Chloe Stead delves into production, energy, and kinship futures of the world after fossil fuels and zombie capitalism.

Life … After the Crash accompanies “POST GROWTH,” the DISNOVATION.ORG curated exhibition that “challenges dominant narratives of growth and progress,” showing at Brussel’s iMAL through January 2021.

© 2021 HOLO

001 – Note: Taking Root (13/11/2020)
“Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”—Kenneth Boulding, quoted in Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow1
Chloe Stead is an art critic and editor based in Berlin. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Artnet, Art Agenda, Frieze, Spike, and Mousse Magazine.

There are few childhood memories that I cherish more than the family summer holidays we spent in Aldeburgh, a small, picturesque coastal town in the Southeast of England. Aside from the pebble beaches and the pastel-coloured houses, what I remember most clearly is the patch of wall in my great aunt’s house that measured our cousins’ heights by age, which, each summer, my brother and I would add our own shaky pencil lines to before standing back to marvel at how much we’d grown.

As children, our developing bodies offer the tantalising prospect of independence, of becoming the “big boys and girls,” we so desperately wish to be. When we reach adulthood, we continue to quantify our lives through this prism, but instead of focusing on our own biology, we project outwards, measuring success through the growth of our families, our bank accounts, our businesses, and our homes. On a global scale, the prosperity of whole countries is measured by the increase of their GDP. But as the world’s economies grow, so does the gap between rich and poor. In the first three-and-a-half months of 2020, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos earned more than the GDP of Honduras,2 making his net worth more than GDP of Iceland, Afghanistan and Costa Rica combined.3

It’s clear by now that this “fetishization and externalisation of growth,”4 to quote the author Valerie Olson, has also had a catastrophic effect on our environment. It’s equally clear that a massive paradigm shift will is going to be needed to combat the deep-seated belief—which has been entrenched by decades of post-World War II economic policies—that growth is “the equivalence of life,” and “not to grow is equivalence of death.”5 This is where artists of all varieties—filmmakers, sculptors, writers, photographers, chefs—can help. Facts have limited sway; it’s only through “telling stories in new ways,” according to academic Geoffrey Bowker, that we can “induce people to see the world differently.”6

“It’s equally clear that a massive paradigm shift will be needed to combat the deep-seated belief—which has been entrenched by decades of post-World War II economic policies—that growth is ‘the equivalence of life,’ and ‘not to grow is equivalence of death.’”

Both Olson and Bower are part of a new series of videos by the “artist-led action-research” collective DISNOVATION.ORG (in collaboration with Clemence Seurat), which are currently on display in their solo exhibition, “Post Growth,“ at iMAL in Brussels. Collected together under the title Post Growth Toolkits these short interviews act as the conceptual framework for a group of artworks by the French collective that question our society’s obsession with fossil fuel-powered growth and offer possibilities for change. Over the next few months, this dossier, entitled Life … After the Crash, will tease out some of Post Growth’s central concerns, mixing relevant external videos, links, and quotes with original mini essays and Q&As pertinent to the exhibition. Topics will include, growth and kinship, growth and indigenous knowledge, growth and energy, as well as growth and happiness. An art critic by trade, I am by no means an expert on these issues, but my hope is that we can all learn about them together. After all, as the specialists themselves would admit, for these radical ideas to be of any use, they need to break out of academia and take root in the minds of ordinary people.

002 – Reading: Age and Responsibility (17/11/2020)
“Young person worry: what if nothing I do matters? Old person worry: what if everything I do does?”
003 – Schematic: Overshoot and Collapse (27/11/2020)
World Model
Standard Run,
The Limits to
Growth
(1972)

The Limits to Growth is a 1972 report on exponential economic and population growth in a finite world. Commissioned by international think tank the Club of Rome, a team of MIT researchers led by Donella and Dennis Meadows built a computer model called World3 to simulate the interactions between resource consumption, industrial output, population size, food production, and Earth’s ecosystems. After modelling data from 1900-70, the team developed a range of possible scenarios through 2100. On a “business as usual” trajectory (World Model Standard Run), the model predicted “overshoot and collapse”—in the economy, environment, and population—before 2070. Often criticized as doomsday fantasy, a 2014 University of Melbourne research paper found that the report’s forecasts are accurate, 40 years on.

004 – In Conservation: DISNOVATION.ORG (02/12/2020)
“Nowadays citizens are not transforming the world around them through the use of their bodies. The primary way we transform the environment and the world around us in the twenty-first century is through prostheses, machines, automation, and computers.”

DISNOVATION.ORG is a working group based in Paris, initiated by Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska. At the crossroads between contemporary art, research and hacking, the collective develops situations of disturbance, speculation, and debate, challenging the dominant ideology of technological innovation and stimulating the emergence of alternative narratives. Their current exhibition, realized together with Baruch Gottlieb, Clémence Seurat, Julien Maudet, and Pauline Briand at Brussel’s iMAL Art Center for Digital Cultures and Technology, critically examines growth and progress through a series of artworks and filmed interviews with experts in the field.

Q: When and how did you become interested in the concept of post-growth?
A: For the past decade we’ve been looking at the role of techno-solutionism in society. Two years ago, we started to focus on the idea of growth after we began to gather a corpus of conferences, discussions, and texts that revealed a strong correlation between economic growth and the environmental crises we are going through at the moment. Based on this research question we started to meet with academics, activists, writers from a wide diversity of fields of knowledge to see what they could tell us. We quickly realized that not only might two labs be researching the same topic and not know about each other, but that most of the knowledge and concepts we were coming across were almost non-existent online, in journals, public discourse, and so on. We started to think that, as artists, we might have a role to play in linking these knowledges—which seemed to us to be of real use in understanding our current condition and the deep material connection of the environmental and biodiversity crisis we are going through—with the very basic economic and political choices that we are confronted with every day.
Q: How do some of these concepts play out in your exhibition at iMAL?
A: For “Post Growth,” we started to not only document discussions about those concepts through recorded interviews, which became the multi-part series Post Growth Toolkit, but also think about other ways to circulate, activate, and create the space for those ideas to be used, discussed, debated, and criticized. It began to take the shape of game experiments, where we started to design prototypes of games, which we do as a way to circulate and debate and discuss those notions, but it also takes other forms, such as physical or sculptural works that will embody some of the notions that are harder to comprehend in a verbal form. As artists, we can have a strong impact by producing physical instruments that can very clearly demonstrate a complex circumstance, and therefore how it is seen and talked about in society.
DISNOVATION.ORG’s exhibition “Post Growth” at iMAL, Brussels

Q: Can you give an example?

