Thursday, August 27, 2009

Garden Earth – a study in political ecology and economic democracy

There is no land left to settle, the last frontier we have left to civilize is ourselves. (Jewel).

Garden Earth looks at human society from several perspectives. It avoids the trap of using just one lens for making sense of the world. The main themes examined by Garden Earth are ecology; society and its power relations; the market economy; and technology and energy. And it takes the long view. In this way it is the opposite to the current flow of books on climate change; the financial crisis; the food and agriculture crisis or peak-oil. It does, however, help make sense of these present day problems and also offers a path for future developments.

Garden Earth looks at the history of human society, how it was shaped by ecological and social conditions. As an example, it shows the importance of trade for our ecological adaptation. People might believe that trade emerged as a means to make profit, but the reality is that trade is what enabled us to populate areas were some essential resource was missing. Garden Earth discusses the reasons for success – and failures – of civilizations, and it explains how and why capitalism developed in Western Europe despite the fact that just 300 years earlier Western Europe was an impoverished part of the world.

A main focus of the book covers the technical and energy development “complexes”. This includes the first use of fire, how animal energy was harnessed traction and transport, and the use of wind for trade and for new conquests. Up to the mid eighteenth century wood was the main source of energy, and that led to intense pressure on the forests; large tracts of Europe and other developed parts of the world were deforested. Coal changed all this. In the short run it saved the forest. In the long run, however, it paved the way for an enormous expansion in energy use to a level where each human use energy resources corresponding to the manpower of thirty, forty people. This has enabled the situation to develop where more than 40 percent of the land surface is used for food production and for our cities, and where more than a 100 percent of the total production capacity of the planet is used annually – clearly not a sustainable situation.

In early societies it was obvious that more energy had to be produced than was consumed, otherwise humanity could not have worked and reproduced. With the introduction of fossil fuel this all changed. In the modern day, some 15-150 times (figures vary considerably depending on how they are calculated) as much energy is used to produce our food than we get from it. This is an extremely inefficient system!

In general, it is only in recent centuries that humans have been motivated by material wealth and economic gain. This one-sided emphasis on material wealth, growth and profit was a forceful driver for the development of the modern market economies, and it has created unprecedented productivity and wealth. It has also contributed to the increase of human rights and liberation of women and other oppressed groups compared to the preceding feudal societies. But it has also come with a price. The price is depletion of natural resources; squeezing out other organisms and ecosystems to such an extent that we are endangering our own survival; causing climate change and chemical and medical contamination, to mention just a few. Further, there is no evidence that this growth has delivered more human well-being. Is not well-being that we should be striving for rather then GDP figures?

Our society faces many challenges. On the one hand, the pressure on natural resources, in particular all the ecosystem services and on the other hand poverty and inequality. Our society has no mechanisms to value the services of nature. This has led to large scale depletion. One way of dealing with this is to “liquidate” these resources and services, e.g. with carbon payments or payment to farmers for environmental services. There is a certain logic to this approach, but it also means that we are using the same system that actually created the problem, that is, capitalism, to fix it. Is that wise? Capitalism and market economy have gradually expanded to bigger and bigger sections of our life: from markets for goods, then to labour and soil. Later on financial markets – buying money for money – developed. Lately there has been a large scale “marketization” of social capital, when public goods have been transferred to private ownership and management. To let nature itself – the air we breathe, the water we drink – be managed by markets seems like a very risky venture.

Our society and the capitalist market economy have failed in creating wealth for the many. Big parts of humanity are as poor today as they were fifty years ago, despite unprecedented growth worldwide markets. We have failed to create an equitable society. In addition, the economic system, supposedly managing itself through the “invisible hand”, is in constant need of corrections and controls, simply because it doesn’t work as it is supposed to.

The capitalist economy and its associated values – such as the vision of constant growth – were perhaps appropriate for a world bent on expansion and colonization. But we have now colonized what there is to colonize and spread ourselves over all parts of the globe. Even if economic growth is still possible (we can always create new ‘virtual’ globes on the internet, can’t we?), biological, physical and geographic growth isn’t. Therefore, we need new values and paradigms. Most likely we also need a new economy and new forms of social capital. Population growth also needs to be checked.

We have changed the globe so much that Nature can’t make it without us anymore and more and more wild life is dependent on us for its survival. There is no point in looking back to the time when we were equal to the elk, the carrot and the sheep. Today, whether we like it or not, we must act as gardeners for the whole Garden Earth. And we must manage the planet as a garden, as our garden.

The views above include some of the essential discussions of the book, Garden Earth. It is currently a 400-page book in Swedish, due to be published later this year. En English version is under production. Publishers are welcome to contact me...


  1. Since so many people share his(capitalist) sickness, no one perceives that it is a sickness. Because this(evil) confusion has become so common, nobody now thinks it is a sickness. All are in with the same sickness, the same confusion. Not only those who follow but those who end as well. Even the distinction between right and wrong is not possible. You simply live as whatsoever! But, just imagine if 6.783 billion earth's population grow a tree each, the Garden Earth would have a life-giving natural energy which can generate new lives, hopes and inspirations.

  2. Put this way, it is so simple....6.8 billion trees; 6.8 billion people working where they live; 6.8 billion people recycling their rubbish........and so on. Social Ecology [] explores the ways in which we can treat the sickness, and reveals how we can change and make alternative choices.