A. One’s Apocalypse is Another’s Utopia

Midnights Notes on eco-utopian visions, from 1980.

Submitted by Fozzie on June 15, 2023

To decode the messages of the apocalypse we should see that both the anti-limitationists and the interactionists demand a complete change in the mode of production. They are “revolutionaries” because they fear something in the present mode that disintegrate’s capital’s touch: a demand, an activity and a refusal that has not been encompassed.

The anti-limitationists focus on the “need” to end the oil-auto-assembly line economy of the post-war era. Taking “the father of the H-bomb”, Edward Teller’s “Energy-A Plan for Action”"1 as indicative of their position we see that by the beginning of the next century they would have a completely different world of production compared with the ’70s. Consider some proportions. (See graph #1)

In 1973 electricity production demanded 25% of the total energy of the U.S. while transportation (excluding auto production) demanded 25%. There was a rough balance between these two sectors in the last decade. Teller, on the contrary, envisions a radically new system where electricity would demand 50% of the total energy, with transportation reduced to 11%. (The “raw material” would come from a vast increase in Western coal strip mines and the use of nuclear reactors.) This would involve a complete reorganization of production and reproduction, though the number of workers necessary to supply the fuel and run the power plants would undergo relatively minor increases. Teller argues not only for a substantial increase in “energy” consumption, in line with the historical trend, but for a radical shift in the structure of work. What he has in mind is revealed by his “Manpower Requirements”:

No matter what popular opinion asks us to believe, technology will be crucial for human survival. Contrary to much of our current thinking, technology and its development is not antithetical to human values. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. Tool-making and the social organization it implies are very deeply ingrained in our natures. This is, in fact, the primary attribute that distinguishes man from other animals. We must continue to adapt our technology, which is, in essence, our ability to shape nature more effectively in order to face the problems that this human race faces today. It is for this reason that the development and expansion of technical education is so important. It is only through the possession of high skills and the development of educational systems for the acquisition of these skills that human prosperity can be insured.

Teller envisions a new “New Atlantis” with a priesthood of highly “skilled” scientist-technicians surrounded by an army of “craftsmen” who monitor, develop, and control the automated production processes with computer networks. This is a sample of how his vision would work:

Computers have been introduced in central control stations to control interties for the purpose of optimizing the use of energy by drawing at any time of the cheapest available source of electricity. These computers are also beginning to be used to store and display data about the state of the major components of the generating plants and transmission lines. This will help the dispatcher to make the right decisions, for instance, by accepting a local and temporary brownout, or even blackout, rather than permitting an overstrained system to breakdown.

We have here a centralized neural society where the work process is integrated at the speed of light in reverberating feed-back circuits modulated to prevent total breakdown. Capital finally finds its etymology. Teller spells the end of the ass-kicking truckers’ songs, the lyric of the stoned highway at 3 AM; everything is concentrated now, controlled in the wires of an air-conditioned brain. For the internal-conbusion engine, after all, has been an enormous source of “decentralization” of desires that cannot be tolerated, for it seems to lead to catastrophe.

Teller’s apocalypse flashes the desolation of an oil-starved assembly line economy, his utopia is an electronic techno-nuclear model of capital allowing for a new leap in accumulation. Yet one’s apocalypse is another’s utopia. We see this when we turn to the interactionists, who argue that any step down Teller’s path leads to human annihilation. The Odums, an ecologist and a social worker, serve as a precise counter-pole to Teller for they are extremists even among interactionists.2 They agree with Teller that the assembly line economy is over, but argue that the future holds no technological solution to declining “energy”. They dismiss both the solar energy enthusiasts and the fusion freaks. In their view, “various schemes for harnessing solar energy turn out to be installations based mainly on fossil fuels, with their main energy flows not really supported by the sun.” Their argument against the possibility of fusion power is certainly original: “Fusion could be disastrous to humanity either if it were so rich that it gave too much energy, or if it took all our capital and gave us no net energy. ” If it failed and all the energy eggs were in the fusion basket, disaster would follow; but if it were successful it would release such an intense energy flow that too much energy would be required “to maintain control as it is diluted to the intensity of the human system.’’ The very price of success would guarantee disaster.