A: One example is a series of ‘energy slave’ tokens that are included in the show. The work is based on the concept of the energy slave, which was proposed by the American futurist Buckminster Fuller in the 1940s as a notion used to express the energy required to power a modern lifestyle. The concept refers to the technological or mechanical energy equivalent to the physical working capacity of a human adult. In 2020 we have an average of 400-500 energy slaves per living European, which means the lifestyle that we have is the result of about 400-500 times the energy that a single human body can produce. To grasp those orders of magnitude, we started to build bitumen bricks or units of measure that are basically embodying the energy equivalent in fossil fuel of various durations of human labour. We thought that this direction of work was quite eloquent as fossil fuel is the core driver of the global techno-infrastructure. Nowadays citizens are not transforming the world around them through the use of their own bodies. The primary way we transform the environment and the world around us in the twenty-first century is through prostheses, machines, automation, and computers. We recognized that in order to better understand our condition, and what a desirable outcome could look like, it was essential to understand this very material-informed model of how we interact with the world today.

005 – Exhibit A: Energy Slave Token (04/12/2020)
Energy Slave Token (2020)
DISNOVATION.ORG & Baruch Gottlieb

“The piece consists of a series of weights made of bitumen, which are the energy equivalents to specific quantities of physical human labour time.”
75 Wh
Power equivalent of 1 hour of average human physical labour (Energy Slave Token table)

In 1940, R. Buckminster Fuller introduced the term “energy slave” to describe the energy required to power the modern lifestyle.6 The concept refers to the technological or mechanical energy equivalent to the physical working capacity of a human adult. The energy requirements for any lifestyle can be calculated as a number of energy slaves equivalent to the number of human labourers which otherwise would be needed to produce the same amount of energy. In 2013, it was estimated that the average European employs the equivalent of 400-500 energy slaves 24 hours a day.7

The Energy Slave Token consists of a series of weights made of bitumen, which are the energy equivalents to specific quantities of physical human labour time (ie. 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 year, 1 life). This series of weights is designed to present the orders of magnitude that separate the labour-power generated by our human bodies from the energy exploited mostly from fossil fuels which power the technosphere. These open source tokens are designed to be easily replicated, used and distributed without restriction.

Average Human Labour and Fossil Fuel Power Productivity:

1 hour of average human physical labour: 75Wh
1 L of fossil fuel (potential power): 10,000Wh
1 L of fossil fuel (transformed by a motor): 4,000Wh

Fossil Fuel Equivalent of Human Labour Power:

1 hour: 75Wh / 4k Wh/L = 18.75 cm3
1 day: 75Wh * 8h / 4k Wh/L = 150 cm3
1 week: 75Wh * 8h * 5d / 4k Wh/L = 750 cm3
1 month: 75Wh * 8h * 5d * 4 w / 4k Wh/L = 3,000 cm3
1 year: 75Wh * 1590h (avg y) / 4k Wh/L = 29,775 cm3
1 life: 75Wh * 1590h (avg y) * 45y / 4k Wh/L = 1,399,875 cm3

(1) Composition: bitumen (petroleum)
(2) Average working time (1 life)
(3) Volume: 1,387,935 cm3

Energy Slave Token (Human Labor To Fossil Fuel Conversion Units), 2020, DISNOVATION.ORG & Baruch Gottlieb, installation, series of 5 standard weights, poster, 3D video

Images and text courtesy of DISNOVATION.ORG and iMAL

006 – Reading: Iceberg Ahead (07/12/2020)
“Without fundamentally changing our culture and the stories we tell, implementing the technological solutions to tackle climate change is like making the hull of the Titanic marginally thicker, but not changing course to avoid the iceberg.”
007 – Soundbite: Ideology of Growth (09/12/2020)
“As it’s understood biologically, there’s a sort of naturalization or an objectification of the idea of growth as being the central and core principle of understanding life.”
Post Growth
Toolkit, The
Interviews
(2020),
DISNOVATION.ORG &
Clémence Seurat

Valerie Olson researches contemporary sociocultural processes that remake what counts as environments. Her current projects focus on how social groups use the system concept to perceive, organize, and control spatial relations, particularly on large scales. This focus allows her to follow the ways people relate to sites, things, and processes they do not experience directly and which are categorized as outlying or beyond human. She serves on UCI interdisciplinary research teams and campus initiatives such as Water UCI, the Salton Sea Initiative, the UCI OCEANS Initiative, and the UCI Community Resilience program.

A transcript of the video can be found here. For more “Post Growth” interview segments with Valerie Olson visit postgrowth.art.

008 – Note: X is a Plague and Y is the Cure (14/12/2020)
“What a difference 20 years and a global pandemic makes. Where once only dictators and movie villains celebrated genocide, now gap year hippies and grumpy uncles are getting in on the act too.”
Chloe Stead is an art critic and editor based in Berlin. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Artnet, Art Agenda, Frieze, Spike, and Mousse Magazine.

A few weeks into the first Europe-wide lockdown, I started seeing an unfamiliar meme spread across my social media channels. “We are the virus,” it read. “Coronavirus is the cure.” It wasn’t until months later during a boredom-induced re-watch of The Matrix that I realized I’d heard this sentiment before. “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet,” says Agent Smith to Morpheus, his voice dripping with disdain. “You’re a plague and we are the cure.”

