Tag Archives: climate change

Sachs on The Age of Sustainable Development

sachs-sustainable-developmentThe Age of Sustainable Development by Jeffrey Sachs is a good, textbook sort of volume for what I believe to be the general consensus view of the totality of what we are up against, along with potential solutions from a liberal, Keynsian perspective. It is massive, as you might imagine.

Such a simple statement from the Rio Declaration, 1992 — such a basic place to start: “development today must not threaten the needs of present and future generations.” Such a massive failing of ours. The following summits moved to a more practical approach. The 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg looked to accomplish: “The integration of the three components of sustainable development — economic development, social development and environmental protection — as independent and mutually reinforcing pillars (WSSD 2002, 2).” (5)

Sachs adds good governance to this list, and sees this group of four pillars as complex systems — he explains:

sustainable development is also a science of complex systems. A system is a group of interacting components that together with the rules for their interaction constitute an interconnected whole… We talk about these systems as complex because their interactions give rise to behaviors and patterns that are not easily discernible from the underlying components themselves…. Complexity scientists speak of the emergent properties of a complex system, meaning those characteristics that emerge from the interactions of the components to produce something that is “more than the sum of its parts.” (7)

Thus the four complex interacting systems of sustainable development:

global economysocial interactions of trust, ethics, inequality and social support networks…Earth systems such as climate and ecosystems; and it studies the problems of governance… In each of these complex systems–economic, social, environmental and governance–the special properties of complex systems, such as emergent behavior and strong, nonlinear dynamic…are all too apparent. (8)

He is not one to discount the progress we have made or question capitalist foundations. I found it interesting that instead he outlines the history before and after the industrial revolution that has brought us into crisis. Before:

The world before 1750 was a world of poverty; one that could nonetheless produce beautiful treasures for human history, like the Egyptian pyramids, the Acropolis… Yet for all of those grand monuments, most people in most ages lived difficult rural lives, always on the edge of famine, disease, and early death. (73)

After:

New technologies…were certainly vital, but many complex economic interconnections were needed as well. Rural areas needed higher food productivity to produce a surplus for the industrial workforce… Transport was needed to carry food from farms to industrial towns, and industrial goods such as linnens and apparel from the factories to the countryside. New ports and global shipping carried manufactured goods abroad as exports, to be traded for the primary commodities needed for industrial production. A worldwide supply system began to take hold. And these increasingly complex transactions required markets, insurance, finance, property rights, and other “software” and “hardware” of a modern market-based economy. (75)

This is such a curious reframing of past into a technological modernity. I honestly am amazed that anyone could argue that most inventors and scientists are in it for the money, but he does.

James Watts was after profits and the patent; his aims included intellectual property, glory, and riches. He was working in an environment in which he could succeed, because the beginnings of commercial law existed in England, as opposed to many other places on the planet where such property rights had not yet been recognized. (76)

Side note: Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations same year as Watt produced the modern steam engine — 1776.

Just to show he’s down with the left economists, if not the socialists, he quotes Marx and Engels in support of this view of historical progress.

The bourgeosie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls… (78)

He makes a distinction in this linear progression between endogenous growth and catch-up growth, unrecognised in much economic development theory:

The first is based on innovation; the second on rapid adoption and diffusion… (81)

I think political ecology has a whole lot to say about the politics of that small statement – about all of this. At least Sachs does acknowledge that most of Africa and Asia were held in stagnation by colonial powers, thus unable to even start trying to catch up. He also notes that the legacy of conflict and slavery in the Americas continues today, and the high rates of inequality around the world reflect a legacy of conquest. There is no questioning, though, of the beneficial nature of the economic growth emerging from these roots.

