Researchers and policy-makers addressing sustainability in the early twenty-first century face a challenge so formidable that theymay prove incapableofdealingwith it, inwhichcaseourcurrentcapitalistcivilization may well share the fate of ancient Rome and similar historical instancesofsocio-ecologicalcollapse(Tainter1988).Thisalarmistintroduction ismeant to underscore the urgency of the analytical task that I attempt to outline in this book. The currently globalizing connections throughmarket exchange and technologies of trade and communication arewidelycelebratedasaroadtoamoreintegrated,prosperous,andeven egalitarianfutureworld,yetthereisoverwhelmingevidencethatprecisely theseconnectionscontinuetogeneratedevastatingecologicaldeterioration and increasingly severe inequalitieswithin and between nations (United NationsDevelopmentProgram1998;MillenniumEcosystemAssessment 2005).Almost seven billion human beings are currently implicated in a global system that seems inexorably to bring us all closer and closer to socio-ecological collapse.There is nothing inevitable about this process, many of us are aware of its fundamental direction, yet we seem quite unabletohaltit. Thisincapacitytoevadecatastrophehastwobasicaspectsthatareintricately interrelated.Oneis thatourwayof thinkingandtalkingabout the worldpreventsus fromgraspingorat least efficaciouslyquestioning the mechanisms propelling this development. The other is that there are extremely powerful interests at stake.We are not all sitting in the same boat,asthemetaphorgoes.Wearesittinginat least twodifferentboats, but one is pulling us all toward disaster. There are definitely powerful socialgroupswhohaveverymuchtogain–atleastwithintheanticipated timeframeoftheirownlifetimes–fromthecurrentorganizationofglobal society.Asmanysocialscientistshaveshown,itispreciselythesegroups who tend to exert aprimary influenceover theway social processes are defined – and even questioned. The language devised to manage
socio-ecological ‘problems’ viewed through such system-serving lenses will naturally constrain our capacity to actually ‘solve’ problems in the senseofchangingthedirectionofsocietaldevelopment,whichmaywell require fundamentally reorganizing social institutions. The language of policyandmanagementthustendstoavoidquestionsofpower,conflicts, andinequalities.Althoughconspicuouslypresent–andincreasinglyproblematic–inglobalhumansociety,suchissuesarerarelyidentifiedasproblems to be solved. There is rather a pervasive assumption of consensus withregardtoappropriatepolicyandmanagement. A crucial challenge for social sciences strugglingwith these issues is that the everyday assumptions about theworld inwhichwe are all suspended, and which are generally described for us in terms of flows of money and information, have very tangiblematerial properties and consequences.Thesematerialaspectsofglobalsocietyarewidelyignoredin socialscience, inpartbecausetheyimplicateknowledgeandmethodologies generally reserved for the natural sciences. Nor can they be fully grasped by the natural scientists themselves, simply because these researchersgenerallyhaveapoorunderstandingofsociety.Yetthelogic ofthesematerialaspectsofsociety–whatareincreasinglyreferredtoas ‘socio-ecological’systems–urgentlyneedstobeunderstood(Berkesand Folke1998;HornborgandCrumley2007).Butevenhere,incontemporary attempts to transcend the academic distinction between social and naturalsciences,thereisacleardivergencebetweenperspectivesemphasizing,respectively,consensusandconflict.Inthisbook,Iwilltakepower, contradiction,and‘capitalaccumulationbydispossession’(Harvey2003) asapointofdepartureforunderstandingthedisastrouscourseofcurrent socio-ecological processes, but I will also briefly demonstrate why the hegemonicinterpretationsandpoliciesthatinsteadassumeconsensus(e.g. thefunctionalistdiscourseon‘resilience’)maybemisguided. The chapter is divided into three parts. The first discusses how a population’sperceptionsoftechnology,economy,andecologyareconditioned by its positionwithin global systems of resource flows, and how mainstreammodernperceptionsof‘development’canbeviewedasacultural illusion confusing a privileged position in social space with an advancedpositioninhistoricaltime.Thesecondparttracessomelineages of critical thinkingonenvironmental loaddisplacement andecologically unequalexchange,arguingthatsuchacknowledgementofaglobalenvironmental‘zero-sumgame’isessentialtorecognizingtheextenttowhich cornucopian perceptions of ‘development’ indeed represent an illusion. The third part, finally, offers some examples of how the rising global anticipation of socio-ecological contradiction and disaster is being ideologicallydisarmedbytherhetoricon‘sustainability’and‘resilience’.