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Toward an Economy of Repair

Adam Krause

This essay by Adam Michael Krause attempts to look at the basics of our very real biology, rather than our artificial economies, to determine how we ought to proceed. It was originally presented as a lecture at the University of Oslo in 2014 and published in the book Social Ecology and Social Change, available right here:

Toward an Economy of Repair
Adam Michael Krause

We see ourselves acting upon the world. There is subject and object. Action upon. Separation. We do things to things. But this view obscures the active role of the non-human. The world also acts. And the boundary between that active world and human beings is porous and fluid.
In some ways this is obvious. We inhale and exhale. We eat things and they become us. We excrete what we cannot use, and it rejoins the world. There are also hundreds of microbial species in our stomachs that help us digest our food. We could not do it without them, yet they are not us. Or are they? Are we a single organism or many?

And our skin, the apparent boundary between us and the world, is similarly teeming with microorganisms, many of which are essential to our health. The normally benign Staphylococcus epidermidis makes fatty acids and glycerol out of the lipids our sebaceous glands release. This is an important process. And this same species helps produce anti-microbial peptides, antibiotic-like substances that prevent pathogens from colonizing our flesh.

Essential elements of our existence are performed by separate organisms. Our boundaries are ambiguous. We are not discrete beings navigating an environment. We are assemblages operating along the border of self and other. There is not organism and environment. There is no and. A human is like a house with no roof, walls, or floor. We are but the barest of structures, interpenetrating whatever environments we inhabit. We realize we are just a few planks of wood, a series of thoughts, and a lot of empty space. A bird flies through.

These assemblages we call our selves were composed from materials we did not choose, through a process we were not there to control. For example, cyanobacteria evolved about 2.5 billion years ago. These organisms were the first to perform oxygenic photosynthesis, and now, thanks to the process they introduced, our planet has the most oxygen-rich atmosphere in the known Universe. About a billion years later, massive movements of Earth’s tectonic plates washed minerals like calcium carbonate into the oceans. Some organisms assimilated these minerals to make exoskeletons and endoskeletons, putting Earth’s inhabitants on the path to possessing bones.

We emerged from earth, water, sun, and air. But the journey from soil to cyanobacteria to cities started very slowly, and eventually accelerated. The Earth formed about 4.6 billion years ago. Photosynthesis emerged 2.5 billion years ago. But it was not until about 550 million years ago that the first fish appeared. Mammals showed up about 300 million years after that. Anatomically modern humans evolved roughly 200,000 years ago, and it was a mere 5000 years ago that the Mesopotamians developed the first written language.

The bulk of history, as well as human history, has been spent developing the physically grounded part of animal systems—the part that perceives and navigates the world. Linguistic and symbolic representations of reality are a relatively recent acquisition. As we perform our daily movements, as we yawn and we stretch, we don’t make symbols to represent what we’re doing. We dig much deeper into our evolutionary past, and employ functions developed by our most ancient ancestors. For most activities, the world is its own best map. We just perceive it and deal with it.

But it is an unpredictable map in perpetual motion. We are surrounded and filled with materials that transcend our wills and the roles we assign them. The outside world, wherever that begins, is not a mere mechanical automaton, but a swirling sea of things, each with a vitality of its own. And this is not just true of other organisms. There is the chaos of water and weather, and electricity that can reverse directions and ignore the path humans put it on. Electricity seeks its own balance and always finds it. Fallen lines have caused sudden power reversals, leading to overloads and outages that no human foresaw.

We are coextensive with a world we cannot completely command. This is nothing new. But there is an update. We are coextensive with a world we cannot completely command that is falling apart. There are now more than 200 dead zones in the oceans. Ninety percent of the large predator fish are gone. In May 2014, the collapse of the western Antarctic ice sheet began. It cannot be halted. Between 2010 and 2014, the Antarctic ice-melt rate doubled. Things are looking increasingly cataclysmic, and the more sudden and dramatic the changes, the less likely it will be that plants and animals will be able to adapt. The world is crumbling, and the biology of our being is connected to it. We are consuming, discarding, and destroying the basis of our being.

Our expanding populations and increasing consumption levels are driving this destruction. Following centuries of fairly steady populations and economies, we discovered fossil fuels, free markets, and imperialism. That’s when things really took off. In 1820, there were about 1 billion people on the planet with a combined annual economic output of roughly $690 billion. By 2000, there were more than 6 billion people and economic output was a staggering $40 trillion. Since just 1960, the world economy has doubled its annual output. In the United States, where bigger is always better and the biggest is undoubtedly the best, the size of the average home has nearly doubled since 1970. At the same time, population increased by 100 million. There are more people, and they apparently need more space than anyone did before. But it’s still not enough space for all their things. The first storage facilities—extra space people can rent to store all their extra stuff—appeared in Texas in the 1960s. There are now nearly 2 billion square feet of storage space all across the United States.

Human insecurities fuel competitive consumption, which yields more insecurities and more consumption. The stagnant or falling real wages of the last several decades have not slowed our purchases, but merely increased our debts. We spend money we never had to buy things no one should have made. We are eating the Earth alive in the process.