Thus “we” can neither remain with the present mode of production based upon dwindling reserves, nor can the path of “technological leap” save the system. They propose a new mode of production, a “steady-state and low-energy” economy, bringing the human race into a safe equilibrium with Nature. The price for survival, however, is not only the disco beat:

To become adapted to the steady state, people will have to give up their restlessness and their insistence on the large, the new and the different. But the young people who tried to form a low- energy subculture to avoid the excesses of the high-energy growth period will also have to change. More work will be expected from each individual in the low-energy society because there will be fewer machines.

Examples of the Odum’s steady-state utopia are rain forests, coral reefs and the “uniformly cold bottom of the sea (near freezing)”, as well as pre-industrial-India agricultral villages. The common element in such systems is “a great diversity; intimate, highly organized symbiotic relationships; organisms with complex behavior programs by which they serve each other; well timed processing of mineral cycles that do not lose critical materials; and highly productive conversions of inflowing energy.”

“The Octopus’ Garden in the Shade” becomes the solution to the energy crisis.

Here are some features of the steady-state economy that more precisely describe the Odum’s vision:

— Growth-stimulating industries are eliminated.

— Less emphasis on transportation.

— Balanced governmental budgets.

— Miniaturization of technology to use less energy.

— Decrease in public and private choices and experiments.

— Urban construction will be replaced by separate and smaller houses.

— Farms use more land, less fuel and more hand labor.

— Properties of high concentration of energy will decrease: crime, accidents, law enforcement,
noise, central services, taxes.

No more cities, no more travel, no more factories, no more power plants, and presumably no state. Just the quiet labor-intensive life on Jim Jones’ farm (after they’ve seen Paree?). The necessary restructuring of employment to realize this utopia is obvious. Unemployment in the “growth and luxury industries” will “shift people to agriculture” with wages being steadily cut and unions taking on the role of employment transformers.

It all sounds so wholesome, a world apart from the nuclear-computer-philosopher-kings of teller! Spots on apples! Birds and Bees! Nature’s watchful eye assures a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay instead of Teller’s electronic-eyed cyclops monitoring our neural hook-ups tottering on the edge of breakdown. However, there is a coldness here, for all the cosiness, reminiscent of the H-bomb’s daddy; an anger, a fear that Teller and the Odums share. They offer opposite revolutions of production, apocalypses and utopias, but they agree on one thing: the present state of capital has had it, not only because it has lost its “energy” but because there is too much “chaos”, uncontrolled behavior, too many demands and not enough work. This commonality emerges sharply in what appear as marginal remarks upon the “youth” of the ’60s and ’70s. Both anti-limitationists, and interactionists agree: they are lazy! So Teller complains of “an antiscientific trend among young people,” while the Odums (in a passage quoted above) clearly expect the fuck-off young rebels to get down to work. Their deepest commonality however is that, like the apocalypticians of the past, problem in Nature. On the one side the raw limit of energetic stuffs, and on the other side the “ecological” catastrophe induced by industrial development. They postulate a limit either on the natural “input” (fuel) or on “output” onto nature (pollution). But once again we cannot read their fears and solutions straight, for in their text Nature is identified with Capital pure and simple. They never declare the obvious: capital is a relation of struggle. Once this translation is made, their sybilline visions can be deciphered and their ominous somberness dispelled. Their limits are not ours.

  • 1 Edward Teller, “Energy — A Plan for Action" in E. Teller, H. Mark, J.S. Foster, Jr. (eds.) POWER & SECURITY, (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1976), pp. 1-82.
  • 2 Howard T. Odum, Elisabeth C. Odum, ENERGY BASIS FOR MAN AND NATURE, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976).


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