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In new book, VCU sociologist argues that the green economy and potential climate change solutions are being stymied by capitalism

A new book by Jesse Goldstein, Ph.D., explores the world of clean technology entrepreneurship and...
A new book by Jesse Goldstein, Ph.D., explores the world of clean technology entrepreneurship and finds that the possibilities of environmental transformation are being stifled by capitalism. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

A new book by a Virginia Commonwealth University sociology professor explores the world of clean technology entrepreneurship and finds that the possibilities for environmental transformation — such as innovations to address climate change — are being stifled by capitalism.

Planetary Improvement: Cleantech Entrepreneurship and the Contradictions of Green Capitalism,” (MIT Press) by Jesse Goldstein, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, shows how entrepreneurs and investors in the green economy are encouraging a vision of addressing climate change with new technologies, but argues that this system of “green capitalism” is more capitalist than green.

How would you describe the central thesis of “Planetary Improvement”?

The book is a critique of technologically based solutions to the global climate crisis. It’s looking at the world of clean technologies, which is anything from solar panels to advanced materials, new energy technologies, waste reduction — really, anything that’s less bad than the existing alternatives. The book is [about] entrepreneurs, investors and inventors who are trying to create these new technologies in the hopes of actually making a meaningful difference in regards to problems of global climate change.

The underlying theme of my work has a lot to do with the ways in which capitalism as a form of economics — but also as a social system — channels and narrows possibilities for innovation into [only] the possibility to maximize profits by making more capital. That’s a process that I call enclosure.

The underlying theme of this book is the way in which collective sociotechnical imaginaries, or the ability to [create] new technologies and new social relations built on new technologies, are enclosed by investment logics that govern the ways in which entrepreneurial spaces operate.

What led you to investigate clean tech from the entrepreneurial and investment angle?

My interest in focusing on these entrepreneurs and investors was to look specifically at that process [of enclosure]. I was looking specifically at the ways in which a Silicon Valley ethos happens in this green economy, whether it’s a super-rich technological pioneer — Elon Musk, Bill Gates — or whether it’s just some interesting entrepreneur at a more modest level believing in this idea that we can save the planet through technological solutions.

I’m highly critical of the idea that these technological innovations can “save the planet.” Not because I think these technologies aren’t interesting, but — and this is what I look at in the book — because by putting our dreams and aspirations into these types of technologies, specifically technologies that are only going to be funded and therefore pursued if they can generate profit, we are limiting ourselves and not thinking about a huge range of other possible imaginaries that might actually have a bigger effect on global climate problems.

"Planetary Improvement: Cleantech Entrepreneurship and the Contradictions of Green Capitalism."
"Planetary Improvement: Cleantech Entrepreneurship and the Contradictions of Green Capitalism."

What alternative system do you envision that would not close off those possibilities?

Well, there’s a ton of creativity out there. The tricky thing is, for so much science and technological innovation or [even just] tinkering, you need some form of funding to do it, to make things happen. So there’s a structural problem with the fact that money is often the way that we get access to the tools of making new things, but money often comes with strings attached. The people who give you money expect something in return, or have specific ideas about what they’d like to see produced and developed.

One dimension of this problem is just figuring out: How do you support innovation and experimentation in ways that are insulated from investors’ expectations and this pursuit of profitability?

I would say there’s a lot of stuff already happening in this regard. There’s a lot of creativity out there that doesn’t look like clean tech but has the potential to be quite inspirational and transformative. For instance, some of the most simple things come from people who are saying, “Hey, if we’re really interested in a low-carbon society, let’s think about forms of low-carbon leisure, of low-carbon work that isn’t about new technologies, but that imagines forms of care-giving in new ways.” This can be as simple as rethinking what it means to enjoy being with other people in ways that don’t involve gadgets, disposable products, airfare, and other forms of carbon intensive consumption.

These are sociotechnical imaginaries — different social and technological assemblages of how we might live with each other. They just don’t get called that because they’re not as sexy as Silicon Valley’s newest and coolest technologies, as Tesla’s cars, as all these muscular gadgets that capture our “Star Trek,” Cold War-infused imaginary of what futures can and should look like.

We have all these science fiction images of cool futures, whether it’s action-figure movies or “Blade Runner” or dystopian tales, but they all entail these very technologically saturated spaces. Subtly, we are led to believe that this is what the future is supposed to look like, for better or for worse. This, I would say, is something we’re all trapped by. It makes it that much harder to imagine just how innovative and creative other forms of technological experimentation might be, ones that are maybe centered on lower-carbon technologies and processes, like using your hands or simple tools that don’t require the input of extracted materials or petroleum.

The underlying theme of my work has a lot to do with the ways in which capitalism as a form of economics — but also as a social system — channels and narrows possibilities for innovation into [only] the possibility to maximize profits by making more capital. That’s a process that I call enclosure.

How did you go about researching this book?

The book is an ethnography. I spent a few years in New York City attending different meetings and events to try and become a part of this cleantech community and to learn more about them.

[There was] one event in particular that I went to on a monthly basis and then from there, I met a lot of people. I was in school at the time at the City University of New York, and for funding reasons I needed to stay available to teach and to be present. So most of my research ended up being in New York, even though New York is really only one small little slice of this clean economy.

How were you able to gain entrée into that community and witness some of those conversations?