What a difference 20 years and a global pandemic makes. Where once only dictators and movie villains celebrated genocide, now gap year hippies and grumpy uncles are also getting in on the act. Of course, misanthropy is nothing new but as the news on the environment has become ever bleaker, this particular brand of cynicism has taken root in a way that feels fresh and scary. Speaking about the “we are the virus” trend recently, author Naomi Klein warned that it revealed authoritarian tendencies. “This is a time to be really vigilant about any idea that this pandemic is weeding out people who needed to be weeded out,” she told Teen Vogue. “These are fascist logistics.”8

But you don’t have to believe that COVID-19 is some kind of “divine purging” to show signs of ecofascism, especially when, as Klein points out, even seemingly reasonable discussions about overpopulation unfairly target developing nations. “If you look at where there continues to be the highest levels of population growth, it’s the poorest parts of the world with the lowest carbon footprints,” says Klein. “But when [that conversation] immediately moves the discussion to overpopulation, we’re changing the subject from unsustainable overconsumption by the rich to the procreation habits of the poor, and that’s a very political decision.”9

“In her 2019 article ‘Don’t Blame the Babies,’ journalist Liza Featherstone similarly argues that it is capitalism, not population growth, which is having the most damaging impact on our environment.”

In her 2019 article “Don’t Blame the Babies,” journalist Liza Featherstone similarly argues that it is capitalism, not population growth, which is having the most damaging impact on our environment. “A Zambian has nowhere near the environmental impact of an American; even though her nation has a much higher birth rate, her society isn’t nearly as carbon-intensive,” she writes. “The problem, then, isn’t kids. It’s the carbon dependence of our society, which is set up to ensure that we drive, fly, heat, cool, shop, and eat in all the most polluting ways possible.”10

For both Featherstone and Klein, the discussion around childbearing is nothing but a neoliberal conceit, designed to encourage individuals to take responsibility for climate change while leaving the biggest polluters untouched. Instead of concentrating on how many people are on the planet, they argue, we should think about how we divide our available resources across the global population. Ultimately, it comes to a choice between empathy and misanthropy, and while it might be an easy decision for many, it’s important to note it’s only the first step towards the radical restructuring of society needed for this choice to have an impact. As Morpheus tells Neo, “I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.

009 – Reading: Is It Ok to Have a Child? (15/12/2020)
“The polar ice caps are melting. Is it OK to have a child? Australia is on fire. Is it OK to have a child? My house is flooded, my crops have failed, my community is fleeing. Is it OK to have a child? It is, in a sense, an impossible question.… Having a child is at once the most intimate, irrational thing a person can do, prompted by desires so deep we hardly know where to look for their wellsprings, and an unavoidably political act that increasingly requires one to confront not only the complex biopolitics of pregnancy and birth, but also the intersecting legacies of colonialism, racism and patriarchy, all while trying to wrap one’s head around the relationship between the impossible extremes of the personal and the global.”
010 – Schematic: It’s Capitalism, Stupid! (18/12/2020)
The world in CO₂
emissions (2015),
Worldmapper

Using data by Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR), this visualisation created by Worldmapper’s Benjamin Henning redraws the world according to proportion of total Carbon Dioxide (CO₂) emissions in 2015. The warped geography is telling: whereas main polluters like the U.S., home to then 320.7 million people, emitted 5,172,338 kton/Gg CO₂, the entire continent of Africa released one-fifth of that (1,236,083 kton/Gg CO₂) while harbouring three times as many people (995.46 million). As journalist Liza Featherstone argues in her 2019 article “Don’t Blame the Babies,” it is capitalism, not population growth, that is having the most damaging impact on our environment (see dossier entry 008).

011 – In Conversation: Baruch Gottlieb (28/12/2020)
“I see the art space as having a unique role to play in society today, particularly in providing a sort of safe space for the cultivation of new social and cultural practices which are needed to confront the challenges of our age.”

Baruch Gottlieb is a Canada-born media artist, researcher, and curator. He currently teaches Philosophy of Digital Art at the Berlin University of the Arts and Data Epistemology at the Technical University of Brandenburg. Gottlieb has been working closely with DISNOVATION.ORG since he collaborated on the project Online Culture Wars (2018-19). He is also a member of the Telekommunisten and Arts & Economic Group artist collectives. His books include A Political Economy of the Smallest Things (ATROPOS 2016) and Digital Materialism (Emerald 2018).

Q: You co-collaborated on almost all of the works in Disnovation’s current exhibition at iMAL. What’s your personal interest in the concept of post-growth?
A: It comes from my interest in how images function in society and observations on how increasingly complex phenomena, such as in economics or climate data, are represented in common discourse. I see a role for artists to intervene, to interpret scientific data in a proactive manner to attempt to support the kinds of political catalysis we wish to see in the world. In the case of the climate crisis, we need to confront the enormous power of think tanks and lobby groups that persuade people to look the other way as the climate emergency is largely disregarded. I was at a conference where Merkel’s top climate consultant Hans Joachim Schellnhuber stated that the expertise and knowledge exist to ensure that everyone alive on the earth right now can enjoy good living conditions and that the climate crisis can be successfully addressed, but what was missing was the political agency to instantiate that expertise and knowledge. As artists, we agreed to do our part to try to cultivate new vectors for people to come together and generate social agency.
Q: How important is collaboration both in your own work and to solving some of the problems outlined in the exhibition?
A: I come from filmmaking which is traditionally a very multidisciplinary form of art. Each production is the result of the communication and collaboration of diverse specializations and talents, from make-up to lighting, camera, acting, and editing. Even though I have broadened my artistic practice, I still operate more or less as I did as a filmmaker, working with diverse teams of specialists to produce what I could not do on my own. Collaborations and collectives are very common in media art because the works are often very complex and require a lot of specialist knowledge. As part of my curatorial practice, especially over the past three years at the museum West Den Haag, I have organized a variety of transdisciplinary projects from summer schools to symposia where I am consciously developing methods to generate synthetic forms of thinking and creation across conventional disciplinary boundaries. Now, with the Post-Growth project, we are attempting to integrate the pure sciences on their own terms. Besides working with Disnovation, I also am a core member of telekommunisten where we work to help demystify network infrastructure and help people understand the political economy behind what they experience through their networked devices.
“I see the pretext of our exhibitions and other activities as centrifuges of scientific knowledge, allowing us to assemble otherwise unlikely constellations of specialists around urgent concerns. So far, this strategy seems to be working.”
Q: Why address this topic in the form of an exhibition? What role do artists and art institutions have in addressing climate change?
A: As I mentioned earlier, I see the art space as having a unique role to play in society today, particularly in providing a sort of safe space for the cultivation of new social and cultural practices which are needed to confront the challenges of our age. These new practices may include artistic practices and artworks, but they are also themselves art.
Q: What do the scientists and researchers think of the exhibition? Is there a way that they can borrow some of the models you’ve used to feedback into their own work?
A: The proof is in the pudding. We develop our models in intense consultation with scientists, but at a certain moment, we need to make works for an art exhibition, hoping and expecting that they will be interested in coming over and critiquing these so that we may improve them, and, judging from the iMAL show, they are. I see the pretext of our exhibitions and other activities as centrifuges of scientific knowledge, allowing us to assemble otherwise unlikely constellations of specialists around urgent concerns. So far, this strategy seems to be working, and we will develop this more in Disnovation’s residency at the University of Louvain la Neuve where we will be working with specialists from agronomy to economics and data science.
012 – Exhibit B: Solar Share – The Story (01/01/2021)
Solar Share – The Story (2020)
DISNOVATION.ORG & Baruch Gottlieb

