A Brief Intellectual History


A Brief Intellectual History


This document describes the thought process that led me to develop the Economics of Needs and Limits (ENL) and to formulate a strategic response to the ecological crisis. These developments took place between 1990 and 2017.

I became acutely concerned about environmental decline in the 1980s. In 1989 I attended an anti-clearcutting event that featured David Suzuki, who stated that the root cause of the crisis was the growth-obsessed discipline of economics. This seemed plausible to me, so I put my computer career on hold and returned to university to study this subject.

Around the same time I became aware of ecological economics, a new academic field spearheaded by Herman Daly that aimed to rectify the environmental ignorance of the standard discipline. I initially subscribed to this promising theory but soon rejected it, for two main reasons.

First, Daly and his followers insisted that capitalism is not growth-dependent, and that the system can therefore be retained. The premise here is false, so the conclusion is untenable. Second, the field abandoned a crucial idea that Daly himself had originated. He stated early in his career that the concept of subjective value is environmentally disastrous because wants are potentially infinite; an objective value standard is therefore required. This is true, but the field nevertheless embraced subjective value, thereby aligning itself with one of the most destructive features of standard thought. To the best of my knowledge, no ecological economist has so much as acknowledged, let alone explained, this disastrous theoretical reversal.

At university I learned the essentials of standard economics and absorbed a crucial analytical technique called marginal analysis. I also discovered that Suzuki had been right about the discipline’s growth obsession. Despite mounting evidence that economic expansion was destroying the biosphere, not a single instructor – including the one who taught “environmental economics” – ever questioned the need for rapid growth. It soon became obvious that standard economics is not an objective examination of humankind’s provisioning in a finite world, but rather an elaborate intellectual justification for the prevailing capitalist order.

Ironically, a right-wing trade professor provided the spark I needed to move beyond both standard and ecological economics. One day after class I confronted him about a now-forgotten issue. After listening for a few minutes he stopped me cold by asking, “Where’s your model?” What he meant was: if you’re going to disagree, don’t wave your arms – show me your concepts, graphs, and equations; if you don’t like the theory I’m presenting, give me your alternative. Unfortunately a progressive economic theory didn’t exist, so as a progressive I had nothing to offer.

This humiliation was a turning point. I realized that humane values and good intentions are insufficient for fundamental social change. They’re necessary starting points, but they’re only starting points. Values must serve as the foundation for economic and political theory, and this theory must then serve as the foundation for a strategic plan. As discussed further below, I eventually abandoned progressivism because I appeared to be alone in drawing these conclusions.

After graduating I began the tortuous process of developing an economic theory that progressives could call their own. This involved extensive reading and copious note-taking. The two most important thinkers I encountered were Karl Marx and John Ruskin.

Marx was important for two reasons.  First, his analysis of capitalism is not only brilliant, it is uniquely independent of conventional influences. The insights he provides – for example his explanation for the system’s growth compulsion – are not available anywhere else. Second, his ideas have been more heavily distorted than any other social thinker in history. Unless you read Marx first-hand, you will never know what he actually said. This is especially true for his labor theory of value. In an annotated bibliography produced around this time I listed ten common misinterpretations of the theory, including the widespread claim that Marx dismissed the contributions of nature. Sadly, ecological economists and their supporters have been among the most enthusiastic propagators of this falsehood.

John Ruskin provided me with the two foundational concepts for a progressive economics: intrinsic value and effectual value. The first of these (which I have renamed “potential value”) refers to the life-enhancing attributes of an economic output. The second refers to the actual life enhancement achieved from the output’s consumption. These concepts permit an economic theory to formally address an output’s objective benefits, as well as the inequality, spoilage, and waste that prevent these benefits from being fully realized.

I subsequently developed the necessary cost concepts, incorporated environmental limits, and extended these basics to include population, labor productivity, trade, resource depletion, and various efficiency measures. The resulting framework was initially called Progressive Economics, renamed Human Economics as development proceeded, and is now called the Economics of Needs and Limits (ENL). From start to finish, this work took 15 years.  For an overview of ENL, see this introduction. For the full theory, see this book.

After completing my initial book on ENL in 2007 I sent copies to a number of progressives and generally tried to interest the progressive community in an economic theory that matched their values. This proved to be futile. The predominant response was that theory was a diversion from activism. I was told that I had my head in the clouds while others were busy changing the world. My rebuttal – that sound theory is necessary for guiding and strengthening activism – fell on deaf ears.

