Unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence are often hailed as the royal road to mastery. What rarely gets mentioned afterwards, however, is that this is an iterative process. It never ends. The more unknowns become known, the more we are aware of unknown unknowns. Like the Dunning-Kruger effect writ large, which mirrors the ska band Operation Ivy’s condensed form of Socrates, “all I know is that I don’t know nothin’,” we often don’t know if we’re just scratching the surface and overestimating our knowledge, or if we have achieved some level of expertise. Either way, in iterative processes, when we deepen our mastery, we naively start again with overconfidence.

Capitalists often describe different forms of capital: human, natural, financial or economic, political, social. Interestingly enough, one of the magic tricks of the marriage of economic theories with the overzealousness of quantification is the equation of different types of capital, despite their differences. Utilitarians, playing a similar math game, also like to compare suffering in units. Five units of suffering here can or should be expunged for two units of suffering there. What these two paradigms share is the idea of exchange, taking flesh-and- blood circumstances and reducing them to ledger sheets. All well and good for mathematical elegance. Not so much for fidelity to reality.

One fundamental issue with the reductionists’ paradise is that it assumes reversibility. If we “convert” too much natural or ecological capital, say, into economic capital, we can always rationally admit our mistake and backpedal, investing in forest conservation, planting new trees, and paying others not to do unecological things that they otherwise might do.

Of course, the quandary – what happens if the value of a currency (such as the dollar or bitcoin) drops? – shows the precariousness of capital. There are no guarantees, and the transfer of capital from one domain to another always has (large and largely unaccounted for) transaction costs. But another problem arises: the very framework of capital, as David Graeber so eloquently describes, emerges from the phenomenon of debt. In the semiotics of C.S. Peirce, capital, along with signification, is esse in futuro. The promised payoff of capital conversion always happens at a later date. It is the (eternally) delayed settlement that balances the economic equation. 

Only if bitcoin goes up can it make sense to spend exorbitant amounts of energy to produce it; otherwise, that energy was wasted. Only if the particularities of an imagined god turn out to be true would unreflectively doing that god’s bidding make sense; otherwise, like Don Quixote, we’re jousting at windmills.

Instrumentality exists as a floating signifier, pointing to no final thing except for the temporal project that hangs like a carrot on a stick in front of the burdened ass of “trust me”-style business plans. Should the elevator pitch come to naught, everyone loses their investment. If there were some way to sandbox the casualties of such a gamble to economic capital, without spillovers into other domains—fair enough. But the very framing of life as compartmentalized forms of capital itself is the culprit in this Ponzi scheme.

The redemptive future of ideology never comes. Things never work out the way we thought they would, even when they do. And so, instead of lamenting our foolishness, taking some sort of ascetic (ecological) penance, we apply gumption (as Sinclair Lewis’s character does in Babbitt), double down, enclose ourselves in self-sealing narratives impervious to critique, immanent or external. One’s hand is forced to either concede error and recalibrate or funnel deeper into a contorted hermeneutics of suspicion against reality as it shows up, where every thing is sucked into the rationalizing black hole of self-validating representations. When reality violates our convictions and we choose to stick to our model instead of accepting reality, reality becomes the transgressor in our fortress world, and all its remainders get converted into ideological threats. Such are the looping ways of denial.

Like inveterate gamblers who have lost it all but can’t quit, the global West is entrenched with hocking ever rarer family heirlooms just to play the game. Soon, we sacrifice our firstborn. Mortgage our family members. Sell ourselves into slavery. For what?

Ideology is a nasty set of habits to break. Because it becomes all to easily for the cure to be worse than the illness. The iatrogenesis of sustainability, ecological modernization, or any other therapy to save capitalism from itself, has done precisely what Ingolfür Bluhdorn decades ago predicted: it has brought us a post-ecological politics dedicated to sustaining not nature or ecosystems or biodiversity, but the unsustainable ideology of capital.

Geoengineering, drone tree planting, and the rest of the deus ex machina approaches of capital equivalency attempting to reverse financial capital into natural capital get into a snag on the complexities of natural systems and feedback loops. Adherence to capitalism’s religion, by understanding the true meaning of money as infinite commensurability and equivalency, requires humans to achieve the reversibility of time.

Dan Bern in his memorable song “God said no” reminds us of our place and conveys that our debt is infinite, because of the simple fact that some fantasies never catch up with themselves, no matter the time horizon.

God said Dan
Time belongs to me
Time’s my secret weapon
A final advantage

God turned away
From the edge of town
He knew, I was beaten
And now was all I had

God said no

Every breath of our life, after we learn to take care of ourselves, is willy-nilly dedicated to repaying the debt of all the people, things, plants, animals, and elements that suffered or sacrificed for us to exist. Our responsibility can be taken up consciously and conscientiously, or not. But that it is always there, requiring our constant redemption of its esse in futuro to keep on going, is non-optional.