And we really are destroying the world to make things we simply do not need. The ancient Egyptians believed gold was “the skin of the gods,” in particular, the sun god Ra. And although this belief is no longer widely held, gold has somehow retained its popularity. Keeping new gold on the market to meet its demand involves bulldozing rainforests, removing the soil, then sifting through that soil to find a bit of gold, while filling the surrounding rivers with mercury, cyanide, and other pollutants.

Gold dust bonds to mercury, and its use in mining dates back at least to the Romans, who even banned it for a while, due to its obvious environmental impacts. But cyanide works even better, since it can amalgamate even microscopic gold particles into usable chunks, and the modern miner much prefers cyanide to mercury. Each gram of successfully extracted gold requires the use of about one and a half tons of pollutants. So any piece of the planet can become our private property, no matter how small and hard to locate it might be. We may need to ruin a river or two in the process, but at least the market survives.

And we do love our market. Economic growth, the quest for wealth, and the glories of owning have become the central tenets in a secular religion that revolves around consumption. It is bolstered and encouraged in countless ways.

Economic growth is the central tenet in this belief system. It is frequently presented as a cure for all sorts of ills. How’s the economy doing? Good? Then we should be fine. Not much stops a piece of legislation as quickly as the claim that it might slow the economy. Economic growth is monitored to the decimal point and endlessly analyzed in the news. When a business stops growing, that is, if it fails to sell more and more products every quarter, investors panic and flee. We get worried when growth slows. We forget that our ancestors managed to eat.

Adam Smith, one of the earliest theorists of capitalism, saw “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another,” and “the uniform, constant, and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition,” as the defining human characteristics. But Smith failed to recognize that these supposedly natural characteristics arose in a very specific historical milieu. The drive for never-ending economic growth arose along with the changed circumstances that made capitalism possible. It is a relatively recent historical development. And in the early decades of capitalism’s ascendance, there was resistance to the new values and practices it was introducing. Its global dominance was never assured. Our current propensity toward gathering more, more, more, and then a little bit more after that, is not human nature, but a social circumstance made possible by the rise of the market economy.

Wrapped in these social circumstances, we lose sight of the physical and biological contingencies that sustain our activities. Yet no matter how disconnected we appear to be, we remain attached to our planet. Even while driving down a road, trading stocks on a cell phone, we remain firmly embedded in the physics and biology of Earth. Rubber tires, once made from trees, now made from petroleum, spin along a mixture of crushed limestone, sand, and gravel. Electricity moves through mined copper, bearing bad news about the state of the stock market. Meanwhile, photosynthesized oxygen travels the bloodstream, bones of ancient rock keep hands on the wheel, and microorganisms ride along in the stomach and on the flesh. The line between the human and non-human cannot be drawn. And as we subsume and consume these surroundings, we remove the very basis for our being.

Why do we do this? Why do we continue to sacrifice the world at the altar of the market? “Oh great god Mammon,” we cry, “Take this burnt offering of a ruined planet and bestow upon us a good crop of growth this year. For a healthy economy is a healthy humanity. Amen. Let us now sing a sacred song to money.” But we made up money. We invented the economy. We dote upon these human contrivances, but forget about the world that was fertile enough to allow for their creation in the first place.

Although our economies are socially fabricated, and our money is made up, these things are still based on the movements of actual goods and services. And all those goods and services are created and performed by utilizing bits and pieces of our planet. And it seems the bout of economic turmoil we are currently encountering is based on the very real destruction of the Earth. Our made up money is doing poorly because our very real planet is doing worse. We are asking the impossible of it. It would take six to eight Earths to give everyone on just this one a North American level of consumption.

According to the laws of thermodynamics, matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, just used and dissipated. There is thus an inverse relationship between a system’s sustainability and the volume of matter and energy it utilizes. Just based on physics, our current trajectory is ascending toward collapse. Entropy is a law of nature. We can’t just ignore it and hope it will go away.

We may be meeting the limits of growth. An economic recovery for our current system may no longer be possible. The planet is nearly plundered. Affordable and accessible resources for industrial production are diminishing. Copper, zinc, iron, and other metals are growing harder to find and extract. Gathering them requires increasingly massive amounts of energy—energy that almost invariably comes from fossil fuels collected from deeper and deeper sea beds, or by hydraulically fracturing rocks. The world’s supply of enriched uranium has, much like oil, passed its peak. Solar and wind power may produce electricity, but industrial capitalism requires vast supplies of stored and transportable energy. Fossil fuels come conveniently pre-packaged as stored energy, and their use helped make our industrial expansion possible in the first place. But existing methods for storing solar and wind power as liquid hydrogen are so energy intensive that the whole process yields a net loss. Our current methods of living cannot last long. We won’t have the energy or the resources.