“The artistic research project Solar Share envisions the radical consequences of an economic model reconnected to the elementary sources of energy coming from the Sun, the Earth and the cosmos.”
Solar Share –
The Story
(2020),
digital video with
sound (excerpts)

High on fossil fuels, modernity managed to normalize the ideology according to which humankind could detach itself from the constraints and material limitations of planetary life. These constraints become harder to ignore, as the planet’s holding capacity begins to falter, and its resources run dry. How are we to reconnect with the physical, material and living reality of the world on which we depend entirely? Even today, the prevailing economic models still seem to ignore the extent to which necessary circulation of matter and energy depends on crucial physical processes for the regeneration of the biosphere or for human societies.

The artistic research project Solar Share envisions the radical consequences of an economic model reconnected to the elementary sources of energy coming from the Sun, the Earth and the cosmos. It aims to revise the prevailing narratives with an acknowledgement of the material conditions required for the persistence of our form of life in the biosphere. It proposes futuristic visions of new relationalities between humans, life and the Earth system. The computational and diagrammatic models that have emerged from this artistic research aim to engage a broad public with vital information from science. By externalizing, in artistic and aesthetic forms, the energy systems that govern the planet’s metabolism, these models are intended to supplement critical discussion of our prospects on this planet, both in specialized spheres and in the general public, with an emphasis on the unquantifiable and missing data which lurks behind and threatens to undermine scientific, political and economic confidence.

Images and text courtesy of DISNOVATION.ORG and iMAL

013 – Reading: Stark Choices (04/01/2021)
“In the rough and rocky future that has already begun, what kind of people are we going to be? Will we share what’s left and try to look after one another? Or are we instead going to attempt to hoard what’s left, look after ‘our own’ and lock everyone else out? In this time of rising seas and rising fascism, these are the stark choices before us. There are options besides full-blown climate barbarism, but given how far down the road we are, there is no point pretending that they are easy. It’s going to take a lot more than a carbon tax or carbon-trade. It’s going to take an all out war on pollution and poverty and racism and colonialism and despair all at once.”
014 – Soundbite: The ANT Manifesto (05/01/2021)
“There’s no solution that’s going to come from the central government in any of this. It’s going to be us, as a species, rethinking who we are, reworking who we are, replanning who we are and then rippling that out across the whole sets of relationships that we have.”
Post Growth Toolkit, The Interviews (2020), DISNOVATION.ORG & Clémence Seurat

Geoffrey C. Bowker is Professor at the School of Information and Computer Science, University of California at Irvine, where he directs a laboratory for Values in the Design of Information Systems and Technology. Bowker’s books include Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (1999, authored together with Susan Leigh Star) and Memory Practices in the Sciences (2005), both published by the MIT Press.

A transcript of the video can be found here. For more “Post Growth” interview segments with Geoffrey C. Bowker visit postgrowth.art.

015 – Note: The Birth of Energy (11/01/2021)
“Oil, gas, and coal have become the villains on a warming planet, but who could be against energy?”—Cara New Daggett, The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work
Chloe Stead is an art critic and editor based in Berlin. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Artnet, Art Agenda, Frieze, Spike, and Mousse Magazine.

With the exception of climate change deniers, it’s clear to everyone by now that our reliance on fossil fuels is destroying the earth and threatening our continued existence. What’s talked about much less, however, is that replacing oil, gas, and coal with alternative energy sources is not, on its own, enough to avert climate disaster. As the author and climate activist Ted Trainer puts it: “It would be difficult to find a more taken for granted, unquestioned assumption than that it will be possible to substitute renewable energy sources for fossil fuels, while consumer-capitalist society continues on its merry pursuit of limitless affluence and growth.”11

Trainer isn’t the only academic who sees growth and energy as inextricably entwined. Recently, DISNOVATION collaborator Baruch Gottlieb sent me a presentation by Jean-Marc Jancovici, in which the climate expert links post World War II GDP growth directly to the amount of energy we release into the earth, pointing out in no uncertain terms that the kind of continuous growth promised by politicians is incompatible with reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. “There’s absolutely no way we can address climate change with the correct order of magnitude, which is [reducing] the world’s emissions by three in thirty years, without triggering a world recession,” he says to an uncomfortable audience of economists. “Today saying that we are serious about climate change and that we will [still] have growth (…) is a big fat lie.”12

What can we do about this contradiction? Trainer’s solution is what he calls the “simple way,” or, in less euphemistic terms, drastically reducing consumption levels to 10% of their current levels. While this might be more of a provocation than a serious proposal, Trainer’s own dedication to this way of life—he doesn’t fly and grows his own food—supports, at least anecdotally, political scientist Cara New Daggett’s assertion that, rather than sitting back and waiting for renewable energies and new technology to save the day, we need “new ways of thinking about, valuing, and inhabiting energy systems.”13

“It’s important to move away from the idea of energy as a metaphor ‘tinged with virtue’ and towards a concept of energy as a ‘scientific entity’ with a material imprint. This, I would argue, is where artists like DISNOVATION come in.”