At this point I still blamed myself for the lack of progressive acceptance. ENL, after all, was just a theory for rational economic guidance. I had not produced a strategy that would allow progressives to overcome the political obstacles that prevented its implementation. I therefore shifted my attention from economics to politics.

As more fully described in this primer, I found two important sources of political insight in Niccolo Machiavelli and Edward Bernays. From these and other authors I concluded that every complex society has a dominant group called the ruling class. This group captures power through a historical process such as the gradual displacement of feudal landowners by factory-based capitalists in Europe. Power is maintained by selectively meeting popular demands, through various means of manipulation, and by applying physical and psychological coercion to those who pose a political threat. I turned these ideas into a conceptual model of capitalist power and built a strategy on this basis.

This step resulted in a serious error. As a progressive sympathizer with working-class revolutions and a careful student of Marx, I unwittingly adopted the revolutionary model of social change. That is, I accepted the pattern established by the socialist revolutions of the past, where the working class supplants the capitalist class as society’s dominant group. My only significant modification was to replace workers with social elements that might respond vigorously to ecological decline. I presented these ideas in my second book, Contractionary Revolution.

Soon after completing this book I realized that its core premise was false. Socialist revolutions were based on the suffering of the masses, who responded with intense anger that could be directed into revolutionary channels. The ecological crisis, however, has not produced these conditions in the rich capitalist countries. Despite substantial pockets of poverty and misery, the majority there are relatively content, in part because they benefit from the plunder of capitalist globalization. The visceral energy required for political revolution is therefore absent. As well, capitalists have learned from the mistakes that permitted past revolutionary challenges, and have significantly tightened their social control. Given these impediments, political revolution in the rich countries, in the time that is ecologically available, is not a realistic possibility.

Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, was published during this period of reassessment. Despite my growing disenchantment with the progressive world, I decided to retain my self-identification as a progressive until this book appeared. In several articles Klein had referred to capitalism as a critical factor in the ecological crisis, and I felt I should read her full analysis before making my final judgment.

This analysis turned out to be politically bankrupt. In her book Klein swallows all the illusions that Machiavelli and Bernays had so effectively punctured, and endlessly repeats the dogma that fundamental social change can only come through social movements. After turning the last page I said an emphatic goodbye to the movement she represents. I still hold progressive values, but my political differences with the progressive movement are too great for my continued identification with the cause. This article announced my departure when it occurred.

With my revolutionary approach invalidated and my progressive days behind me, I searched for a new strategy as an independent thinker.  This was a laborious process that took more than two years.  I was convinced that transformative economic change requires a decisive change at the ruling-class level.  But if a new ruling class is impossible because revolutionary conditions are absent, then the only remaining possibility appeared to be a transformed version of the current ruling class.  I therefore concluded that an internal shift within this class, although unlikely, was the only remaining possibility for a sustainable economy and a viable biosphere.  This document outlines the approach I chose.

In the summer of 2016 I set out to write a book to present this strategy in detail.  Before doing so, however, I decided to update myself on the ecological crisis.  The environmental situation was changing rapidly, especially in the Arctic, and I wanted to ensure that my approach was an appropriate response.

As described in this post,  I was shocked to discover that the crisis was much worse that I had imagined.  The Arctic was near collapse, and existing levels of greenhouse gases were sufficient to cause calamitous global warming and ocean degradation even if no further emissions were released.  My prior assumption had been that humankind had inflicted only a flesh wound on nature.  This implied that, if we sharply reduced our impact, the natural world would recover.  What I found, however, is that humankind had inflicted a mortal wound on nature.  This meant that geoengineering, which I had previously opposed, was necessary to undo the damage our economic activities had caused.  Further, because the ruling class is generally opposed to geoengineering, I speculated that military intervention may be required for timely intervention.

In subsequent posts I outlined the rest of my ecological findings.  I identified the emissions fallacy – the fixation on greenhouse gas emissions while ignoring their existing concentrations – as the core illusion that prevented a rational response to the crisis.  I also offered my version of such a response, citing the need for emergency geoengineering to avert short-term collapse and then rapid impact reduction to achieve a sustainable economy.  In future posts I will address the economic and political obstacles to implementing this response.

Frank Rotering
April 29, 2017


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