The Jackbootprint

Arthur Boyd, The Expulsion (1986)

The Jackbootprint

Crossing the Threshold

It is by now perhaps almost a truism that humankind has crossed an historical threshold. The perhaps most obvious dimension of this threshold is the quantitative one.

Global population has increased two and half times in my life time, growing from 2.5 billion (1950) to around 6.5 billion. As we humans have grown in numbers and influence, the planet has shrunk. The shrinkage is first and foremost to be taken quite literally in the sense of loss in numbers of other species. The scandal of this is a double one. Firstly, there is the extent of the loss itself that merits the description of a veritable ‘species holocaust’ (or ‘ecocide’ or the largest die-off in 65 million years or the ‘sixth great mass extinction’ in the long history of planetary life).

Secondly, there is the widespread lack of emotional and ethical response to this loss. Within the Australian context, the long recognised fact that one third of the world’s extinct mammals since 1600 have been Australian and that this is a record ‘unparalleled in any other component of Australia’s biodiversity, or anywhere else in the world’ (as the Federal Government’s 2002 National Land and Water Resources Audit notes), leaves not a ripple in popular consciousness. [1] The fact that at the beginning of the 21st century two out of five species on the planet that have been assessed by scientists face extinction [2] is not a fact that is cast in two inch letters on page one of the tabloids or given first mention in any nightly news broadcast. If mentioned at all, it is hidden away as a small obscure item in the back pages of middle class newspapers. Even if the news were to feature prominently, it is safe to assume that it would not have people turning off their TVs and running screaming from their houses.

Narcissism and the Death of Nature

The other dimension to this loss in sheer numbers (and perhaps partly explaining the widespread lack of emotional response) is that there is no more ‘wilderness’ in the strict sense, no more clearly defined external Other (‘Nature’) against which we (or ‘Culture’) could define ourselves. When one can no longer be sure if that rabbit in the meadow is a wild one or one that has been genetically tampered with, then, as Bill McKibben probably first pointed out, ‘nature’ has ‘died’ in the sense that ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ have fused. [3] This ‘death of nature’ seems to be another critical threshold that humankind has crossed.

Given that we have historically defined ourselves against this ‘other’ both as individuals and as cultures, the death and disappearance of this non-human other holds untold psychological and cultural ramifications for our very identities as human beings. If ‘I’ can no longer be easily defined against ‘not-I’, ‘we’ against ‘not-us’ and ‘culture’ against ‘nature’ because the former seems to have somehow absorbed the latter, identity-formation will become increasingly difficult or impossible unless new boundaries and ‘others’ are found with which to define identities.

Alternatively, and more probably, our identities may become even further locked into a hyper-narcissism that only sees itself mirrored in a world now almost totally of its own making. This hyper-narcissism, already prevalent in our social psychologies and mass culture, would mirror (or internalise) the structural economic ‘narcissism’ of Capital which, as capital, self-accumulating money and quantitative exchange value (price), is inherently disconnected from nature, collective social needs and individual qualities. Capital, qua capital, cannot be interested in any qualities or values (i.e. ‘nature’) but only in the potential ‘value’ of things and people (natural and human ‘resources’) in quantitative dollar terms. Capital has now created a world after its own image (Guy Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’) and constantly admires itself in this dazzling image, even as the ignored and denied natural life support systems that undergird the artificial spectacle of its urban mega-conglomerations unravel and collapse.

Ecological Footprints and Overshoot

Under the compulsive expansionism of Capital, we 6 billion humans and the infrastructural ‘second nature’ (or ‘technosphere’) our masters have constructed to support us are thus rapidly becoming co-extensive with the planet itself. One critical metaphor for this radical fusing or over-layering is known as our ‘ecological footprint’. The global figures almost say it all. [4] Humanity now has direct influence on 83% of the planet, 98% in global agricultural areas. Of an estimated 10-30 million species, only one – our own two-legged species – consumes more than 40% of the green plant life photosynthesized each year. We consume 35% of the oceanic life on the continental shelves and 60% of all freshwater runoff.

