What is ‘business as usual’? Ossi Ollinaho’s summary on his article on cumulative sociomaterial change

In his paper, “What is ‘business as usual’? Towards a theory of cumulative sociomaterial change” EXALT contributor Ossi Ollinaho examines how referring to cumulative sociomaterial change simply as business as usual helps to mask rather than problematize the metabolic context of our societies and environments.

It is commonly stated that ’business as usual’ is not an option regarding the global extractive economies and the phrase is given major relevance in environmental reports and communication. However, even though everybody uses the term and take for granted its meaning, the term has never been scrutinized. It has evaded definitions beyond simple characterizations stated in dictionaries and search engines. In particular, there has been no conceptual discussion about what kind of change business as usual may entail. Giving a prominent role in critical reports to an undefined term is putatively a bad idea, particularly when the stakes, such as the global environment predicament and exacerbation of inequality, are mounting. It is argued that the term business as usual may be used to enlighten the cumulative nature of sociomaterial changes in the globalized world. According to the common usage of the term, everything does not remain the same even in the ideal type of business-as-usual futures, but unwanted, ominous future horizons are evoked with the term.

Business as usual is the way things change when everything remains the same.

These changes take place through the reproduction of sociomaterial structures. As dominant structures, patterns and paradigms persist, their continuation intensifies, magnifies, expands, increases, or even exacerbates the impacts of the state of affairs, such as inequality within and between countries as well as a variety of metabolic rifts. Furthermore, as sociomaterial structures are nested so that structures on levels of higher generality define the range of opportunities on the next more specific level, the mere continuation of higher-level practices impose changes on lower-level practices. For instance, the reproduction of exponential economic growth imposes massive changes on other practices, not least to the other-than-human activities and lives, through its mere continuation. Large apex practices at the top of the nested world system, such as those around neoliberalism and financialization, involve conscious, strategic thinking because of major interests vested in them.

Transforming uneventful business-as-usual changes from an ordinary state of affairs to a situation in which these changes appear as pressing political economic problems are representational challenges and entail power struggles at various levels. De-reifying money from its given meaning as a means of exchange and reserve for value and in parallel illuminating its social origins in debt creation should be seen as perhaps the most general process through which the reproduction of most social structures of the global extractive economy can become disrupted. Apex practices largely rely on depragmatized knowledge most prominently crafted in economics that can be disrupted only by altering dominant assumptions and understanding. In general, the less directly social practices involve materialities and the more their orchestration is constituted by depragmatized knowledge detached from immediate act-contexts – that is, the more ‘immaterial’ they are – the less they can be disrupted by material acts of resistance, such as sabotage. This should be seen as a central point of institutional disruptions in contemporary realities.

The arguments of this paper imply that instead of allocating most of activist and attentional energy to observing harmful byproducts of societal metabolism, (as the bulk of the environmental research and associated activism attempts to), this attention should be allocated to take to the fore and problematize – knowledges, practices, (elite) roles – what allows reproducing these very metabolisms. In other words, there is more than enough evidence of the destructiveness of the extractive economies and now the focus should be on how to disrupt their continuation. This, it is argued, is to an important extent a question of questioning and altering the premises of apex practices that impose acceleration – ever more economic growth, ever more productivity, ever more competition – on the contemporary realities.

Read Ollinaho's article published in Globalizations (Nov. 2022) here.