Modern economic growth began in the dark green temperate climate of England, and quickly spread to similar locations in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and the Southern Cone of South America (Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay)… We see that modern economic growth diffused not oly according to geographical proximity (distance from London) but also what we might call “climate proximity,” the similarity of a location to that of England. (117)

So to move on from how we got here to the crisis we face. I am happy, myself, to accept the science on the facts of climate change,  I think this is a great chart to summarise the multiple threats — what the Stockholm Resilience Centre calls planetary boundaries:

planetary_boundaries

So I’ll move on to the social pillar, as I confess if the UN isn’t going to go full-on world-revolutionary-and-transformational, this is possibly as good as it gets.  So his definition of social inclusion:

aims for broad-based prosperity, for eliminating discrimination, for equal protection under the laws, for enabling everybody to meet basic needs, and for high social mobility (meaning that a child born into poverty has a reasonable chance to escape from poverty). (232-233)

Where does that exist I wonder? He continues:

… we must address the challenges of social inequality and human rights across several dimensions. Race, ethnicity, power, conquest, and individual characteristics are all determinants of inequality in society. So too are the political responses, the extent to which power is used to reduce inequality or the extent to which power is used to exacerbate inequalities. (238)

It’s got all the right words in it, you know? Sachs continues to list three of the fundamental forces behind widening inequalities in the

United States, several European countries, and many of the emerging economies around the world.

  • the rising gap in earnings between high-skilled and low-skilled workers

  • the increased use of robotics, advanced data-management systems, and other information technologies, which seem to be shifting income from labor to capital.

  • the political system, which in the United States has amplified the widening inequalities caused by market forces. (239)

He talks about deregulation, the weakening of unions, and throws in this chart on spectacular inequality:

1239554_10151840591376668_467263772_n

So what is needed?

Education for All:

Yes. He describes the role for universities in:

helping society to identity and solve local problems of sustainable development … Every issue which which we are grappling — poverty, disease, climate change, new information technologies, and so on — requires locally tailored solutions, often based on sophisticated management systems. (273)

So top down. Ah well, he is an expert.

Health for all

Yes. It was way back in 1978 that World health officials adopted the Alma-Ata Declaration — universal health by the year 2000. (276)

We all know how that failed. Sachs can still celebrate the Millennium Development Goals developed that year though.

Food Security:

Yes. Achievable now, but political will? Sadly lacking.

The agricultural sector is in fact the most important sector from the point of view of human-induced environmental change. Many people imagine the automobile or perhaps coal-fired power plants to be the biggest cause of human-made environmental damage. And they are indeed major causes of global environmental unsustainability. Yet it is food production that takes the dubious prize as the most important single driver of environmental harms (SDSN 2013). (339)

Crazy. Another reason to support permaculture, or other locally based, minimal-footprint systems like Fukuoka‘s, or New Mexico’s acequia agriculture, which solve all kinds of problems while at the same time improving the planet rather than destroying it.

Another interesting chart:

greenhouse-gas-emissions-by-economic-sector-ipccAFOLU here stands for ’emmissions data from Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU)’ (342)

Instead of any minimally emitting and socially beneficial and extremely cheap systems, though, Sachs promotes more technology, more GMOs, making crops more drought resistant. Making crops more nutritious. All capital- and resource-intensive. And third, using ‘precision farming;.

Precision agriculture depends on information technologies, on detailed mapping of soil types, and often on global positioning systems that can tell a farmer exactly where that farmer is in the field and what is happening in the soil in that part of the farm. (351)

Soil mapping, testing, localized chemistry… Ugh. Nothing about environmental justice here either.

Resilient Cities

Ah, we turn to cities. Sachs gives a summary of the three major features of urban sustainability:

  • Urban productivity. Cities need to be places where individuals can find decent, productive work, and businesses can produce and trade efficiently. The basis for success is a productive infrastructure: the networks of roads, public transport, power … Infrastructure also includes “software,” like an effective court system to enforce contracts. When the urban infrastructure fails, the city is overwhelmed by congestion, crime, pollution, and broken contracts that impede business, job creation, and forward-looking investment.

Enforcing contracts? There will be no tampering with capitalism here, and cities are for business and development and trade.

  • Social inclusion. … (366) The social stability, trust, and harmony in the society (including political stability and level of violence) will be affected by the extent of social mobility. When it is low and falling, protest, unrest, and even conflict are more likely to ensue. Effective urban planning and politics can lead to cities in which people of different races, classes, and ethnicities interact productively, peacefully, and with a high degree of social mobility and trust. With ineffective planning, lack of civic participation, and neglect of social equity, cities can become deeply divided between rich neighbourhoods facing off against slums.

