The End of the Plastocene and the Renewal of Reality

Guest post by Albert Borgmann:

Is the Plastocene ending? It may well have both crested in power and reached the foundations of transformation as we can see in Christopher Preston’s The Synthetic Age. But the Plastocene will definitely not pass in time to yield to a renewal of reality that will stave off the worst of climate change. Still, the atrophy of the Plastocene and the slowly rising renewal of reality may make the world more susceptible to the clear and urgent tasks before us. We have to support those tasks as vigorously as we can, here and now.

We can think of the Plastocene as a pattern that began with the Industrial Revolution and has since transformed reality. The transformation has brought about a clearly visible and often painful change, but by the middle of the nineteenth century it repaid our efforts with security and comfort. Digging down one more level of analysis we can think of the pattern of the Plastocene as a kind of moral commodification. Economic commodification is conceptually straightforward—it’s the process of pulling something that’s outside of the market into the market. Moral commodification is looking at the same process from a cultural or moral point of view—it’s the detachment of a thing or practice from its contexts of engagement with a time, a place, and a community.

Consider cloth and clothing. Once upon a time we lived in The Age of Homespun, as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has reminded us, when wool was spun at home, socks knitted, linen woven and bleached, and clothing tailored. One item after another was taken over by factories and was made available affordably and in great variety. At the same time the familial skills and practices disappeared.


For commodification and the Plastocene to remain vital enterprises, there has to be a field of engagements outside of the market, an area that has yet to be colonized by the Plastocene. One after another of the pre-industrial practices has been uprooted and replaced with a comfortable commodity. But the underlying field of skills and practices is not unlimited. Eventually commodification runs out of commodifialble things and practices.

By now too much of the world has already been commodified and made over-abundantly available. There is too much commodified food; too much information on the Internet; too much stuff that is stuffing our garages and spilling over into micro storage facilities; too much ease and comfort provided by Alexa and the Internet of Things. In fact, the Plastocene as an enterprise of research and development is stalling as Robert J. Gordon has shown and Wade Roush has recently reminded us.

The research and development enterprises of the Plastocene are still very much needed for the machinery that sustains our lives, for the infrastructure, for medicine, for renewable energy. But as an animating force that gets us out of  bed in the morning and makes us go after more comfort and consumption, it has reached its end, except of course for the poor in this country and around the globe, for the people who are lacking the basic comforts of life. But for the upper and middle classes of the advanced industrial countries, the renewal of the world cannot come from one more iteration of the pattern of comfort and consumption.

The renewal of reality is not a matter of invention and prescription. It is a process of discovery. So where do we find evidence of renewal? We find it where we see decommodification, the restoration of contexts of engagement. Such restoration must be possible within the industrial infrastructure of reality. We cannot replace the water supply with village fountains. We cannot replace public transportation with horses and buggies.

The three best organized and visible enterprises of renewal are the new urbanism, the artisan economy, and organic farming. The new urbanism builds neighborhoods that invite neighborly interaction and a walkable environment, where your porches make you talk to neighbors and watch the kids and where you can walk to the grocery store, to the movies, to the post office, and so on. A helpful introduction can be found in the (a little misleadingly titled) Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberg, and Jeff Speck.

The artisan economy is frequently mentioned, but rarely examined in depth and systematically supported. It plays an important role in the developing countries, but it usually constitutes in those countries a transitional economy on the way to commodification. In the advanced industrial countries, however, it can be an enduring counterforce to mass production and consumption. It reweaves contexts of community and comprehension. The artisan has a definite location in a community. Her work is known and understood by customers and citizens. The products of artisanship are more valuable than mass-produced commodities and are therefore less abundant and disposable. A table that’s quickly and cheaply bought at Ikea will be disposed of when you move or no longer need it. A table that comes into being through an agreement between you and the artisan is likely to become an heirloom. Something broadly analogous happens throughout the artisan economy. Instances are well-described in Charles Heying’s Brew to Bikes.

Organic farming reweaves the texture of agriculture from the strands of tradition and nature. It’s most clearly the countermove to the synthetic age by rejecting all synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and all genetically modified plants and animals. It also renews the ties between the land and the people through farm to table connections. It is well-organized through national and international organizations.


Yet its share of food production and consumption in this country is a mere six or so percent, and one may wonder if the other two movements of renewal are any more robust and influential. What inspires hope is the fact  that there are many people who engage or re-engage the real world in their leisure and daily lives—the musicians, the runners, the bikers, the hikers, the skiers, the hobbyists, the painters, the ceramicists, the gardeners, the dog lovers, and many more. What inspires sorrow is the fact that these people are unaware of their common renewal of reality. The forces of consumption, to the contrary, dominate the media, the money, and  public discourse.

What is it that the people of renewal have in common? They share

  •   a command of manual skills,
  •   a regular exercise of those skills,
  •   in a local setting,
  •   with natural communal relations,
  •   and with a profound enjoyment of all of those engagements.

And how many such people are to be found in this country? Mainstream social research seems not to be interested in the set of features that the forces of renewal share. You can piece together some information from scattered sources, a task beyond my time I say with sadness. But the mutual awareness of the constructive people may yet rise, and if it does, their impact on politics and culture may bring about a wide and deep renewal of reality.

Wool image by Jason Leung
Produce by Megan Hodges

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