Permaculture: Contesting the Evolution of Science
This world is reaching a breaking point. After three centuries of capitalist expansion, the entire planet is facing unprecedented crises of urbanization, resource depletion, poverty, climate change, and the breakdown of political systems. Still, capitalist ideologues continue to claim that these problems will be solved by “staying the course” and relying on market competition. Meanwhile, a new epistemology for the 21st century is emerging from the anonymous contributions of millions of people across the globe, many of whom have nurtured traditional relationships to nature that are now being “rediscovered” for their harmonious and productive relationship to local ecologies.
Precisely because contemporary capitalism depends on technologically sophisticated workers who are joined together in dense networks of communication and cooperation, the notion of “general intellect” contains a kernel of radical possibility: a dramatic seizure and repurposing of socialized work. In other words, if we ourselves make the world every day through the infinite tasks we individually carry out together, why couldn’t we stop making this impossibly crazy, degrading, and brutalizing world, and instead make together a world of our own choosing?
Nick Dyer-Witheford lays out the basic conflict in his excellent analysis of contemporary labor politics, CyberMarx:
At its present very high level of technoscientific development, corporate power finds itself dependent on levels of cooperative activity, unimpeded communication, and free circulation of knowledge that, far from being easily integrated into its hierarchies, exist in persistent tension with its command.
The question of whether capital will successfully segment post-Fordist labor power, or if, on the contrary, rebellious subjects will break down these barriers to establish new alliances, lies at the core of what I call “the contest for general intellect.” In this contest the contemporary proletariat fights to actualize “general intellect,” not according to the privatizing, appropriative logic of capital, but in ways that are deeply democratic and collective, and hence truly “general.”
Taking Marx’s point that “general intellect” is embodied in the scientific and technical apparatus of society, it follows that the realm of science and technology is a central location for the present battle between collective, human values and those of capital. A David-and-Goliath epic plays out between the large institutions with their strict profit motives who frequently dictate the pursuits and uses of science, and practical alternatives emerging outside of the academy or business, notably among permaculturists and other technological innovators. For example, the steady increase of pharmaceutical drugs overpriced for some and inaccessible for others, is met with a corresponding growth (or return to) herbal and other non-proprietary alternatives. Highly centralized energy “solutions” are answered by micronodal, decentralized alternatives. Media behemoths are whipsawed by new forms of media proliferating on the margins of mass culture. And so on.
Cognitive processes like scientific thought, technological imagination, and an ability to work at a planning level generally, are all more important than ever as productive forces in modern life. They have been massively co-opted to the needs of business, but also applied to problems defined outside the logic of the market. David Holmgren describes how permaculture designers apply their insights and theories to practical problems of labor and energy use:
Permaculture designers use careful observation and thoughtful interaction to reduce the need for both repetitive manual labor and for non-renewable energy and high technology. Thus, traditional agriculture was labor intensive, industrial agriculture is energy intensive, and permaculture-designed systems are information and design intensive… Computers are the most obvious feature of the information economy, but changes in the way we think, especially the emergence of design thinking, are more fundamental to the information economy than the hardware and software we use. Permaculture itself is part of this thinking revolution.
Holmgren points out rightly that technology changes design and productive processes, but also, more deeply, these resistant and affirmative new technologies and practices begin to reshape our ideas and assumptions, slowly producing experiences quite different than those defined by profit and capital. These contemporary behaviors, from permaculture and gardening to bicycling and programming, could be the material bases for new ways of thinking, presaging a deep shift in basic epistemology.