The problem, Daggett explains in the introduction to her 2019 book The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work, is that because the term “energy” is bound up in with the “pleasures of modern life” and any discussion about reducing our consumption habits seems to suggest “the denial of the higher planes of civilization and life.” It’s precisely for this reason, she argues, that fossil fuel extractors call themselves energy companies. “Energy seems to invite grand thinking,” Daggett writes. “… Oil, gas, and coal have become the villains on a warming planet, but who could be against energy?”14

In order to change this dynamic, it’s important to move away from the idea of energy as a metaphor “tinged with virtue” and towards a concept of energy as a “scientific entity” with a material imprint. This, I would argue, is where artists like DISNOVATION come in. As well as being storytellers, artists have a unique ability to give shape to otherwise intangible concepts and notions. With many of the works in “Post Growth,” for example, the collective use coins made from PET Plastic—itself the result ancient sunlight concentrated in organic materials over millions of years—to represent different units of energy, such as the amount of sunlight15 that falls in one year in different cities across the world. In doing so they make clear the shortfall between the energy we produce and the energy we spend. The hope is that, by holding these units of energy in their hands, viewers can no longer ignore their own part in our rapidly warming world.

016 – Reading: (Alternative) Energy Values (11/01/2021)
“If humans unavoidably desire ever more energy, then what could we do short of hoping for a technological miracle, changing the human condition, or colonizing other planets? Assigning responsibility means recognizing how fossil-fuel systems work to favor certain interests, whether in Europe and North America, or in the distinct fossil-fueled visions of new industrializing states like China, India, or Brazil. Understanding the politics of fossil fuel domination is a necessary prerequisite to developing alternative energy values and institutions that are adequately just and radical.”
017 – Schematic: Forget the IMF, Look at the Joules! (13/01/2021)
GDP, Energy,
& Oil after
J.M. Jancovici,
DISNOVATION.ORG
& Baruch Gottlieb

In an article first published in the French journal Le Débat in September 2012, energy and climate expert Jean-Marc Jancovici underscores the correlation between GDP growth, energy, and oil consumption. “Energy is the blood of industrial societies,” he writes. “What counts is not its price, but availability: energy is now what drives our economic activity far more than work or capital.” In a series of charts, which DISNOVATION adapted for “Post Growth”, Janvocici demonstrates how that dependency has only increased in recent decades. In 1998 and 2005, for example, the slowdown of oil production preceded the fall of GDP and the subsequent economic crashes—“it is not because of the crisis that we use less oil, but because oil availability has decreased that we have a crisis.”

018 – Exhibit C: Solar Share – The Farm (14/01/2021)
Solar Share – The Farm (2020)
DISNOVATION.ORG & Baruch Gottlieb

“This 1 square-meter experiment of automated cultivation makes manifest the vast technical infrastructure and energy required to grow such staple as wheat in an artificial environment.”
Solar Share –
The Farm
(2020),
DISNOVATION.ORG
& Baruch Gottlieb,
Chroniques & iMAL

“Vertical farms in cities can produce—profitably—hydroponically grown leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and herbs, all with far less water than conventional agriculture requires. But the produce contains merely a trace of carbohydrates and hardly any protein or fat. So they cannot feed cities, especially not megacities of more than 10 million people. For that, we need vast areas of cropland planted with grains, legumes, and root, sugar, and oil crops, the produce of which is to be eaten directly or fed to animals that produce meat, milk, and eggs. The world now plants such crops in 16 million square kilometres—nearly the size of South America—and more than half of the human population now lives in cities. […] Vertical farms can’t substitute for much farmland, and the claims made for them have been exaggerated.” —Vaclav Smil (June 2018), IEEE Spectrum

Solar Share – The Farm seeks to demonstrate a fundamental and paradoxical challenge to the proposal from agro-industries (and preppers alike) to provide for the nutritional needs of large urban populations in times of climate uncertainties, through grow houses and other artificially controlled environments. This 1 square-meter experiment makes manifest the vast technical infrastructure and energy required to grow such staple as wheat in an artificial environment. In today’s economy, it is profitable to artificially produce agricultural products with high water content such as leafy greens and tomatoes.

However, from a systemic understanding, this apparent profitability depends on the availability of cheap fossil energy, unaccounted for resource extraction and pollution all over the globe, incurred in subordinate processes from mining and electronics manufacture to international freight. The present experiment seeks to reveal the numerous layers of invisible interdependencies and to provide a speculative reference reckoning of the incalculable ecosystem services at play in conventional agriculture.

Solar Share – The Farm (2020), DISNOVATION.ORG & Baruch Gottlieb, installation, 1m2 of automated cultivation, LED grow lights, camera, video streaming

019 – In Conversation: Clémence Seurat (15/01/2021)
“It reminds us we are connected to the other beings on this planet—and that we inherit our ancestors’ decisions and future generations will live in a world designed by our actions.”

As a curator and an editor, Clémence Seurat investigates the fields of reflection and action related to political ecology. In 2014-15, she was a member of Bruno Latour’s research laboratory in arts and politics based at Sciences Po Paris (Speap) and participated in the conception of The Theater of Negotiations and the curation of associated conferences and resources. She co-founded the collective COYOTE and the 369 Editions publishing house. Within the Sciences Po médialab, Seurat designs programs and edits content for FORCCAST.