Of course, the collapse of capitalism has been declared imminent for about as long as it’s been an “ism,” and that collapse has been watched for with a fervor rivaled only by the second coming of Christ. Yet the collapse has not come. Why is this? There are many reasons, including the fact that the market economy is incredibly mutable and adaptive. Business practices have been revolutionized generation after generation. And it is also a complex and deeply embedded social system that actually manages to supply basic needs for enough people that only a small minority ever hit the streets. And the truly destitute rarely get organized. Just surviving requires too much time and effort.

So while the collapse of capitalism may seem increasingly imminent, it may not be imminent enough to prevent the pillage of our planet. There is still a lot of money to be made. We will cut the tops off mountains to find minerals, pump water into rocks to release every drop of oil and gas, drill deeper into the oceans, chop down all the trees, and eat all the fish, just to keep economic growth where the economists say it ought to be.

We cannot go on like this, but many of our fellow humans seem determined to go on exactly like this. And those with the most interest in perpetuating our present patterns are those with the most power to do the perpetuating. The preservation of our planet will require total determination and stubborn perseverance in the presence of such entrenched power.

We need truly radical solutions. And I mean “radical” in the radical sense of the word—tracing its etymology back to the Latin radix, meaning “root.” And also radish, or the foot of a hill, or a base, foundation, or origin. We should remember and remain aware of the physical and biological roots of our being. We came from Earth and live on Earth. We’re not so different from radishes, really. We need good soil and clean water to stay alive. If we want to ever have those things again, we will need to radically rethink everything we do. We should put our roots back down.

We currently produce, consume, and discard more than the world can handle. Obsolescence is built into many of the things we buy. But producers of consumer goods do not want to create objects with longer lifespans. Goods need to be used up, become outmoded, or fall out of fashion. If objects were made to last, their producers would quickly put themselves out of business. And we are not encouraged to repair our broken things. We can often acquire new items more cheaply and easily than we can fix old ones. We consume and discard and consume again. We feel proud of our purchasing power as we confidently send one item to a landfill and buy another to replace it.

Does this mean we are too materialistic? If materialism is used in its ordinary sense to mean valuing wealth, possessions, and their acquisition over other values, then we are way too materialistic. But materialism has another meaning—the belief that everything that exists is matter, or dependent on matter for its existence. Taken to its logical conclusion, this latter type of materialism would discourage treating every piece of the planet as a resource for the taking, and would encourage handling the physical world and other organisms as fellow travelers on Earth—essential companions instead of guilty indulgences.

The reality of our being should inform our modes of being. We could create an economy of repair—one based on respect for the world and its materials. We should have what we need and fix what we have. Durability and quality ought to replace fashion and newness as the most appealing elements of any object. Learning to create and maintain long lasting items would be the most important skills one could have. Carefully crafting, repairing, and maintaining these things could become the basis of our economies. There would be far less production, consumption, and waste if we just bought better, bought less, and made it last.

It should be apparent that this new materialism would not require an ascetic renunciation of the pleasures of living, but rather, a re-enchantment of the world, and a rediscovery of the child’s
eyes that see wonders everywhere. We would find ourselves a new kind of unhappy if we replaced over-consumption with austerity. It would be like abstinence education for teenagers. Self-denial sells poorly without a more appealing alternative. Luckily, this redefined materialism would encourage living with our minds and senses more fully engaged. A move in this direction would actually enhance happiness and well-being.

Knowing how things work attaches us to the things we have. Careful craftsmanship requires time and attention to detail. This care becomes embodied and perceived in the finished product. The maker and the user feel closer to the materials involved. Just think about our relationship to food. The more we understand the process that brought it there, the more we appreciate what’s on our plates.

This is more than a request that we all support our local cobblers, carpenters, and tailors, although we can and should. So much more is required. We need a complete paradigm shift. Everything we do should be reassessed. We must live in new ways, and create possibilities for others to do the same. Ignore and avoid the economy of consumption. Create and encourage the economy of repair. Make it a reality.

With the breakdown of capitalism spotted on every horizon for well over a century, the question that almost inevitably follows each declaration of this supposedly imminent event is, so what could we do after capitalism? How would we survive? We have at least part of an answer. To put it quite simply, we could tend to the world and its materials. We could take care of things. We could base our economies around maintaining what we have. There would be plenty of work to do.

Of course, many nagging questions remain. I’ve probably raised more questions than I’ve actually answered. There is one question in particular I would like to address, as it highlights the depth of the paradigm shift required to create the economy of repair. How many items are we mentally capable of valuing? Is caring for things like caring for other humans? After friends and family, our ability to empathize diminishes drastically, until we can hear about massive amounts of death on the other side of the globe and feel no real sense of loss. Could we really learn to care about everything if we can’t even care about everyone?

What I am proposing here will require a form of mental jujitsu—a complete flip in how we perceive and behave toward the world. We construct our egos and define ourselves largely through the things we buy. So to change our relationship to the world, we not only need to dismantle our socially constructed selves, but actually change the way we construct those selves. Our minds have been so conditioned by capitalism that this may seem to fall somewhere between daunting and impossible. But the market economy molded and shifted our values. Why couldn’t the rise of the repair economy do the same? So here’s to hoping we can change our minds. Death to materialism. Long live materialism.

-Adam Michael Krause