Sustainability: Technocracy and Meditation

ASCA Political Ecologies Workshop & Environmental Humanities Center, CLUE+, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam


Public Talk (University of Amsterdam, P.C. Hoofthuis 1.05, 5-7pm) and
Masterclass on September 20th, 2019: Allan Stoekl (Penn State University) Please note that we are in the VUMedical Faculty, room D-565 (building MF) at the Vrije University 

In my talk, I will discuss two approaches to thinking about “sustainability.” The first is “technocratic sustainability.” I’ll discuss the “Technocracy Inc.” movement of the United States of the 1930s which imagined a utopian resolution to the economy by replacing labour with energy in the calculation of value. One of Technocracy’s primary thinkers, M. King Hubbert, would go on to forecast “peak oil” which figures so prominently in the discourse of sustainability.

Then I consider the ontological and political difference between consuming and spending. Following Georges Bataille, I will argue that we have an innate tendency to expend, but one more in consonance with the “economy of the universe”; one which recognizes the “limits to growth” not through austerity but through the inevitable burn-off of surpluses. Spending in this sense is tied not to just consuming stuff, but to consuming the very limits of our selves—the very limits we protect and affirm in capitalist consumption.

Hence the importance of E. F. Schumacher’s “Buddhist economics,” which at first sight may seem a mere bit of New Age faddism. In fact the crucial link (not explored by Schumacher) is between economics, both human, planetary, and of the universe, and the most basic “tendency to expend” that characterizes not only living systems, but the signifying systems of human communities. These communities necessarily turn around religious practices, and most importantly, meditative ones. 

By linking a no-growth “Buddhist economics” to Bataille’s theories of expenditure, we can start to imagine a theory of sustainability that will avoid the pitfalls of the technocratic approach.

Bio: Allan Stoekl is emeritus professor of French and Comparative Literature at Penn State University, and is currently Visiting Scholar in the Architecture Dept. at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written widely on twentieth century French intellectual history, and, more recently, on questions of energy use and expenditure in a cultural context (Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability [2007]). He is currently at work on a book on what he deems to be three varieties of sustainability, which may or may not be compatible.

Readings for Masterclass from 10-12 at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, OZW-building, room 7A-07:

  1. Technocracy Study Guide (1940)
  2. Robert Costanza, “Visions, Values, Valuation, and the Need for an Ecological Economics: All scientific analysis is based on a ‘preanalytic vision,’ and the major source of uncertainty about current environmental policies results from differences in visions and world views.” (2001)
  3. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, Vol. 1 (1949)
  4. ——- Inner Experience (1943)
  5. E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. (1973)

All reading can be found here:

Please register for the Masterclass using the form on website of the Environmental Humanities Center


For more information email

Jeff Diamanti (UvA):

Joost de Bloois (UvA):

Kristine Steenbergh (EHC, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam):