Benjamin Kunkel

Growth

Interstate 45 in Houston, September 2017

“One might say that the whole energy crisis is a form of entropy. The earth being the closed system, there’s only a certain amount of resources.” In a 1973 interview, Robert Smithson recognizes what seems obvious today: if thermodynamic systems move toward a state of maximum disorder, and the world ecosystem has limited raw materials and energy, there’s only so much resource use it can sustain. In the same interview, Smithson cites Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, whose work, along with that of Herman Daly and Kenneth Boulding, was fundamental to the field of ecological economics in investigating the relationship between resource use and economic growth.

Writer Benjamin Kunkel is now working simultaneously in this trajectory and in the line of classical Marxism. While a fellow at the Institute, he is writing a new book that asks whether there is an ecological analogue to Marx’s theorem of the declining rate of profit. In other words, does the dissipation of energy and raw materials threaten the accumulation of capital? If so, what kind(s) of society may lie beyond the horizon of capitalism?

Kunkel’s fall season begins with the release of a small book: ecological economist Herman Daly’s important and neglected essay, “On the Steady State.” Its core question—the relationship between the scale of the global economy and the planet’s ecosystem—underlies the rest of the season’s events. Daly argues that in order to preserve the natural environment for future generations, limits must be placed on economic growth. Political thinker Gopal Balakrishnan will join Kunkel for a conversation about capitalist stagnation versus the steady-state model. In a second lecture, “Steady-State Aesethetics,” Kunkel will speak about the implications of a steady-state economy for aesthetic life. The season concludes with a theater piece currently in progress, which aims to dramatize the dilemmas of growthlessness.

For the duration of his program, Kunkel will install a circulating library and temporary bookstore consisting of books related to ecosocialism and the de-growth movement.

Biography

Benjamin Kunkel wrote his first piece of fiction on ecological themes when he was an undergraduate at Deep Springs College, and it was published in 1995 in the Harvard Advocate. A decade later, he co-founded the literary and political magazine n+1 and released his first novel, Indecision, to wide critical acclaim. Between 2008-2013, he spent most of his time in Buenos Aires, where he wrote and produced an early version of his play Buzz, a tragicomedy on global warming, at the La Tertulia theater. Politics are always a part of Kunkel’s work, which often dwells on the urgency of (eco)socialist politics against the backdrop of his generation’s disaffected hypercapitalist culture. Utopia or Bust, his 2014 collection of essays, analyzed the relevance of Marxism to capitalism today; he is currently writing a set of articles on radical economic theory for the London Review of Books. His next book speculates about the shape of a post-capitalist future and will be published by Verso. Kunkel’s literary criticism appears in The New Yorker and Dissent, among others. He lives in New York City with his two cats.

Future Events:

November 8, 7pm

Benjamin Kunkel on Steady-State Aesthetics

Modern and contemporary art is, needless to say, a phenomenon of recent centuries; the same is true of sustained economic growth, a condition historically unheard-of before modern times and one pursued as an explicit political objective only since World War II. Economic growth clearly belongs among the fundamental features of modernity, and, without it, the compulsion to novelty characteristic of much art since the Industrial Revolution is difficult to imagine. And yet there exists virtually no reflection on growth as a basis of modern and contemporary art and aesthetics. In his lecture “Steady-State Aesthetics,” Benjamin Kunkel offers a set of provocative theses on our default aesthetic of endless growth—a way of seeing so habitual that we don’t see it­—and the different kind of art-making which might emerge in a society that no longer grows economically, even as it continues to develop artistically and otherwise. Ecological economists speak of  “steady-state economics” to describe such a post-growth condition: what might a steady-state aesthetics look like?

This event is free and open to the public and will take place at The Artist’s Institute, 132 E. 65th Street. Seating is limited and is first come, first served. A recording of the talk will be made available online by the following Saturday. 

Past Events:

September 27, 7pm

Benjamin Kunkel and Gopal Balakrishnan on the End of Economic Growth

Economic growth must continue. Economic growth must end. If an aporia occurs when we subscribe to contradictory propositions at the same time, this may be the great aporia of our time. Economic growth must continue; if it doesn’t, businesses stop investing, unemployment swells, and social cohesion crumbles. Unfortunately, it’s no less obvious that economic growth must stop; if the production and consumption of more and more goods, for more and more people, proceeds unchecked, environmental ruin is assured. Near stagnation across wealthy countries over the past decade presents growthlessness as an incipient capitalist hell. At the same time, a steady-state economy—one that no longer grows in its ecological dimensions—may offer the last best hope for socialism.

Political thinker Gopal Balakrishnan will join Benjamin Kunkel to discuss the end of economic growth as both a utopian and a dystopian prospect on Wednesday, September 27th at 7pm at the Artist’s Institute, 132 E. 65th Street.

Gopal Balakrishnan is a professor in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is on the Editorial Committee of the New Left Review. He has just completed a book on Marx’s Capital.