And of course this ‘we’ is in fact quite fictive because it glosses over the fact of extreme national and class disparities in the per capita consumption of natural resources and production of entropy (wastes, pollution, global warming). The obvious fact is that the poor do not consume as much of the planet as the rich and affluent. A poor African child will consume perhaps a hundredth of the resources that an affluent western child will consume in its lifetime. Despite Hollywood and News Corp, the ‘American (Australian) Dream’ of affluence can thus not be generalized to the whole planet. If all 6.5 billion consumed at the level of the average US inhabitant, four or five planets would be needed to meet demand. Collectively, as a species, we have exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity by at least 25%. In the technical jargon of general systems theory, the over-consumption of humankind (or more correctly, the global middle classes in particular) is in serious ‘overshoot’.

However, given the now increasingly visible, albeit still widely denied, real limits to global carrying capacity (e.g. climate chaos, peak oil, water shortages), the enormous ‘jackbootprint’ that our middle class affluence stamps on the planet may be a very temporary phenomenon when looked at on a wider historical scale. In 1980, founding year of the German Green Party, Hans Magnus Enzensberger (still) [5] had a pithy summary in a poem called ‘Short History of the Bourgeoisie’ [6] :

This was the moment that we,
without noticing, were immeasurably wealthy
for five minutes, generous,
and electric, cooled in July,
or if it was November,
the wood flown in from Finland
glowed in the Renaissance fireplace. Funny,
everything was there, flew in
by itself so to speak. Elegant
we were, no one liked us.
We threw solo concerts, chips,
cellophane-wrapped orchids about us. Clouds
that said ‘I’. Unique!

Flights to everywhere. Even our sighs
were credited to our cards. Like street sparrows
we argued loudly. Everyone
had their own misfortune stowed under their seat,
ready to be grabbed. Actually, it’s a pity.
It was all so practical. Water
Flowed from the taps like nobody’s business.
Do you all remember? Simply anesthetized
by our minute little feelings,
we ate little. If only we had guessed
that everything would be over
in five minutes, the ‘Roast Beef Wellington’
would have tasted different, quite different.

Capitalism: Development and Consumerism

The material items in Enzensberger’s poem already hint at the essential economic dimension of such historical levels of planetary consumption. If traditional Marxists lacked an interest in environmental realities and limits, then contemporary middle class environmentalists conversely tend to display an extreme lack of interest in socio-economic realities.

Economically naïve environmentalism, for example, often talks of ‘our’ or ‘human’ impacts on the environment as if all humans had equal impacts. This ignores or denies the economic realities of capitalist systems and class societies on both national and international levels. Some social groups and classes definitely have greater ecological impacts than others. Obviously Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Packer, Bill Gates and Al Gore have an immeasurably greater ecological footprint than I do and, equally obviously, I have an immeasurably greater ecological footprint than the average inhabitant of the poor Majority World. The now planetary consumer or middle class I and readers of this article belong to and whose material consumption (or ‘foot-‘ or ‘bootprint’) is so obviously overshooting the ecological limits of the ecosphere, is a comparatively recent product of an increasingly globalised, differentiated and integrated economic system.

The very early beginnings of this global system may perhaps be assumed when early humans first left Africa for Eurasia about 1 million years ago, and then in the first expansionist civilisations and ancient patriarchal empires of the bronze and iron ages. However, it was really not until the mercantile beginnings of European capitalism and the concomitant drive for overseas trade from the fifteenth century onwards that previously separate continents were brought into contact and capitalist globalisation can be said to have begun in earnest. In the nineteenth century heyday of liberal capitalism and free trade, steam powered rail and shipping systems, the telegraph and telephone then exponentially increased international trade and commerce.

After about three decades of setbacks with the two world wars, capitalist breakdown in the Great Depression and the beginnings of the isolationist state-capitalist experiments in Russia and (later) China, globalisation rebounded with a vengeance after 1945. In an era of massive overproduction, cheap oil, Cold War anti-communism and Keynesian compromise (welfare state), the capitalist system found new de-politicised, technocratic and popular ideologies of legitimation in the theory and practice of ‘development’ and ‘consumerism’. The boom cycle of post-war affluence, the ‘social wage’ of the welfare state, near full employment and union power brought rising real wages and material standards of living for all classes in most western countries. Class struggle in affluent societies waned.

