Framing the Project: The Socio-Ecological Crisis of Capitalism

Last time I talked about the notion of “framing” and the ways I might situate and justify this project. The best metaphor might be matryoshka dolls (you know, these things), for we can see this as a series of nested concerns that ultimately lead to narrower questions. Concerns are things that motivate the project: what it speaks to, but certainly doesn’t resolve or answer in their entirety. If I say “this project speaks to the current reconsideration of artisanal production, American manufacturing and ‘reshoring’ as well as the interest in alternative forms of work, employment and life balance” I certainly do not mean to say that my project will tidily resolve all of these issues!

I’ll begin with perhaps the most personal framing. This new project finds me at the “mid-career” moment, which is to say, secure with tenure and the freedom to work on new projects that fit my own interests and passions, but also as a middle-aged person with kids and the various joys and obligations that implies. Simply put, as a citizen of the world looking through a critical sociological lens, the work I do next must, for me, be connected to both my personal passions and preoccupations, but also with a vision of how this work contributes – even if obliquely and in possibly small measure – to my sense of where the world should be headed.

For me, all of these concerns are enveloped by climate change and the forms of social organization that have led to, and are accelerating, this change. This I view as the signal issue, or crisis, of our times. I will leave it to others to provide the various frightening scenarios and implications, but suffice it to say for now that this is a big deal. The broadest “frame” therefore has to do with the basic presumption that something major is afoot with the structure and operation of capitalism as an historical and global social system (even if, for the time being, I will focus my attention most concretely on the U.S. context). The looming medium and long-run socio-ecological catastrophe of climate change (across the 21st century) will (or should) change “everything” (in Naomi Klein’s phrasing). There is no sitting still, for simply continuing what we are doing – so-called “business as usual” – already implies large-run changes in the social and political organization of economic life that are radical in their implications. “Business as usual” – contrary to the seemingly static nature of the phrase – is actually a rather radical path, for it locks us in to potentially catastrophic socio-ecological disruption.

Thus, I’m starting from the basic idea that many of the existing ways of organizing socio-economic life – business as usual – are already, and will increasingly be, facing significant restructuring and reorganization. “Capitalism” itself – and I will talk more about what that concept may or may not denote in future posts – may well be in a terminal crisis, and our task as engaged scholars and citizens of the world is, most fundamentally, to think about and analyze how that process will play out.

Knowing this is a project on bike builders, one might think my interest here is ecological – having to do with alternative transportation, decreased fossil fuel consumption, new ways of moving through space and place, and so on. To be sure, all of these are tremendously important issues, and there is lots of exciting work going on in these areas….but these are not my (primary) focus! From a “what is to be done?” ecological standpoint, how bikes are used and what can be accomplished with/through them may well be a more important question right now than thinking about how bikes are made (who is making them, where, and so forth). Nevertheless, my core focus – what is foregrounded in the project – is not so much on that “what is to be done?” ecological framing. 

Instead, I see the broader socio-ecological crisis facing humanity as demanding not just alternatives for lower-carbon transit options (though it most certainly does), but also implying that alternative ways of organizing production, distribution and consumption are needed. In short, alternative economic arrangements, working at different scales, are part of what we need to understand as we think about the great restructuring going on around us and necessitated by the future. What is also needed is a broader “imaginary” in a sense – that is, a way of rethinking some taken-for-granted terms (markets, growth, work, capitalism and so on) so that we might better imagine how many fixes to the problems on the immediate horizon are already with us now.

That’s all pretty abstract, I know. But, this was the broadest frame, right? In subsequent posts I will take it down a few notches and get more concrete about many of the subsidiary arguments and interests mentioned above. Unlike last time, though, I’m not making any promises about when I’ll do so; that kind of self-imposed pressure doesn’t seem to make me any more productive anyway!

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