Defining the “imperial mode of living”

September 21, 2021

This excerpt is reproduced with thanks from The Imperial Mode of Living by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen. Translation by Zachary Murphy King. It goes with a People & Nature review, here.

Defining the concept

The core idea of the concept is that everyday life in the capitalist centres is essentially made possible by shaping social relations and society–nature relations elsewhere, i.e. by means of (in principle) unlimited access to labour power, natural resources and sinks – ecosystems (such as rainforests and oceans in the case of CO2) that absorb more of a particular substance than they emit into their environment – on a global scale.[1]

The capitalist centres fundamentally depend on the the way in which societies elsewhere and their relation to nature are organised so that the transfer of the products of (often cheap) labour and elements of nature from the global South to the economies of the global North is guaranteed. Conversely, the imperial mode of living in the global North structures societies in other places in a decisively hierarchical way. We choose the vague expression “elsewhere” quite consciously. Many necessary everyday items are tied to a range of activities that are invisible during their purchase, consumption and use: the origin of raw materials used in household appliances, medical devices or transport; water and energy infrastructures; the working conditions under which these materials are extracted or textiles and food are produced; and the expenditure of energy required for these. “Cultural products”, such as print or digital media, are also part of this invisible economy.

The invisibility of the social and ecological conditions is precisely what enables us to experience the buying and use of these products as a natural given. “Food from nowhere” is what the agrarian sociologist Philip McMichael has called this strategy of obscuring the origins and production of foodstuffs, in which the spatio–temporal unlimited availability of the latter is normalised.[2] Examples include grapes from Chile offered in northern cafeterias in winter, tomatoes grown and picked by undocumented migrant workers in California for the North American market or by illegalised workers in Andalusia for the Northern European market, and shrimps for the global North that are farmed by destroying Thai or Ecuadorian mangrove forests. But it also includes the disastrous environmental conditions and cheap labour power of Romanian workers in German meat factories that ensure cheap meat in Germany and neighbouring countries.

Picking tomatoes in Mozambique. Photo by Bram Berkelmans / Wikimedia commons

The concept of the “imperial mode of living” points towards the norms of production, distribution and consumption built into the political, economic and cultural structures of everyday life for the populations of the global North.[3] And it works, increasingly, in the countries with “emerging economies” of the global South, as well. However, we mean not only material practices but also, and especially, the structural conditions and guiding social principles and discourses that make these practices possible. To put it pointedly: the standards of a “good” and “proper” life, which often consists of the imperial mode of living, are shaped by everyday life, even when they are a part of comprehensive societal relations, and especially of material and social infrastructures.[4]

In this respect, our concept of a “mode of living” stands in the tradition of Antonio Gramsci and regulation theory, as we assume that a contradictory social form such as capitalism can only reproduce itself if it is embedded in everyday practices and common sense, thereby becoming, so to speak, “natural”. With the adjective “imperial” we want to emphasise – now moving beyond Gramsci – the expanding global and ecological dimensions of this mode of living (again, also within the countries of the global North).

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Jet Zero and the politics of the technofix

September 9, 2021

An investigation by GARETH DALE and JOSH MOOS of the UK government’s “Jet Zero” policy for aviation. It first appeared in the Ecologist, and is republished here with thanks  

In the brave new geography of heat domes, torrential floods and woodland infernos, old-style climate denialism is as good as dead. From the ashes, we see its resurrection in new, sustainable-branded forms.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the UK government’s Jet Zero consultation, due to conclude this month. The wager is that aviation can be massively expanded even as its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions taper to zero.

In researching this essay, we read the government’s Jet Zero documents and interviewed aviation industry insiders and spokespeople. We found that of the three key terms – jet, zero, and consultation – two are misleading to the point of outright deception.

What struck us first is the scope of the so-called consultation that informed the Jet Zero documents. It has centred on a wilfully naïve borrowing of promises from the aviation sector, in particular the industry organisation Sustainable Aviation, mediated through government-industry partnership bodies.

A protest against the expansion of Leipzig Halle Cargo Airport in Germany, by campaigners for action on climate change. Photo from Stay Grounded

Largely frozen out are climate scientists and the environmental groups and NGOs that seek to protect the interests of Earth and its inhabitants. The government has even ignored a key recommendation of its own advisory body, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), that continued expansion of the aviation industry is, under all scenarios of technological advance, incompatible with its 2050 net zero target.

The aviation industry’s principal goal, its own continued growth, has been adopted by the government as its own. Aviation expansion is fundamental to Britain’s future, declared the Aviation minister, Liz Sugg, in the 2018 report on The Future of UK Aviation. Airport expansion, stated a follow-up report in 2020, is indispensable to the government’s agenda of “global connectivity.”

The same document projects that by 2050, passenger miles flown will be twice the 2017 figure and six times the 1990 figure, while aviation GHG emissions in the period from 2017 to 2050 will remain constant.

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