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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751

Abstract

OLIVIER, Bert. The ecological crisis, capitalist economy and techno-optimism. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2018, vol.58, n.3, pp.464-482. ISSN 2224-7912.  http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2224-7912/2018/v58n3a2.

This article is an attempt to put into perspective the complex relationships pertaining to the role of the currently dominant economic practice of neoliberal capitalism, as well as of the pervasive technophilia in global societies, in the growing ecological crisis - probably the most serious crisis that has faced humanity in its entire collective existence. In the first place, to answer the question, whether there is an ecological crisis - not a rhetorical question, given the relative success of denialist attempts to discredit affirmative claims in this regard - a succinct account of the state of natural ecological systems on planet Earth is provided, with reference to evidence to this effect in the freely accessible, growing scientific and critical literature. This literature includes the fifth (and most recent) report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has confirmed the high probability (the highest possible scientific affirmation) that anthropogenic climate change has been happening for some time, and has already harmed planetary ecologies, including human ones. Further (critical) affirmation of the ecological crisis in the work of leading thinkers is adduced and discussed, including that of Joel Kovel, Naomi Klein, John Bellamy Foster and Thomas Princen, with a view to demonstrating the seriousness of the global situation by highlighting the extent to which "natural" states of affairs - regarding Earth processes such as global warming, ocean acidification, species extinction and chemical pollution - are approaching "red alert" status. Despite this scientifically demonstrable fact, neoconservative capitalist forces continue promoting a denialist agenda, while simultaneously (and contradictorily) - as Klein shows persuasively - preparing for "extreme climate events" with a view to making a profit out of them at several levels, including those of insurance and para-military intervention for restoring social order. Secondly, the causal relationship between the scientifically confirmed state of planetary ecosystems and the economic system and practices of neoliberal (consumer) capitalism is addressed, specifically in the light of the principle, that unbridled economic growth is not possible within a finite, but encompassing, ecological system, the former being only a part of the latter. Hence the demonstrable deleterious effects of unregulated economic growth on ecosystems, as perceptible in the Earth processes referred to. The consequences of this type of growth for living beings are highlighted, and some of the economic drivers of ecological degradation are identified. These include the increase in fuel-guzzling motor cars and in air traffic, coal-production, natural gas-production, and the decimation of oxygen-producing trees. The character of capitalism and of capital - the widely misunderstood process at its core - is articulated, pointing out that capital is subject to the iron law of "grow or die". The link between the character of capitalism and the people who are its agents is explored, and an analogy between the "symbiotic" functioning of capital in society, on the one hand, and the symbiotic relationship between mitochondria and the human body, on the other hand, is utilised to illuminate the fact that capital, while retaining its own characteristics, nevertheless flourishes in society because, without its human agents, it cannot grow. In the third place, to be able to grasp the grounds of the looming ecological crisis more adequaletly, the focus shifts to the technophiliac, or techno-optimistic nature of contemporary society, by drawing on the work of (mainly) Martin Heidegger, Sherry Turkle, Bernard Stiegler and Gil Germain. Although Heidegger issued an early warning against a collective mindset that approached all problems within a technocratic framework, it is clear that the world has since become decisively technocratic, and that the widespread use of electronic technical devices reflects a pervasive technophilia. Turkle has shown that this has gone as far as people showing a remarkable (and to her alarming) tendency, ofpreferring the imagined simplicity of "relationships" with robotic beings to the complexity of human relationships. Moreover, there are clear signs, according to her, of the deterioration of children's ability to socialise with their peers, which she attributes to the interposition of technical gadgets such as smartphones between one child or person and another. Stiegler, in turn, argues that the transfer of natural human capacities such as memory to what he calls mnemo-technical devices, not only leads to the deterioration of such human capacities, but that the cynical use of these devices by capitalist agencies for marketing products and increasing purchasing capacity ultimately robs people of their "savoir-faire" (know-how) and even worse, of their "savoir-vivre" (the knowledge of how to live a fulfilling life). In Germain's work we encounter a telling analysis of the difference between a society (such as that of Plato in ancient Greece), where a clear awareness of the essence of being-human was demonstrated, namely, that humans are "erotic beings", or beings of desire who live in a world of openness and unpredictable possibility, on the one hand, and contemporary society, which is increasingly predicated on the supposed ability to satisfy all human needs technologically on the other. Such vaunted technical control, Germain argues, undermines being-human because it relegates desire to mere need, and concomitantly replaces a world of openness with one that is closed. Small wonder, then, that there is such abundant evidence of techno-optimism; after all, if everything can be technically controlled, surely - so the argument goes - technical solutions to the emerging ecological crisis must be possible. In conclusion the emergence of a new philosophical genre, namely, "extinction studies" is briefly discussed in relation to the philosophical question, how it is possible for supposedly "rational" human beings to display a preference of sorts for the perpetuation of an eco-destructive economic system (capitalism), compared to the survival of (human) life on Earth.

Keywords : ecology; economy; capitalism; climate change; crisis; technology.

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