ritual complexes such as Fengshui in China, establishes a direct relation between humans and nature.
Hence, care, ritual, or other forms of work such as artistic creation must become defining elements in a new cultural framing of work. We must radically reverse the focus on productivism towards activities that are restorative and conservative in a principled way. For example, many rituals serve to reinstate and confirm a social order, or much artistic work is about reaffirming and re-expressing the beauty, say, of a Beethoven symphony. Progress can be also redefined against this background, since there are so many ways to improve the conditions of living together, both humans and non-humans, that do not require raising technosphere productivity. That was the famous message delivered by the Chinese emperor Qianlong to the British MacCartney delegation demanding the opening of China for English traders. Qianlong expressed his deep conviction about the high civilizational standard of China without any need for further material progress. It is worthwhile to rethink this encounter. After all, one of the intellectual fathers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949 was a Chinese intellectual, who co-chaired the commission together with Eleanor Roosevelt, Zhang Penchun: He explicitly strived to imbue the Declaration with universalist Confucian notions of human progress towards goodness, that is, civilizational advances. To overcome the legacy of 19th century work ethics, we must adopt a truly transcultural vision of Homo faber.
Daggett, Cara New. 2019. The birth of energy: fossil fuels, thermodynamics, and the politics of work. Elements. Durham: Duke University Press.
Herrmann-Pillath, C., Guo, M., Feng, X. 2020. Ritual and Economy in Metropolitan China: A Global Social Science Approach. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.
Rossano M. 2016. The Ritual Origins of Humanity. In: Hartung G., Herrgen M. (eds) Interdisziplinäre Anthropologie. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-10978-3_1
Seligman, A. B., R. P. Weller, M. J. Puett and B. Simo., 2008. Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.