Technology, Crisis and Transition - the long duration of the ecological regime of petro-Fordism

Larry Reynolds


For: 'The Limits to Capital and the Limits to Nature'

This paper brings together scholarship from the field of ‘socio-technical transitions’ studies into dialogue with geographical-historical materialism, to describe transitions between historically produced techno-ecological regimes. The publication of ‘limits to growth’ (Meadows et al. 1972) was read by some as a symptom of the intensification of the 1970s world capitalist crisis that marked the exhaustion of the Fordist-Keynesian regime (Freeman et al., 1973).

Following this and the ‘oil shock’ debate began to rage in bourgeois and popular circles about ‘natural limits’, with for example, the response of Daniel Bell that limits were social, economic and technical, and could be overcome in a new post-industrial information age. The ‘limits to growth’ controversy also began a long debate on the left about the relationship between ‘natural’ and ‘social’ limits to capital, and the different historical articulations of ecological and social forms (i.e. Benton 1989).

From the emergence of geographical historical materialism to capitalist-world ecology, we now have the theoretical foundations to now begin to describe regimes of accumulation through attention to their attendant techno-ecological regimes.

As these include discursive as well as material arrangements (designating at any historical moment what is ‘natural’ and what is not) our task therefore is not simply to attempt to ‘overcome’ nature / society dualisms in philosophy, but to examine the work these dualisms perform in any particular techno-ecological regime of accumulation. The designation of something as ‘natural’ and therefore ‘external’ to the ‘social’ is a precondition for its appropriation or expropriation within a regime of accumulation. Moments of transition can also therefore be experienced as ontological crises, where disputes arise as to the boundaries between the natural and social.
Attention to techno-ecological regimes can help us diagnose the long crisis of neoliberalism. The 1970s saw the rise of three trends in reaction to the crisis of ‘petro-Fordism’, which have intersected ever since – the environmentalist critique, the imaginary of a ‘smart’ digital-ecological ‘third’ (post)industrial revolution, and the processes of neoliberal globalisation and financialisation.
It is possible to discern attempts to absorb the environmentalist critique in the construction of a neoliberal techno-ecological regime. However, despite visions of biotechnological revolution and energy transition, financialised capitalism has remained locked into the long crisis of an older techno-ecological infrastructure, developed in the second industrial revolution and bequeathed by Petro-Fordism. Despite its rhetoric of ‘perpetual innovation’, the neoliberal regime has failed to make a ‘third industrial revolution’. Furthermore, attempts to ‘internalise’ previous ecological ‘externalities’ within a marketised environmental regime threaten to intensify the crisis of capital and further destabilise its ontological boundaries of the social and natural.
Nevertheless, a new set of productive forces, ranging from genomics and informatics to renewable energy slumber in the lap of an exhausted neoliberalism. This presentation will conclude with an assessment of the tasks of the left in articulating a new alignment of social, technological and ecological forces beyond the limits of capital.

techno-ecology - techno-ecological regime. - society-nature relations - limits to capital - ecological limits