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esse Goldstein’s book, Planetary Improvement, is a welcome addition to the critical environmental analysis of capitalism. An interdisciplinary project, the book explores the emerging cleantech marketplace and connects work on entrepreneurialism, the creative economy, and technological innovation within a Marxist framework. Cleantech is not just environmentally friendly technology, but a way in which such technologies are embedded within a new investment discourse that seeks to merge venture capitalism with an environmentalist ethic. Though this book is intended for an academic audience, the author’s clear and concise mobilization of theory, which is in turn grounded by an approachable ethnographic method, makes it accessible to a broad readership that includes activists, entrepreneurs, and even laypersons interested in the green economy.
Planetary Improvement is fundamentally interdisciplinary in its scope, merging discussion of cleantech developments with broader sociological discussion of how these technologies are conceived, managed, and disseminated within the context of entrepreneurialism and venture capitalism. Yet, while Goldstein’s research draws from diverse social and technical disciplinary traditions, his methodological focus is decidedly sociological. This book would easily find a home in any upper-level undergraduate or graduate seminar in business studies, human geography, sociology, or any field engaged in creative practice or design. Certainly, this audience could be expanded to include those in the cleantech marketplace; and in so doing, this book may help bring such contradictions of green capitalism to light.
At the core of Goldstein’s analysis is a discussion of the pervasive political ontology he labels “planetary improvement” within cleantech entrepreneurialism envisions, Goldstein argues, a transformation of the capitalist economy into a green economy by way of clean[er] technologies, while simultaneously attenuating truly visionary ideas so that marketability might be increased to better serve the short-term needs of capital. The result is a self-defeating logic that champions incremental change while perpetuating an underlying waste-making economy that it seeks to transform. In effect, the socio-technical imaginary of capital becomes a trap as entrepreneurs, investors, and environmentalists embrace and "develop new technologies that can disrupt markets while leaving all the trappings of mass consumer life in place" (27).
Goldstein's work moves beyond books such as Rampton and Stauber’s (2002) Toxic Sludge is Good for You, or Zehner’s (2012) Green Illusions, by seeking to understand not how public relations can fool a simple-minded populace, but how those at the heart of cleantech fool themselves. Planetary Improvement calls for us to develop a politics of technology and innovation that critiques the socio-technical systems emerging out of these innovation agendas while being cognizant of how this innovation is being shaped by capital. Goldstein's analysis of how creativity is managed and controlled by venture capital within the cleantech marketplace is particularly important to this discussion. Planetary Improvement argues that capitalism does not spur innovation; rather, it encloses the creative powers of entrepreneurs by channeling, orienting, and ultimately shaping them towards goals of industrial advance and the expanded reproduction of capital itself. Utilizing a Lefebvrian conception of dressage wherein people are trained and patterned according to the rhythms of society, Goldstein argues that the creative energies of entrepreneurs are disciplined by venture capitalists. Indeed, the author suggests that "an entrepreneur seeking investment can only have control or capital, seldom both" (77), and that the most radical innovations are reined in through practicality. Investors are only interested in working with "doubly free" entrepreneurs, or those who are willing to be freed from their innovation and creativity (their means of production), and who are free to work for investors as key employees.
Such arguments around capitalism's enclosure of creativity expand on and add to Graeber's (2015) discussion of the contrast between the conservative impulse towards practicality and humankind's capacity for imagination. In particular, the previously mentioned notion of the "doubly free" entrepreneur provides a new theoretical lens through which to understand Graeber's call to break up bureaucratic structures and to free innovators from "the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs" (145). Yet, Goldstein's characterization of figures like the entrepreneur, the venture capitalist, and the environmentalist also suffers from a lack of depth. The fluidity and complexity of these roles are not addressed in Planetary Improvement and Goldstein's analysis almost begs to be analyzed against figures such as Elon Musk who simultaneously encapsulate the roles of creator, investor, and environmentalist rather than embodying only a single archetype. Goldstein’s ethnography of the Funder’s Forum characterizes most participants through only one of these roles even though many of them have experience in multiple positions.
Analyzing the fluidity of these roles would strengthen Goldstein’s discussion of how those engaged with cleantech are “developing and internalizing a number of strategies for reconciling and redirecting the inherent and often contradictory tensions between ‘saving the planet’ and creating [great fortunes]” (119). Indeed, from the perspective of individuals occupying multiple roles within cleantech, the reasoning behind this green capital denialism, which accepts climate science but refuses to accept its social and political implications, might show additional layers beyond those that Goldstein’s innovative and superb analysis brings to the fore.