Q: At iMAL, you collaborated with DISNOVATION for a series Post Growth Toolkits, which encompasses a series of video interviews and a board game. What was the concept behind these works?
A: The idea was to expand the research DISNOVATION started during a fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. First, we collected, discussed, and gathered concepts, theories, stories, and initiatives that seem relevant to us not only to elaborate a critical perspective on growth but to imagine our future outside of this paradigm. Secondly, we developed artistic proposals in order to share our research in both a stimulating and playful way.
Q: What interested you about the concept of post-growth?
A: The absurdity of a never-ending growth has been visible for decades through a series of catastrophes on a planetary scale, from climate change to the sixth mass extinction, from deforestation to air pollution. The degradation of our environment requires another way of inhabiting the world and relationships that aren’t based on exploitation.
Clémence Seurat
interviewing
Dusan Kazic at
La Gaîté Lyrique,
October 2020
Q: How did you decide on who should speak in the interviews and what topics they should cover?
A: We identified people who would offer an interesting practical or theoretical insight to the project and then we invited them to present their work—to introduce concepts and themes they are developing—in a brief and straightforward way. We wanted them to be concise and short, like video postcards. Some interviews are only recorded while others took place on a stage in front of an audience. As part of the series of events we curated at La Gaîté Lyrique in Paris, for example, I interviewed the French anthropologist Dusan Kazic who invited us to reconsider production as the overriding principle of our relationship to the world. This conversation was very instructive because it forced us to take a critical approach towards our own research.
Q: What else did you learn through the interviews?
A: One concept that is very important for me is the 7th generation principle introduced by Rose O’Leary. It is both very wise and simple: anytime that someone makes a decision, they should think about its impact seven generations into the future. It’s a principle that is often attributed to the indigenous peoples of North America. What I like about it is that it implies a very careful, thoughtful, and respectful relationship to the others—humans and non-humans—in space and time. It’s a very pragmatic approach and a way of paying attention to the consequences of our own actions. It reminds us we are connected to the other beings on this planet and that we are connected to our ancestors and the future generations—we inherit our ancestors’ decisions and future generations will live in a world designed by our actions. For this reason, the 7th generation principle is powerful politically and philosophically as it reclaims a long-term vision for action and care.
020 – Reading: The Means of Production (18/01/2021)
“Capitalists and socialists have been fighting for more than a century to get hold of the famous ‘means of production’, all the while being in agreement on the core matter, namely that production constitutes our materiality and that we are obliged to produce in order to feed ourselves. This is why, since the beginning of the pandemic, all leaders—whether they are capitalists, communists or ecologists—have wanted to ‘restart production’. But none of these regimes takes into account our links with the other-than-human world because they don’t think they live alongside them, or rather they consider these to be ‘secondary’ to the production that is supposed to constitute our materiality.”
021 – Soundbite: Energy and Extremity (19/01/2021)
“We’re having a 50 year anniversary of the moon landing in the U.S. this year, in which the technologies used to achieve that are still not largely available, and have still not transformed the energy systems in the U.S., and that’s an interesting paradox to look at.”
Post Growth
Toolkit, The
Interviews
(2020),
DISNOVATION.ORG &
Clémence Seurat

Valerie Olson researches contemporary sociocultural processes that remake what counts as environments. Her current projects focus on how social groups use the system concept to perceive, organize, and control spatial relations, particularly on large scales. This focus allows her to follow the ways people relate to sites, things, and processes they do not experience directly and which are categorized as outlying or beyond human. She serves on UCI interdisciplinary research teams and campus initiatives such as Water UCI, the Salton Sea Initiative, the UCI OCEANS Initiative, and the UCI Community Resilience program.

A transcript of the video can be found here. For more “Post Growth” interview segments with Valerie Olson visit postgrowth.art.

022 – Schematic: There Has Never Been an Energy Transition (22/01/2021)
Global Energy
Consumption after
J.M. Jancovici,
DISNOVATION.ORG
& Baruch Gottlieb

If conventional wisdom and media narratives are to be believed, then it’s only a matter of time until we transition to sustainable energy: as older, dirtier energy sources are phased out, they’ll be replaced by newer, cleaner ones. Data shows, however, that changes in energy consumption have seen the use of all sources (clean or otherwise) increase, instead of transitioning towards sustainability. “Although the percentage shares of biomass, coal and oil in our energy supply have fallen with the rise of alternatives, their total use continues to grow,” researchers Richard Newell and Daniel Raimi told Axios in 2018. “The world has never experienced an energy transition, but the challenge of climate change means that, for the first time, one will need to begin.” One of several diagrams produced for the “Post Growth” exhibition, this chart debunks the transition myth. “The rhetoric needs complete reframing,” the artists state. “The challenges the energy transition represents need to be rethought beyond science and engineering but as part of a broader reconsideration of our modes of living, values, infrastructures, and social situations.”

023 – Reading: Pyramid Schemes (24/01/2021)
“Those who suggest we may want to consider other slow-growth paths are shouted down as Luddites or environmental extremists or are dismissed as being ignorant of basic economics… or even as being ‘anti-growth,’ as if what we need is more growth. Notice, though, that the shouting-down is done mainly by those at the top of the growing pyramid of ‘wealth,’ which threatens to suffocate our planet.”
024 – Note: Branching Kinship (28/01/2021)
“There is conflict in a forest, but there is also negotiation, reciprocity, and perhaps even selflessness.”—Ferris Jab, on the work of ecologist Suzanne Simard, in “The Social Life of Forests,” The New York Times
Chloe Stead is an art critic and editor based in Berlin. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Artnet, Art Agenda, Frieze, Spike, and Mousse Magazine.

A few years ago, the writer and alt-right hero Jordan Peterson took some time out from ‘owning the libs’ to tweet his thoughts on a new study on ant behaviour. “30% of the ants do 70% of the work,” he wrote. “Not a consequence of the West, or capitalism, in case it needs to be said :)” It wasn’t the first time that Peterson has looked to the animal kingdom as an apologia for capitalism. The Canadian pundit is also fond of using lobsters to argue that hierarchies are ‘natural’ rather than the result of social constructs that give some groups power over others.