There is nothing here I disagree with actually, though I think a shift in the whole paradigm of effective ‘expert’ planners needs to happen before we can begin to create socially inclusive cities, never mind everything else that needs to happen.

  • environmental sustainability. … Cities need to make two kinds of environmental efforts. The first, mitigation, is to reduce their own “ecological footprint,” for example, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by urban activities. The second, broadly speaking, is adaptation, meaning preparedness and resilience to changing environmental conditions, for example, rising temperatures and sea levels (for coastal cities). (367)

On Climate Change

Ah, the energy sector, such a money maker! 7 of the 10 largest companies in the world in 2013 as ranked by Global Fortune 500, are in the energy sector

1 – Royal Dutch Shell
3 – Exxon Mobil
4 – Sinopec Group
5 – China National Petroleum6 – BP
7 – China State Grid (396)

and then of course, 8 is Toyota, and 9 is Volkswagon — very closely related. I looked up the list for this year, not much has changed:

Fortune's Global 500 2016

The consequences of climate change are, of course, terrifying. There’s lots about that. And once again, Sachs’ solutions are more of the same — capital- and resource-intensive top down solutions that don’t really disrupt business as usual. He gives three. DESERTEC — a network of renewable energy production that links North Africa, the Middle East and Europe into a single grid (you can guess where most production happens, and where most consumption happens).

desertec-map_revised_vfin

Second, to tap the wind power along the US coasts.

The third — finally destroying the Inga Falls in the DRC to build the great Inga Dam Project. Surely we can do better.

There is carbon capture, Sachs writes (and this is so damn revealing I think):

If carbon capture and sequestration (abbreviated as CCS) proves to be successful, then there is a wonderful way to reduce CO2 emissions without having to change out current technologies or energy mix! (431)

Yes! We can just keep on keeping on! That somehow really does seem to be the fatal flaw in all of this.

On to the loss of biodiversity. My heart breaks as we lose species after species. I suppose I care about the economic cost of that, but, actually, no. Not really.

So to summarise:

This chart is illuminating if nothing else…

ecosystem-services-and-wellbeing-wriIt sort of lays it all out there, at least. I will have to go to the source for a deeper critique, but I kind of hate one-way arrows.

At Rio 20+ there was a shift from MDGs (not achieved) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 10 of them proposed in 2013  by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) — there are now more.

Goal 1: End Extreme Poverty Including Hunger
Goal 2: Promote Economic Growth and Decent Jobs Within Planetary Boundaries
Goal 3: Ensure Effective Learning for All Children and Youth for Life and Livelihood
Goal 4: Achieve Gender Equality, Social Inclusion, and Human Rights for All
Goal 5: Achieve Health and Wellbeing at All Ages
Goal 6: Improve Agriculture Systems and Raise Rural Prosperity
Goal 7: Empower Inclusive, Productive, and Resilient Cities
Goal 8: Curb Human-Induced Climate Change and Ensure Sustainable Energy
Goal 9: Secure Biodiversity and Ensure Good Management of Water, Oceans, Forests and Natural Resources
Goal 10: Transform Governance and Technologies for Sustainable Development

The 17 SDGs now visible at http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/:

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-16-51-05

He ends with a salute to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Kennedy and the English Abolitionists. I suppose that is symbolic of this whole book given those last two were so flawed and highly problematic, yet none-the-less helped win some politically admirable goals. Some good stuff, and some not-so-good stuff all mixed together, very carefully, so as not to really shift any of the broader structures or the profits to be made from them, just share the dividends a little more equally. Until we all die as how can this really stop the environmental crisis already at hand?

[Sachs, Jeffrey D. (2015) The Age of Sustainable Development. New York: Columbia University Press.]

