The Accursed Share
Georges Bataille (1988) The accursed share (Robert Hurley tr)
Zone Books NY.
(Quoted from "What is Life?" by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan)
The entire unfolding of evolution is a response to an unexportable excess, a growing surplus of sun-derived energy. Both the sex act and the tiger are complexities of the biosphere. While coitus is a behavior and the tiger a being, together they represent two fates of plants' prodigious reserves. The tiger is poised atop a pyramid of global nutrition whose base is the sun. Even at rest, the tiger represents life's nutritional edge, its carnivorous limit. The tiger, "burning bright" in Blake's memorable phrase, represents the funneling of solar radiation into a highly specific and potentially terrifying form. Coitus employs sun- and plant-derived wealth as animals expend energy to make more of themselves. Bataille further argues that classical economics is mistaken: the general economy is not human but solar. Sun-produced food, fiber, coal, and oil, carbon- and energy-rich reserves are the living foundation not only for bustling animal life but for industry, technology, and the wealth of nations. The economy comes from photosynthetic life and the sun. Photosynthesizers use solar radiation to produce the cold hard cash of the biosphere. Heat is dissipated, degraded energy lost to space as primordial wealth accumulates. Colorful photosynthetic bacteria, protoctists, and plants the world over produce and "save." Eating them, consumers may "spend" through metabolic activities gathered photo synthetic energy or anabolically (and temporarily) store it in their herbivorous or predatory tissues. Primordial wealth may also end up in long-term storage (or be lost outright) when consumers die and are buried without decay. Spending has always been a critical problem for life. Greed comes easily within a biosphere whose constituency triumphs as a function of ability to amass the wealth of photosynthesis. Bataille's tiger mercilessly hunts the leaf-eating deer. North Americans now fell trees to print paper money with colored fibers - or submit such bills in return for the striped pelt of that endangered mammal. Photosynthesis creates excess, surplus, a reserve of matter and energy whose uses are as numberless as life is creative. Bataille perceived that the character of a particu- lar society is determined less by its needs than by its excesses. Wealth creates freedom in both biological and cultural realms. A nostalgia for old Europe, a respect for native American restraint, an admiration for the opulence of Egypt - these are sentiments based implicitly on the recognition that a culture is determined by how its members choose to spend or accumulate its excess. Rome makes its coliseum and basilicas, America its MacDonald's and Disneyland, Egypt its sphinx-guarded pyramids.
In the United States politicians grapple with tax collection, deficit and debt reduction, and public spending. The government prints money that banks lend without having or touching. Stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit, precious metals, and other instruments of finance are owned by investors. But what does it mean "to own"? Humanity does not own what it spends; ownership rests with the biosphere. Checks, credit cards, paper money, and stock certificates are all symbols of a wealth whose source lies beyond technological humanity's means of production. The monetary economy attempts to arrest the solar flux of Earths economy. Money symbolizes the conversion of photosynthesis, life's energy, into something else -something that can be controlled, manipulated, and hoarded by humans. Perhaps it is no coincidence that in the United States money is green. The fact remains that without plants the vast majority of animals would starve. Indeed, even with luxuriant plant growth humans and all other ani- mals are destined to die. The grave is a great leveler, and a good reminder that we are owned by what we own. All of us from street sweeper to billionaire pay our dues. The elements of our bodies return to the biosphere whence they came. In the restricted economy of human arrogance and fantasy, individuals may amass great wealth and power. But in the solar economy of biological reality each and every one of us is traded away to make room for the next generation. On loan, the carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen of our bodies must be returned to the biospheric bank. A biosphere differs from an organism in that it is essentially closed to influx and egress of materials. Although supplies of carbon usable by life arrived with meteors and comets that penetrated EartEs atmosphere, especially before life took hold, this external source of material today is insignificant. Unlike an organism, eating and excreting, the biosphere has become self-contained. its materials are limited, used over not up. The luxurious surplus of edible and usable compounds produced by photosynthesis leads to scavengers and predators, organisms killing and eating or cleaning up to survive and grow. The limited material reserves of the biosphere constrain the amount of solar rays that can be transformed into green life. Overall, photosynthetic activity creates a surplus of energy-rich matter that can be hoarded, eaten for growth, or outright squandered. The great planetary riches are there for the taking, replenished by the lively conversion of solar energy. It is an understandable but impossible wish to preserve the planet in its "original" state. The pristine nature to which some wish to return is not eternal but rather the green world that supported our ancestors so beautifully that they overpopulated it. Moreover, human spoilage of the lush environments that nurtured us is not evidence of any singular ability to imperil all life on Earth. No single species in the past has ever threatened all the others. Any tendency of one kind to overgrow and despoil was kept in check by all the rest. The essence of "natural selection" 'is that unstoppable tendencies of one population to grow to the point of environmental degradation will be halted by the growth of others. Human population expansion plays by the same rules: the degraded environment breeds morbidity, high mortality, and ultimately even extinction. Our evolution has unearthed hoarded organic treasures, such as coal and oil to power cars and heat homes. Wealth in the biosphere ultimately comes from the sun. Organisms die, populations decline, and species become extinct. But the biosphere gets richer. Human burning of fossil fuels, for example, is exploited by plant life. Plants incorporate carbon dioxide released from this burning into their bodies. This is not to say that the current industrial mode of human living may not be dangerous or lead to increases in global temperature. Rather, the conversion to waste of a surplus by one life form has biospheric precedents: far from impoverishing the planet, the waste of one may, in fact, create more wealth for another. In the strange solar economy individuals die, returning their bodily wares to biospheric circulation. Chemicals used in bodies are not lost. All organisms confront the combined difficulty and temptation of making use of that persistent photosynthetically-derived excess to which Bataille gave the name "the accursed share."
We bipedal mammals like to think ourselves king of the Earthly hill, the most evolved form of life. But the argument might just as well be made in favor of flowering plants. They lack brains and speech - but, then, they don't need them. They borrow ours. With our vaunted intelligence we have been Johnny Appleseeds, spreading fruit trees and grasses around Earth's surface. By tapping more directly than any previous animal into past and present photosynthetic powers, we raise the stakes of life on Earth. For, make no mistake about it, the solar economy has, with humans, entered a new phase. Peter Vitousek, using satellite imagery, estimates that forty percent of the ice-free land surface of the globe is under agricultural cultivation; very little arable land remains untilled. Humanity annually uses the energy equivalent of 18 trillion kilograms of coal -about 3.6 metric tons for every man, woman, and child on the planet. This total energy is used, in part, to retrieve 327 billion kilograms of iron, 90 billion kilograms of gypsum, and similarly staggering quantities of other materials. It is also used to generate and retrieve an estimated 54o billion kilograms of wheat and 92 billion kilograms of seafood.
As fossil fuels and solar energy integrate into factory and machine production and into global husbandry and agriculture, more plants, animals, and microbes come to depend on the technological system now evolving. Nonrenewable resources are consumed, creating evolutionary innovations in the form of new biospheric waste: insecticides, polyvinylchloride, styrofoam, rayon, and latex paints. The gaseous byproducts of burning long-buried energy sources perturb or alter irreversibly the complex system of planetary physiology. Carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere. Letting in visible light, but trapping reflected heat, this greenhouse gas may increase planetary temperatures -perhaps even melting polar ice, thus swamping coastal cities. Meanwhile, multiple extinctions follow from buzzsawing and bulldozing trees, killing some species directly but upsetting far more by destructive incursion into their living space. Nonetheless, the very energy our species uses to wreak habitat havoc comes ultimately from photosynthesis. For good or evil, novelty or status quo, nature is empowered by solar fire.