‘Development’ intended the globalisation of consumerism (or ‘The American Dream’) and is thus another word for what became known as ‘globalisation’ itself in the 1990s. Until the late sixties, development and consumerism were mainly focussed on the industrialised countries themselves. With signs of market saturation and overproduction in these countries and the end of the post-war boom cycle in the late sixties and early seventies, capital increasingly turned to development – i.e. the cutting of costs and the creation of emerging new middle class markets and profits – in newly industrialising countries, especially in Asia.

The economic agents and drivers of this development were of course the trans-national corporations which increased from about 7,000 in 1970 to an estimated 53,600 (with some 449,000 foreign subsidiaries) in 1998. Over the same period, foreign direct investment similarly increased from $44 billion to $644 billion, and capital flows to developing countries grew 11-fold from $21 billion to $227 billion. While the global economy expanded sixfold between 1950 and 1998, world trade as exports increased 17-fold from $311 billion to $5.4 trillion. [7]

When these abstract yet gigantic economic growth figures are translated into the equally gigantic and very material realities of increased ship, truck and air transport movements (passenger-kilometres increasing 100-fold from 28 billion to 2.6 trillion and freight ton-kilometres increasing from 730 million to 99 billion between 1950 and 1998), factory/office/retail/agribiz creation, air and water pollution, waste disposal etc., some indication of the huge ecological impacts can be intuited.

These are not impacts some fictive ‘we’ or ‘humanity’ have collectively and rationally decided upon nor created on the basis of some purely psychological syndrome like ‘our greed’. Although the global population level is doubtlessly a key variable, such figures as those above are also not primarily the result of increasing populations in under-industrialised countries. These are primarily systemic impacts, i.e. impacts or ‘footprints’ which an economic system totally driven by the blind drive for capital accumulation has produced and is producing.

The Inherent Unsustainability of Capitalism: Eco-Socialism or Barbarism

So why is capitalism (including ‘green capitalism’) inherently unsustainable? One summative way of approaching this question is through the very definition of ‘capital’ itself. Capital is a modern form of money that must grow or go under. If capital does not accumulate, it is just ‘money’, it is no longer ‘capital’. The critical focus of much environmentalism, ‘economic growth’ (i.e. capital accumulation), is thus not some mere idée fixe that can be changed by some kind of magic, idealistic change in so-called ‘political will’. Capitalism is structurally (systemically, inherently) expansionist, and this inherent expansionism and nature’s inherent ecological limits are, ultimately, mutually incompatible. One or the other must give way. At the moment it is nature that is ‘giving way’, i.e. declining, degrading, teetering, collapsing. Its final collapse or ‘tipping point’, for example, as runaway climate chaos, would also be the collapse not only of capitalism but of humane civilisation itself.

Thus the logic of this argument regarding the ‘overshoot’ of our industrial-consumerist ‘jackboot’ would be that the saving both of what is left of nature and humane civilisation now demands the abolition of capitalist economics. More specifically, it demands the contraction of over-developed economies, the reduction of global middle class resource consumption and a concomitant increase in poor people’s basic consumption in the less developed countries. Last but certainly not least, it demands the introduction of a sustainable economic, social and political system based not on the accumulation of money and capital but on democratic decision-making on the equitable fulfilment of basic human needs within the limits of ecological carrying capacity on local, regional and global levels.

Thus ecological sustainability and justice, social justice and a decentralised participatory democracy that controls the economy (i.e. some form of ‘eco-socialism’) have now, necessarily, become one. What once may have been a matter of human ethics is now a matter of humane survival.

The above is obviously not the only way of coherently framing our general situation. However, unless there are grave errors in this argument, something like this would seem to be the general ‘logic’ of our unsustainable and unjust collective situation at this point in history. Given current (and almost total) capitalist hegemony over mainstream channels of communication, given continuing relative affluence and widespread collective exhaustion, collusion or de-politicisation, this logic is not one that would be generally acceptable, or perhaps even comprehensible, in mainstream discourse. Although the numbers are increasing (e.g. global climate justice movement), very few people as yet share such a general perspective. The increasingly ‘objective’ need for both collective material sacrifices on the part of us global middle classes and for wide sweeping, democratic, non-violent power struggles against the corporate and political decision makers of ecocide and imperial mass murder are still, overwhelmingly, taboo.