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Timothy Morton: Hyperobjects, Climate Change (and Trump)

hyperobjects-timothy-mortonI found Timothy Morton’s book Hyperobjects fairly incomprehensible — I know next to nothing of OOO, or Object Oriented Ontology — but find the concept of the hyperobject compelling and incredibly useful in thinking about the world. I thank Mark, and Karolina and Anya giving us our time in Poland for bringing it to my attention…

Climate change is the hyperobject under discussion

massively distributed in time and space relative to humans (1).

it is bigger than we can comprehend but is also something caused by us. It is out there impacting in multiple different ways across the world and yet it is also the heat wave and the hurricane we experience directly against our skin. It started long ago yet it defines our future and thus squeezes upon our present. As Morton writes,

The very feeling of wondering whether the catastrophe will begin soon is a symptom of its already having begun. (177)

Because of all this, hyperobjects are reflected in our thought art action, conscious and unconscious. Capitalism is another hyperobject, and to me this opens up so many avenues of thought.

I’ve been trying to deal with the desolation and fear I have been flooded with since Trump’s election yesterday — a day in which I could not work, just restlessly do nothing much at all. In trying to understand this terrible thing, I think a lot can be argued for this idea of climate change as a  hyperobject. I think ultimately Trump rode to power on the fear of the immensity and unknowability of climate change and these crisis days of capitalism. This terrifying future that people can feel approaching, the knowledge that everything is shrinking and everything is changing and resources do not exist to sustain America’s current way of life — or ever bring back the days when a high school diploma and a manufacturing job could get you a house and a decent life. The fear this inspires, even when not acknowledged or outright denied.

So the scramble for resources has begun I think, they will be saved for the few, the ‘deserving’, and Trump has made clear who those few are — based on the historic divisions emerging from Native American genocide, slavery, class warfare, and of course our current wars that are all about oil resources. So white folks earning over $50,000 a year voted Trump in through the electoral college once again — he lost the popular vote. Even among, especially among, the climate change deniers there is a bunkering down without any sense of irony. There will be a gathering of resources behind high walls and ever deeper divisions between ‘us’ on one side and ‘them’ on the other. A growing violence and ruthlessness towards ‘them’ in the name of survival — and god knows it has been terrible enough already. My mother will be one of ‘them’, most of my friends and all of those I stand with in solidarity. People of colour, muslims, the poor, immigrants, LGBTQI folks, the disabled. It is like my dad’s old pistol-packing coworker who he helped move a truckload of canned peaches into her bunker for the end of days. A kind of insanity that is based on the philosophy of getting mine, and fuck everyone else.

I sit here, sick with worry. Even more helpless given my distance. So Morton’s abstractions and rhetoric seem a little too abstract — as they did before the election to be honest. But I shall give you a large taste — the opacity of the language may or may not hide something deeper that I am missing. I’m honestly not sure. I think this is a valuable concept to examine today’s world but this is quite a pick’n mix approach to the book that will probably horrify philosophers. I apologise in advance.

Morton’s summation of hyperobjects:

They are viscous, which means that they “stick” to beings that are involved with them. They are nonlocal; in other words, any “local manifestation” of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject. They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. … Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time.  And they exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects. The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge…  Hyperobjects are real whether or not someone is thinking of them. (1-2)

They are so big they impact everything, and we don’t have to be aware of it to be true. Which is what I find fascinating about this idea:

No longer are my intimate impressions “personal” in the sense that they are “merely mine” or “subjective only”: they are footprints of hyperobjects… (5)

The world has already ended, Morton argues. The first time in April 1784 when James Watt patented the steam engine. The second in Trinity, NM in 1945, the first atom bomb test. I feel like it has ended a third time in a way. But I mostly hate this rhetoric because while Morton argues this liberates us, I think it does the opposite.

I do however, like to recognise how small we are made by what we face:

For what comes into view for humans at this moment is precisely the end of the world, brought about by the encroachment of hyperobjects, one of which is assuredly Earth itself, and its geological cycles demand a geophilosophy that doesn’t think simply in terms of human events and human significance. (7)

An aside on OOO to place it within philosophy’s canon — this is part of

speculative realism is the umbrella terms for a movement that comprises such scholars as Graham Harman, Jane Bennett, Quentin Meillasoux, Patrica Clough, Iain Hamilton Grant, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, Steven Shaviro, Reza Negarestani, Ray Brassier and an emerging host fo others… to break the spell that descended on philosophy since the Romantic period. The spell known as correlationism, the notion that philosophy can only talk within a narrow bandwidth, restricted to the human-world correlate: meaning is only possible between a human mind and what it thinks, its “objects” … The problem as correlationism sees it is, is the light on in the fridge when you close the door? (9)

 

Part 1 What Are Hyperobjects?