This lens of climate change denial is an underrepresented method in green capitalism literature, and a keystone of this text. Planetary Improvement directly engages with Kari Norgaard’s (2011) Living in Denial, which is a sociological investigation of the ways in which persons knowledgeable of climate change disconnect this information from their personal, professional, and political lives, leading to a lack of action. For Goldstein, green capital denialism mirrors this process as entrepreneurs strive for global transformation while ignoring the ways in which the investor-lead marketplace is commodifying their designs and at best leading to incremental change.
Goldstein discusses multiple ways in which this happens, the first of which is separating one’s personal aspirations for a project from their professional or business aspirations. This “double reality” of cleantech entrepreneurs leads to the belief that “we make business (profitable) in one way, we think about environmental problems in another” (121). The reality is almost always that cleantech entrepreneurs’ personal environmental aspirations are disciplined by the need to produce profits as directed by capitalist market logics. Second, he discusses the separation of doing and thinking, or cleantech entrepreneurs’ tendency to hope for utopian environmental outcomes without affecting real political and social change. Goldstein argues that both are necessary for real change, and that socio-technical reform will never be achieved through technology alone. This is directly connected to his third explanation, which is that cleantech seeks to solve concrete problems, not to understand vague calls for change in attitudes and lifestyles.
Goldstein’s sociology of the cleantech space is certainly one of his most valuable contributions to the literature on this topic, and in tandem with his methodological transparency lends itself well to an evaluation of his ethnographic methods. He makes clear that both circumstance (the relative accessibility of the Funders’ Forum he attended over similar but more elite events) and the advantages of studying actors at the margins of a community rather than its centers of power played a role in his case selection. Goldstein’s work omits scions of industry based in Silicon Valley and venture capitalists who attend more elite start-up forums in New York and he focuses instead on aspects of green capitalist discourse that have percolated to more marginal spaces of the cleantech industry.
Goldstein certainly works towards such a goal in his conclusion and coda, where he orients the reader towards strategies of future-making that exceed the bounded scope of capitalism. In addressing such goals, he is careful to avoid a generalized “we” who must imagine, develop, and deploy the technologies that will facilitate a just socio-technical transition. Rather, this collective project must acknowledge the highly differentiated landscapes of consumption, accumulation, and environmental collapse. Planetary Improvement suggests that emancipatory visions of a socio-technical transition must be situated within diverse ontological traditions that are not enclosed by the assumptions and limitations of Modernity. For instance, the text invites readers to consider how capitalism’s status quo power dynamics are entrenched through dominant narratives of sustainability and entrepreneurial creativity.
But how might we imagine a collective future beyond the rubric of capitalism? Goldstein frames this discussion through the lens of pluripotency: a biological term describing the generative capacities of living and nonliving processes. Drawing from examples in ecofeminist, Marxist, and decolonial scholarship, Goldstein explores pluripotency as an engagement with “other(ed) ways of knowing” (164) and future-making. In this way, he rejects the technological positivism of capitalist or utopian schemes through a critical and systematic assertion of the importance of place and justice in socio-technical transition discourse.
This work engages with remerging concepts in political-economy which seek to dissolve the Enlightenment binary of Nature/Society in order to see capitalism’s planetary ecologies and social configurations as an organic whole (Moore, 2015). Drawing upon a diversity of examples (including contemporary Zapatista movements, synthetic biology, Franz Fanon’s postcolonial writings, and others) Goldstein begins to sketch out how a just social-technical-environmental transition must also entail a radical reformulation of capitalism. While Planetary Improvement does not presume to offer a roadmap for how to enact context-dependent and contingent creative practices, it reaffirms the importance of “where, with whom, and as part of what struggles, we pursue collective desires to invent, explore, and create a habitable future for the lives and liveliness of this planet” (176).
Goldstein J (2018) Planetary Improvement: Cleantech and the New Green Spirit of Capitalism. Cambridge, Cambridge: MIT Press.
Graeber D (2015) The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. New York: Melville House.
Moore JM (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Verso: London.
Norgaard K (2011) Living in Denial. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Stauber J and Rampton S (2002) Toxic Sludge is Good for You. Monroe: Common Courage Press.
Zehner O (2012) Green Illusions. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.