As anyone who spends time in the ‘manosphere’—a group of blogs and message boards populated by Incels, men’s rights groups, and pick-up artists—will know, the behaviour of wild animals is often used within these spaces to explain away the worst impulses of our species. Wolf pack behaviour, for instance, is frequently extrapolated onto humans, with the most obvious example being the popularity of the term ‘alpha’ to positively describe a male who is dominant in social or professional scenarios.16 But as many have pointed out, much of this thinking is based on a Darwinist theory of evolution, one which pits all living creatures against each other for limited natural resources while ignoring the many examples of non-human behaviour that “verges,” as a recent New York Times article put it, “on socialism.”17

Titled “The Social Life of Forests,” the article in question is based on the work of Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard whose research on subterranean networks between fungi and trees “upended” the idea of trees as “solitary individuals [that] competed for space and resources.”18 Instead, she found that “while there is indeed conflict in a forest, there is also negotiation, reciprocity, and even selflessness.” In the mid-90s, Simard’s research was seen, in the male-dominated field of forestry, as “girly.” The fact that over 15 years later it’s still controversial—some researchers see “reciprocal exploitation” in place of Simard’s “big cooperative collective”—shows how invested many people still are in a dog-eat-dog view of the world.

”What all of these works have in common, from Serre’s treatise on the humble parasite to Haraway’s brand of ecofeminism, is a move away from the idea that humans are categorically different from all other living beings.”

But what if, instead of using ethology, as Peterson does, to reaffirm our human-centric perspective on life, we looked to nature for ideas of how to do things better—particularly when it comes to growth? In one of his Post Growth Toolkit interviews, Geoffrey Bowker does just that. Finding inspiration from the collective thinking of ants, he argues that horizontal decision-making could be the best way to combat climate change. “There’s no solution that’s going to come from central government in any of this,” he says. “It’s going to be us, as a species, rethinking who we are, reworking who we are, replanning who we are and then rippling that out across the whole sets of relationships that we have. That’s what we see ants doing enormously successfully.”

Bowker’s thinking is informed by decades of research and writing on cross-species relationships by well-known figures such as Michel Serres and Donna Haraway, as well as younger academics like Merlin Sheldrake and Anna Tsing, both of whom recently released books on mushrooms. What all of these works have in common, from Serre’s treatise on the humble parasite to Haraway’s brand of ecofeminism, is a move away from the idea that humans are categorically different from all other living beings. If we can first get our heads around this shift, then, as Bowker recently told me “a rainbow of new outcomes becomes available.”

025 – Reading: The End of Nature (01/02/2021)
“Our comforting sense of the permanence of our natural world, our confidence that it will change gradually and imperceptibly if at all, is the result of a subtly warped perspective. Changes that can affect us can happen in our lifetime in our world—not just changes like wars but bigger and more sweeping events. I believe that without recognizing it we have already stepped over the threshold of such a change; that we are at the end of nature. By the end of nature I do not mean the end of the world. The rain will still fall and the sunshine, though differently than before. When I say ‘nature,’ I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it.”
026 – Schematic: Deep Sustainability Analysis (02/02/2021)
Solar Share:
Energy Flow Diagram
,
DISNOVATION.ORG &
Baruch Gottlieb

Part of the speculative Solar Share project that is at the heart of “Post Growth,” the Solar Share: Energy Flow Diagram attempts a ‘deep sustainability analysis’ that encompasses all human and non-human contributions. At the top are epochal sources related to the big bang, solar radiation, reserved deep heat, and chemical properties in the materiality of the Earth. Extending from these rich sources that provide all the energy for the nutritive and technical needs of human beings today, are long-term cyclical processes which eventually furnish everything we consume. Framing the central diagram are representations of waste and entropic dissolution—both black boxes unto themselves, whose complexity extends beyond the scope of this schematic.

027 – Exhibit D: Solar Share – The Coins (04/02/2021)
Solar Share – The Coins (2020)
DISNOVATION.ORG & Baruch Gottlieb

“How might our understanding of economics change if the instruments we used for money had an equivalent value to the solar energy required to materially produce them?”
Solar Share –
The Coins
(2020),
DISNOVATION.ORG
& Baruch Gottlieb,
iMAL Brussels

Howard T. Odum’s (controversial) concept of ‘emergy’ attempts a comprehensive accounting of the energy consumed in direct and indirect contributions to make a product or service. Emergy allows for extremely slow and vast processes to be acknowledged as vital contributions to life, which we can no longer take for granted in an age of accelerating technological advances. Solar energy emerges as central in energy modelling, responsible for most of the sources of energy we rely upon today, including wind, tides, and, fossil fuels.

Some areas of the world get more sunlight than others, some ‘use’ more sunlight than others. In Europe, we are able to use considerably more energy than we receive naturally from the sun through imports in various concentrated forms, principally petroleum, coal and natural gas. According to The World Bank Group’s Global Solar Atlas, Brussels is one of the least sunny cities in Europe, receiving only 3 kWh/m2 on an average day, and only 1000 kWh/m2 a year. Yet Brussels’ energy consumption is comparable to that of most European cities.

Solar Share coins are made of PET plastic, a petroleum bi-product that constitutes ancient sunlight concentrated in organic material over millions of years. A few grams of PET have the same embodied energy as a square metre of yearly solar irradiation in Brussels.

How might our understanding of economics change if the instruments we used for money had an equivalent value to the solar energy required to materially produce them? As a speculative response, each Solar Share coin embodies the average solar irradiation received at a specific urban location.

Solar Share – The Coins, (2020), DISNOVATION.ORG & Baruch Gottlieb, installation, plexiglass frames, coins made of plastic waste (Precious Plastic, PET)

028 – In Conversation: Geoffrey C. Bowker (08/02/2021)
“If I have any allegiance with respect to the future of the planet it is not particularly with humans—it is with the manifold ways in which life produces intelligence, beauty, and sociality.”

Geoffrey C. Bowker is Professor at the School of Information and Computer Science, University of California at Irvine, where he directs a laboratory for Values in the Design of Information Systems and Technology. Recent positions include Professor of and Senior Scholar in Cyberscholarship at the University of Pittsburgh iSchool and Executive Director, Center for Science, Technology and Society, Santa Clara. Together with Leigh Star he wrote Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences (1999); his most recent book is Memory Practices in the Sciences (2005).

