“Historians of hegemonic U.S. ideologies, from Frederick Douglass and Max Weber through Cedric Robinson, can help us see how the growth imperative is bolstered by racialized theories of human evolution, of capitalism as economy, and of imperialism.”

Valerie Olson researches contemporary sociocultural processes that redefine what count 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. As an assistant professor at the UC Irvine Department of Anthropology, 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. She is the author of the book Into the Extreme: U.S. Environmental Systems and Politics Beyond Earth (2018).

Q: Valerie, a few years ago you brought out a book that was billed as “the first book-length, in-depth ethnography of U.S. human spaceflight.” How does space travel, or conceptions of “outer space” more generally, relate to growth?
A: Spaceflight in the U.S. provides a spatial and temporal trajectory for diverse imaginaries of social extension. I spoke with spaceflight activists with different goals, some promoting outer space mining and some trying to organize interstellar survival voyages. For example, space capitalists refer to Earth as a cradle, and humans made into a species of de-raced, de-gendered, and de-classed cosmic children who can only ‘grow up’ by leaving their gravity well. For people investing in interstellar travel, spaceflight will grow human developmental capacities, including the end of money and war. Among these groups are deep systems thinkers who imagine that growth is bounded only by the limits of one’s accessible ecosystem. In all of these imaginaries, spaceflight is represented as a growth accelerator, but the practical problems of actual spaceflight could also provide a critical perspective on the fetishization of growth.
Q: In one of the video interviews that you made with DISNOVATION, “Ideology of Growth,” you argue that in “the techno-scientific elite communities, growth is understood to be the equivalent of life and to not grow is the equivalent of death, or to die.” Where, in your opinion, has this imperative come from, and how can we change it?
A: Historians of hegemonic U.S. ideologies, from Frederick Douglass and Max Weber through Cedric Robinson, can help us see how the growth imperative is bolstered by racialized theories of human evolution, of capitalism as economy, and of imperialism. I would add also that, based on the past four years in this country, growth is also associated with anxious regimes of ‘winning.’ It will take alternative models and imaginaries of how to live to dislodge this imperative; I have faith in the young people I interact with who are starting to know and act differently.
“Based on the past four years in this country, growth is also associated with anxious regimes of ‘winning.’ It will take alternative models and imaginaries of how to live to dislodge this imperative.”
Q: In that video, you also say that there is “an ontological imperative to thinking about the growth as the optimal condition of the organism when there are many, many ways to look at life and death not as opposites or as distinct things apart from one another in biology and ecology.” What are some examples of these alternative ways of looking at life and death and what could we, as humans, learn from them?
A: In university courses I teach about human relations with animals, fungi, and plants. I’m always inspired by how my undergraduate students dare to rethink the conditions of their own existence. This generation has tools for thinking about relationality that are nonbinary and untethered from here-to-fore notions of bodies or lifetimes. They want to learn how they are situated within ongoing dances of inter-transformation, rather than being tied to the life/death binary. I like watching them recognize that their bodies are not bounded objects but are somatic conditions nonseparated from other living and nonliving dynamics. Contemporary anthropology is strongly humanistic but not human-centered, and I am indebted to my colleagues who are trying to teach a new generation how to unlearn as well as to learn.