Recently on Right On, an interview with Alain de Benoist was published regarding the COP21, wherein de Benoist argued that mitigating, much less solving, climate change is impossible “without breaking with the global neoliberal order” and that “‘sustainable development’ (or ‘supportable’) is only an oxymoron.” While I think de Benoist is dead on, I feel that there is more to add. It’s not simply the case that there is no such thing as “sustainable development,” but rather the way we view the world around us, namely through a technological lens, facilitates the creation of the base concepts such as “development.” In other words, while it’s true that “we cannot face the ecological crisis without breaking with the global neoliberal order,” we cannot face the global neoliberal order without breaking with our current singular mode of knowledge production and understanding of the world.
While we’ll never know the exact moment that the propriative event of primitive humans discovering that their agency can act as a cause to create some effect – for example, the utilization of a bone as a hammer – occurred, we can assert that it did happen, and thus analyze the tremendous impact it has had. Once primitive humans first discovered that asserting their will could cause some effect on the natural world, there was no going back to a time before that knowledge was possessed (this is the essence of a “propriative event”). Humans had discovered something called “technology” and the cause and effect relationship that had been learned was a new way of viewing the world. Entities in the world could now be seen not simply as entities existing for existence’s sake, but rather as objects, maybe even tools, that could affect other objects in “productive” ways. This cause and effect relationship led to the most rudimentary, but quintessential nonetheless, aspect of human existence: the singular mode of knowledge production about the world through the lens of causation.
As humans began to use technology and view the world through a correlative- and causative-based lens, the world became enframed within a singular mode of knowing; the technological mode of thought characterized by “progress.” A world that is enframed within one way of understanding reality – in this case and discussion, it is a causative understanding – necessarily precludes other forms of knowledge and modes of Being within the world. Further, a world that is enframed within a causative understanding of reality is necessarily future-oriented, and progress driven as “the present” is largely a fiction and/or only exists insofar as it serves to “colonize the future.” Once a causative model is taken as the way the world is, actions become predictive and humans can take actions with the recognition that future actions are caused by their current ones; in other words, a causative view of reality allows one to predict the outcome of future actions, thus leading to scenario planning. The most important point of note in this discussion is that once the world becomes enframed within a causative lens, all objects become seen as things that can be used to achieve a desired end. Sticks become swords, bones become hammers, downed trees become bridges. In short, the objects of the natural world become what Heidegger calls “standing reserve,” that is to say, objects at the ready to be utilized for an end.1 In fact,
[t]he future – that which hasn’t happened yet – is seen as determined by what does or doesn’t happen in the present. In other words, calculation and risk relative to the future now structure the present moment rather than mere survival. The present moment becomes an awareness of calculation and risk relative to a future that can be colonized, thus converting the past into a source of useful information – another kid of “standing reserve” – to help better predict the future. The “future,” in other words, is not a neutral construct; it becomes something to be colonized by pre-emptively mastering and controlling actions in the present relative to one’s surroundings. Damning up a river, for example, obviously an advance on using a bone as a hammer, nonetheless does the same thing: it utilizes action in the present to colonize the future.2
The ability, and desire, to “colonize the future” is a function that necessarily grows out of calculative thought because “[c]alculative thinking is a kind of thinking where nothing is what it is, when it is, but only what it will or won’t be at some point other than now.”3 In other words, the possibility and desire to “develop” comes out of a specific way of viewing and knowing the world and the objects that are located within it – namely, the calculative and causative framework described above. Without breaking with our current understanding of how the world works and our current model for human action, we will be stuck within the framework of perpetual development, albeit under different auspices (this is why it can be said that neither Communism nor Fascism, as they have been deployed historically, are true metaphysical alternatives to the mode of knowledge that is intrinsic to neoliberalism).
At the end of the day, de Benoist is completely correct when he says that “we cannot face the ecological crisis without breaking with the global neoliberal order,” but that is a statement that assumes a starting point of economic criticism. I argue that while the sentiment is valid, the starting point destines any alternatives to failure because the logic and justification behind “the global neoliberal order” – namely the logic of calculative thinking and of viewing the objects in the world as tools for human agency – is unbroken. To face the ecological crisis, we need a deeper form of criticism that breaks with the current ontology of objects and epistemic framework of the world.
- Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper, 1977), p. 20.
- Garry Leonard, “Technically Human: Kubrick’s Monolith and Heidegger’s Propriative Event,” Film Criticism 36, 1 (Fall 2011, pp. 44-67.), p. 54.
- Ibid., p. 64.