Q: In a number of your interviews with DISNOVATION you look to the natural world for examples of how humans might be able to address some of the issues we’re facing today. When it comes to the environmental crisis, what are the most important lessons we can learn from animals and other lifeforms?
A: One of the highly problematic historical assertions in the U.S. is that of American exceptionalism—the argument that there is something special about the country that makes it different from the rest of the world. A lot of thinking about humans with respect to the environmental crisis has been a form of species exceptionalism: we are different because we stand apart and above; we have rationality in our heads and tools at our fingertips. We gain a lot by saying that we are just another species. As Lynn Margulis first argued, symbiosis is a central fact about all life. We incorporate multiple species (our microflora and fauna), and we live in webs of connection. Unfortunately, we have a highly impoverished language for thinking about interconnections. We are a species like any other; it is unsurprising that some species have more interesting solutions to problems than we have thought of. Core to the human exceptionalism argument is that ‘we’ have intelligence and ‘they’ don’t. This is not only wrong, but deeply harmful: if I have any allegiance with respect to the future of the planet it is not particularly with humans—it is with the manifold ways in which life produces intelligence, beauty, and sociality.
“Attempting to freeze evolutionary change by creating natural reservations misses the point: we need to maximize the ability to speciate, to grow—by concentrating on conservation we make bad decisions for the long-term health of the planet.”
Q: For me, the most surprising statement you make is on biodiversity. You say, “Species are going to die, species die all the time, that’s not a problem.” Even though, logically, it makes sense, it still sounds quite shocking because it seemed to run counter to everything that we think we know about conservation. How did you come to this conclusion and do you ever get push back from airing views like this?
A: To start with the end and work back: yes, I do get pushback. I remember one encounter with an ecologist a number of years ago. He said that the role of conservation science was to preserve the maximum number of species in the present. I couldn’t disagree more. First of all, we’d do just as well to lose a number of ‘charismatic megafauna’—the game isn’t worth the candle. This is non-obvious, but it is about resources. An analogy is public health. In the U.S., an ungodly amount of money has gone into getting asbestos out of buildings—even though there really weren’t that many deaths involved; the same money spent on public health would have led to longer, happier lives for a far greater number of people. Focusing in on cuddly pandas because they are cute is really not the point. This has direct consequences for biodiversity policy. Attempting to freeze evolutionary change by creating natural reservations misses the point: we need to maximize the ability to speciate, to grow—by concentrating on conservation we make bad decisions for the long-term health of the planet. And back to my encounter—when pushed, he said that we should maximize species in the present since that’s when ‘we’ were living. This is such a silly and selfish argument: we should accept a slew of losses now and work for a robust future. This is not done through heroic efforts to protect.
Q: Another topic you talk about is geo-diversity. How does this differ from biodiversity and why should we care about it?
A: The basic argument here is that geo-diversity begets biodiversity. The more niches there are the better for specialized species to develop. A lot of human activity is about niche destruction: so even if we preserve some species, they won’t necessarily have a place to go—and they won’t have the opportunity to create new species since the ‘landscape’ of available niches will have been impoverished. The wider reason is that caring for the planet is about caring for all of the planet: soil diversity is a core issue which is very rarely considered; the planet is a process of which life is only a part.
029 – Reading: Becoming With (09/02/2021)
“If we appreciate the foolishness of human exceptionalism, then we know that becoming is always becoming with—in a contact zone where the outcome, where who is in the world, is at stake.”
030 – Soundbite: Kinship Narratives (10/02/2021)
“How do you induce somebody or a group of people to suddenly see the world differently? You don’t just do it by hitting them over the head with facts, you do it by telling stories, you do it by sketching out possible futures.”
Post Growth
Toolkit, The
Interviews
(2020),
DISNOVATION.ORG
& Clémence Seurat

Geoffrey C. Bowker is Professor at the School of Information and Computer Science, University of California at Irvine, where he directs a laboratory for Values in the Design of Information Systems and Technology. Bowker’s books include Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (1999, authored together with Susan Leigh Star) and Memory Practices in the Sciences (2005), both published by the MIT Press.

A transcript of the video can be found here. For more “Post Growth” interview segments with Geoffrey C. Bowker visit postgrowth.art.

This dossier is in progress. Please check back for future entries.

References:

(1) Jackson, Tim. “The Myth of Decoupling.” In Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow. New York: Routledge, 2007.

(2) Collins, Chuck, Omar Ocampo, and Sophia Paslaski. “Billionaire Bonanza 2020: Wealth Windfalls, Tumbling Taxes, and Pandemic Profiteers.” Institute for Policy Studies, April 23, 2020.

(3) For More on the immensity of Bezo’s wealth see Warren, Kate. “Jeff Bezos Has Gotten $70 Billion Richer in the Past 12 Months.” Business Insider, September 15, 2020.

(4)+(5) Post Growth Toolkits (The Interviews), 2020.

(6) Fuller, R. Buckmeister. “World Energy.” Fortune, February 1940.

(7) Jancovici, Jean-Marc. “How Much of a Slave Master Am I?” Manicore, May 1, 2005.

(8) + (9) Coricone, Adryan. “Eco-Fascism: What It Is, Why It’s Wrong, and How to Fight It.” Teen Vogue, April 30, 2020.

(10) Featherstone, Liza. “Don’t Blame the Babies.” Jacobin, April 15, 2019.

(11) Ted Trainer, The Simpler Way, quoted in Pyke, Toni. “The Energy Debate: Renewable Energy Cannot Replace Fossil Fuels.” Development Education, April 12, 2017.

(12) Jancovici, Jean-Marc. “Averting Systemic Collapse… or Managing It.” OECD Conference Centre, Paris, 2019.

(13) Daggett, Cara New. The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019. p. 3.

(14) Ibid., p.1.

(15) For more on the concept of “Ancient Sunlight” see Hartmann, Thom. The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004.

(16) Squires, Bethy. “Pick-Up Artists Don’t Understand What ‘Alpha’ Even Means—As Evidenced by Wolves.” Vice, October 27, 2016.

(17)+(18)+(19) Jabr, Ferris. “The Social Life of Forests.” The New York Times, December 6, 2020.