Here’s the thing. And I think it’s true of everybody, but it’s definitely true of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists: They love talking about themselves. You sit down with somebody and tell them, “I think you’re smart. I really want you to tell me about how the world works. I think I need to learn from you.” The floodgates open.

I talk to my students about this a lot too, about how you do ethnographic research. In some ways, some interview sessions can almost feel like a therapy session. People are just working their stuff out. Because when it comes down to it, I’m asking questions that they are themselves genuinely interested in and rarely get the opportunity to reflect on.

By putting our dreams and aspirations into … technologies that are only going to be funded and therefore pursued if they can generate profit, we are limiting ourselves and not thinking about a huge range of other possible imaginaries that might actually have a bigger effect on global climate problems.

This actually is something that I think comes out in my study, which is that, business people — whether it’s an investor, entrepreneur, consultant or whoever — they’re not bad people. I come from this world of Marxist critique where I’m supposed to think capitalists are all evil. The people I met through my study were not evil. They’re not bad at all. They’re actually, for the most part, interested in and committed to trying to make the world a little bit better. But they’re caught up in a world that doesn’t give them a lot of space to think those thoughts.

That’s where this process of enclosure comes in. Even with these entrepreneurs and people who look like your stereotypical room of capitalists, there’s just so many possibilities that gets no space because everybody is pre-occupied with, “Well, the only way I pay my bills, the only way I get anything to happen is by figuring out how to get venture capitalists to invest or getting somebody to write a check.” The only way to do that is to sound like you’re profitable, and the only way to do that is to show that your product makes an incremental improvement in some already established market.

Then before you know it, none of these world-changing ideas are anywhere in the room anymore because all that’s left are incremental improvements to things that already exist.

That’s what I call “planetary improvement.” You’re feeling like you’re saving the planet, but in fact, you’re just making incremental improvements to the status quo, and it’s this status quo that is actually the thing that’s destroying the planet.

In other words, the argument goes something like this: Our civilization is built around automobile infrastructure, to take one example, [which] is part of what makes us so materially and energetically intensive of a society. We drive to and from the suburbs, we fuel up, we go to box stores. There’s a whole social and technological assemblage that the car has a central role in. Does making the car electric change the fact that we’re still completely embedded within this automobile infrastructure? Maybe some versions of electric cars are better than some gas guzzlers but they are still cars, and no car, no matter how energy efficient, is going to get us thinking about new ways to organize our social, political, and economic lives.

We have all these science fiction images of cool futures, whether it’s action-figure movies or “Blade Runner” or dystopian tales, but they all entail these very technologically saturated spaces. Subtly, we are led to believe that this is what the future is supposed to look like … . It makes it that much harder to imagine just how innovative and creative other forms of technological experimentation might be, ones that are maybe centered on lower-carbon technologies that don’t require the input of extracted materials or petroleum.

The book calls for a “green spirit” that goes beyond capitalism, in which sociotechnical experimentation is able to move beyond clean tech entrepreneurs and the investors. What do you mean by that?

There are two social scientists from France, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, who write about the “new spirit of capitalism.” They essentially argue that for the managers and the bureaucratic types that make capitalism run, it’s a largely unfulfilling process. They’re supposed to believe in this system, but then must spend huge amounts of time doing little managerial tasks, disconnected from feeling like they’re lives are actually of consequence. In this regard, capitalism is ultimately a stultifying and boring system.

In order to convince these managers and professionals to stay engaged, there has to be some legitimizing discourse, some way for people to feel good about doing this project and being part of this system. Boltanski and Chiapello argue that that’s what the spirit of capitalism is — a set of legitimizing ideas that make people want to get out of bed and be part of the team. They argue that this spirit of capitalism is something that changes over time. As capitalism is threatened by social critique and its legitimacy is challenged, the spirit of capitalism absorbs some of these critiques and then folds them back into a new legitimizing discourse.

My understanding of the green spirit of capitalism basically runs parallel. Environmental critique is threatening the legitimacy of capitalism. It’s not that hard to understand the argument that capitalism is part of the reason that planetary environmental crisis is happening. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put those things together. So there are ways in which that environmental critique can get folded back into a new spirit of capitalism, which is what I argue planetary improvement is. So: “Yeah, I know capitalism is destroying the planet. That’s why we’re making solar panels.” … “I know we’re screwing everything up. That’s why I recycle.” … “I know it’s all going to help, that’s why I do these little incremental improvements so I can feel good about being part of the answer and not the problem.”

A green spirit beyond capitalism, if that’s possible, is something I try and ask about toward the end of the book, which would be what I’m talking about in terms of other sociotechnological imaginaries, other ways to think about possible futures that are not so embedded within the technologies that we’ve taken for granted as “modern” life.

You can pick any aspect of our lives and try and understand how the world could be beautiful without it. Think about international airfare. I like traveling; it’s really fun to go to other places. Technically, it’s really bad for the planet for all of us to fly so much. How could we envision a world where there is still a cosmopolitan flow of people, but maybe not so much air travel? I don’t know. I think it’s possible and it just requires being really creative about how we move through space and where and when. Maybe travel is something you do a couple times in your life, but no one should be able to travel every year. Maybe we get back to taking long boat trips and people just need three months off of work so they have enough time to make it to the other side of the world. That would mean we would need to re-organize work so that everyone had a lot more vacation time.

All these things can be the basis for experimenting in thought and practice with [how] the world could be otherwise.