Economic Development and Cosmopolitical Re-involvement: From Necessity to Sufficiency
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
The diversity of the forms of life on Earth is consubstantial with life as a form, or mode, of matter. This diversity is the very movement of life as information, a form-taking process that interiorises difference – the variations of potential existing in a universe constituted by the heterogeneous distribution of matter-energy – to produce more difference, that is, more information. Life, in this sense, is an exponentialisation, a redoubling or multiplication of difference by itself. This applies equally to human life. The diversity of ways of human life is a diversity in the ways of relating to life in general, and to the innumerable singular forms of life that occupy (inform) all of the possible niches of this world. Human diversity, social and cultural, is a manifestation of environmental, or natural, diversity – it constitutes us as a singular form of life, being our own mode of interiorising ‘external’ (environmental) diversity and therefore of reproducing it. For this reason the present environmental crisis is, for humans, a cultural crisis, a crisis of diversity, and a threat to human life.
The crisis sets in as soon as we lose sight of the relative, reversible and recursive character of the distinction between ‘environment’ and ‘society’. Paul Valéry stated in the sombre aftermath of the First World War, ‘We, European Civilizations, now know that we are mortal’ (Valéry 1957/1919: 988). In this somewhat crepuscular beginning of the present century, we have come to know that, beyond being mortal, ‘our civilisations’ are lethal, and lethal not only for us, but for an incalculable number of living species – including our own. We, modern humans, children or stepchildren of the mortal civilisations of Valéry, appear to have forgotten that we belong to life, and not the contrary. Once we knew this. A few other remaining civilisations appear to know this still. Many more, some of which we have already killed, knew this only too well. But today, it has begun to be glaringly obvious even for ‘us’ that it is in the supreme and urgent interest of the human species to abandon an anthropocentric perspective. If the demand seems paradoxical, that is because indeed it is; such is our present condition. But not all paradox implies an impossibility; the paths that our civilisation has taken have not been at all necessary, from the point of view of the human species. It is possible to change direction, even though this means changing much of what many people would consider to be the very essence of our civilisation. Our curious way of saying ‘us’, for example, excluding ourselves from the ‘environment’.
What we call environment is a society of societies, what we call society is an environment of environments. What is ‘environment’ for one society will be ‘society’ for another environment, and so forth. Ecology is sociology, and vice versa. As the great ecologist Gabriel Tarde said, ‘Every thing is a society, every phenomenon is a social fact’ (Tarde 1999/1893: 58). All diversity is both a social and an environmental fact; it is impossible to separate them without falling into the gap thus opened up and destroying the very conditions of our existence.
Diversity is, therefore, a superior value for life. Life lives off difference; every time that a difference disappears, there is death. ‘To exist is to differ,’ continued Tarde, ‘it is diversity, not unity, which is at the heart of things’ (1999/1893: 72–73). In this way, it is the very idea of value, the value of all value, so to speak – the heart of reality – which supposes and affirms diversity.
To speak of socioenvironmental diversity is not merely to affirm a truth; it is a call to arms. It is not about celebrating or lamenting a foregone diversity, residually maintained or irretrievably lost – an already differentiated difference, static, sedimented in separated identities and ready for consumption. We know how socioenvironmental diversity, taken as mere variety in the world, can be used to substitute mock differences for true differences – narcissistic distinctions that repeat to infinity the apathetic identity of consumers, who become ever more similar the more they imagine themselves to ‘be different’.
But the arrow of real diversity points to the future, to a differentiating difference, to a becoming which goes beyond the plural (a simple variety subsumed by some superior unity) towards the multiple (a complex variation that resists totalisation). Socioenvironmental diversity is to be produced, promoted, favoured. It is not a question of preservation, but of perseverance. It is not a problem of technological control, but of political self-determination.
The problem, in sum, is that of finding an alternative way of life, because there is no alternative to life. To change the life we live – to change the way of life; to change the ‘system’. Capitalism is a politicoreligious system, the principle of which consists of taking from people what they have and making them want what they don’t have – always and ever. Another name for this principle is ‘economic development’. We are here right in the thick of the theology of the Fall, of the infinite insatiability of human desires before the finite means of satisfying them (see Sahlins 2000). The economists are the priests and the theologians of our age. It is not by accident that Marx spoke of the metaphysical subtleties and of the theological astuteness involved in the idea of commodity. But it is precisely this theology of development that we can no longer accept, or at least we can no longer accept the equation between development and economic ‘growth’. The world of economics is paying renewed attention to the theses of Georgescu-Roegen and his disciples on de-growth, the thermodynamic costs of the economy, and the idea that there exists an uneconomic growth which occurs ‘when increases in production come at an expense in resources and wellbeing that is worth more than the items made’.
Environmental degradation is an iatrogenic disease induced by economic physicians (pro-growth advocates) who treat the basic malady of unlimited wants by prescribing unlimited economic growth. We experience environmental degradation in the form of increased scarcity of clean air, pure water, relaxed moments etc. But the only way the growthmania paradigm knows to deal with scarcity is to recommend growth. Yet one certainly does not cure a treatment-induced disease by increasing the treatment dosage! (Daly 2004/1973: 49).
The notion of ‘sustainable development’ is merely a means of making the notion of development sustainable, although it really should have already been sent to the idea-recycling plant. There is no such thing as a sustainable capitalist economy; but unless I am much mistaken, the majority of those who strive for a sustainable way of life cannot even imagine an alternative to capitalism.
To counter economic development, we must generate a concept of anthropological sufficiency. Anthropological sufficiency does not mean absolute selfsufficiency (‘sustainability’), given that life is difference, is relation with alterity, is openness to an outside in view of its perpetual interiorisation, an interiorisation that is always unfinished (the outside maintains us, we are the outside, we differ from ourselves at every moment). What is in question is self-determination, the capacity to define for ourselves a good enough life, as Winnicott spoke of a ‘good enough mother’. We do not need paradise, or the perfect mother; the ‘good life’ is a good enough life. There is no better than enough.
Development is always deemed an anthropological necessity because it supposes an anthropology of necessity: the subjective infinitude of ‘Man’ (his insatiable desires) is in indissoluble contradiction with the objective finitude of the environment (the scarcity of resources). We are at the heart of the theological economy of the West; we are at the source of our economic theology of development. It was Walter Benjamin who famously remarked that capitalism is a religion – not the result of a religious mutation (as in Weber’s classic thesis), but a mutation of Christianity, its transformation into capitalism itself (Benjamin 1996/1921). And as Sahlins also famously said, the genesis of Economics was the economics of Genesis (Sahlins 2000).
However, this economicotheological concept of necessity is, in every sense, unnecessary, by which I mean, dangerous to the point of being suicidal. Against the theology of necessity should be put forward a pragmatic of sufficiency. Against the acceleration of growth, the acceleration of transfers of wealth, or the free circulation of differences; against the economocist theory of necessary development, let us devise a cosmopragmatics of sufficient action. Against the world of ‘everything is necessary, nothing is enough’, let us favour a world where very little is necessary, almost everything is enough. Who knows, maybe with these strategies we will end up with a world to leave to our children.
Panpsychism. That’s what we should be moving to. Animals are just the first step. We’ll get to the rocks eventually.
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Economic development and cosmopolitical re-involvement: From necessity to sufficiency (excerpt), in Lesley Green (editor) Contested Ecologies: Reimagining the Nature-Culture Divide in the Global South, Pretoria 2013, HSRC Publishing.