[1] J. Woodford, ‘In a ravaged land, 1600 species at risk’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23/4/2003, p. 1.The figures of the Australian national audit given are: 22 mammals already extinct and about 1,683 species (consisting of 346 vertebrates, 8 invertebrates, 1,241 plant species), and almost 3,000 ecosystems are now deemed threatened. Of Australia’s 384 bioregions, only 8 had no recorded threatened species. Sydney’s Cumberland Plain, which adjoins our Wingecarribee bioregion to the north, is considered one of the continent’s most endangered ecosystems, with only 13% of native vegetation remaining, 90% of the riparian vegetation gone and 85 species listed as endangered or vulnerable. According to R. Gittins, in just ten years (between 1993 and 2003), the number of bird and mammal species listed as extinct, endangered or vulnerable in Australia rose from 120 to 169 (‘Economy tells only part of the story’, Sydney Morning Herald, 31/5/2006, p. 13). The greatest threats to ecosystems ands species in Australia continues to be wholesale land clearing followed by fragmentation of remnant vegetation, grazing pressures, salinity, altered fire regimes, introduced weeds and animals, and now: climate change. A temperature rise of just 1-2 degrees could wipe out, for example, the habitat for 88% of butterfly species and all the acacias in the south-west, while up to 50% of eucalypt species may soon be exposed to climates they may not be able to adapt to (W. Frew, ‘Too hot to handle: climate of change endangering 1683 natives’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7/9/2006, p. 6.) In a mere seven years between 1998 and 2005, 639,930 hectares of native vegetation were legally cleared in NSW creating an ‘extinction debt’ of an estimated 11 million mammals, 13 million birds and 80 million reptiles (W. Frew, ‘Revealed: legal land clearing’s savage toll’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28/2/2007, p. 3.

[2] D. Graham-Rowe, ‘From the poles to the deserts, more and more animals face extinction’, New Scientist, 6/5/2006, p. 10, and D. Graham-Rowe, ‘Last chance to stop plant catastrophe’, New Scientist, 16/9/2006, p. 8. According to these two sources, the global figures are: 16,119 animal and plant species face extinction, including 1 in 3 amphibian species, 1 in 4 mammals and 1 in 8 birds. Biodiversity loss is increasing, not slowing down. 1 in 4 of the planet’s 40,000 classified plant species is threatened, and as habitats under global warming change faster than plants can adapt to, half of Europe’s plant species could be lost within 80 years. As half the land suitable for potatoes, peanuts and cowpea cultivation disappears, these cultivars could be extinct within 50 years, with potentially huge human impacts. In 2007 another 180 species were added to the global ranks of the endangered and vulnerable animal and plant species. (A. Benjamin, ‘One of the lucky ones’, Guardian Weekly, 21/9/2007, p. 30).
[3] B. McKibben 1990, The End of Nature.
[4] The figures following are from: D. Smith, ‘Human footprint is all over the planet’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28/10/2002, p. 5. A 2007 study by German and Austrian scientists put the percentage of photosynthetic energy used by humans at 24% (C.C. Leung, ‘Human greed tales lion’s share of solar energy’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3/7/2007, p. 3.)
[5] Like quite a few of the old New Left, he later seemed to have lost a lot of his capacity for critical thinking and regressed to conformist, pre-critical and pre-systemic positions. Like Frankfurt School philosopher Jürgen Habermas, for example, he seems to have supported the obviously selective demonisation of the West’s erstwhile favoured thug Saddam Hussein and the concomitant US bombings of Iraq in 1991. This wholesale regression of consciousness attained its perhaps most abysmal level in the development of the German Greens from a grassroots-derived radical alternative calling for the abolition of both NATO and Warsaw Pact into a pro-NATO-imperialist (Kosovo, Afghanistan) and economically neo-liberal party (to the right of the social democrats, and at times, of the Christian democrats) during the 80s and 90s. The rationalising ideology backing this imperial volte face was of course termed ‘humanitarian intervention’.
[6] In H.M. Enzensberger, Die Furie des Verschwindens, p. 30 (Own translation, PL-N).
[7] Figures are from H. French, Vanishing Borders, (Chapter 1 excerpt available at in 2000).

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on December 11, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Jackbootprint”

  1. Enzensberger’s poem says it all. Your translation reads very well, and deserves to be read widely.

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