The awful shadow of some unseen power
— Percy Shelley

This book draws on two things I enjoy, SF and quantum physics — all the things I struggled to come to terms with in Green and Hawking’s work (and failed, significantly in grasping really). Things like tiny forks vibrating and not vibrating simultaneously — visible to the human eye. I wish my own eye could see such a thing.

Nonlocality

Hyperobjects are touching us, making our hair fall out, our skin blister, yet they are nonlocal — we are not the centre of the universe nor are we privileged actors. He writes:

Locality is an abstraction…Heavy rain is simply a local manifestation of some vast entity that I’m unable directly to see. (47-48)

In grasping at the local, the individual, we destroy the sense of the larger whole:

Stop the tape of evolution anywhere and you won’t see it. Stand under a rain cloud and it’s not global warming you’ll feel. Cut your throat into a thousand pieces — you won’t find capital in there. Now try pointing to the unconscious. Did you catch it? Hyperobjects compel us to think ecologically, and not the other way round. … Nowhere in the long list of catastrophic weather events…will you find global warming. But global warming is as real as this sentence. (48)

It touches all of us.

In a sense, we can expect human egos to be pockmarked with the traces of hyperobjects. We are all burnt by ultraviolet rays… We are poems about the hyperobject Earth. (51)

Yet this does not negate the specificity of things themselves.

When I think nonlocality in this way, I am not negating the specificity of things, evaporating them into the abstract mist of the general, the larger or the less local. Nonlocality is far weirder than that. When it comes to hyperobjects, nonloocality means that the general itself is compromised by the particular. When I look for the hyperobject oil, I don’t find it. Oil just is droplets, flows, rivers, and slicks of oil. I do not find the object by looking sub specie aeternitatis, but by seeing things sub specie majoris, sub specie inhumanae. (54)

He looks at Negarestani’s Cyclonpedia, suffused with oil — I struggled my way through this book when I first came to London. It is rather weird and wonderful.

Because we can’t see to the end of them, hyperobjects are necessarily uncanny. (55)

It is interesting to think that a bounded object we cannot see the limits of should seem greater than infinity, but I think he’s right:

There is a real sense in which it is far easier to conceive of “forever” than very large finitude. Forever makes you feel important. One hundred thousand years makes you wonder whether you can imagine one hundred thousand anything. (60)

Two asides (for me) on Einstein’s physics and things I don’t understand but rather enjoy grappling with:

…the pencil you are holding in your fingers is only a rigid extended body on account of a false immediacy. Nothing in the universe apprehends the pencil like that, really. Not even the pencil apprehends itself like that. (62)

Spacetime turns from a grid-like box into what Einstein fantastically calls a “reference-mollusk.” Reference-mollusks exist precisely because of hyperobjects that emanate gravitational fields. In these fields geometry is not Euclidean.  (63)

There is quite a lot about space in here, theorised in opposition to Newton rather than sociology, which is more familiar to me. So Morton writes

To understand hyperobjects, however, is to think the abyss in front of things. (63)

and then this, which I thought Lefebvre and other had ended decades ago, but I suppose not in physics:

Hyperobjects end the idea that time and space are empty containers that entities sit in. (65)

Phasing

Hyperobjects are phased: they occupy a high-dimensional phase space that makes them impossible to see as a whole on a regular three-dimensional human-scale basis.

We can only see pieces of hyperobjects at a time. (70)

I struggle with how this is different from non-locality

As it is, I only see brief patches of this gigantic object as it intersects with my world. The brief patch I call a hurricane destroys the infrastructure of New Orleans… (71)

Also with how this is not quite another argument for networks, for connection the way permaculturists would see things, or Capra — but Morton is fairly dismissive of emergence.

Hyperobjects don’t inhabit some conceptual beyond in our heads or out there. They are real objects that affect other objects. Indeed the philosophical view behind thinking that objects are one thing and relations (which is what we’re really talking about when we talk about math or transcendence) are another positively inhibits our transition to an ecological age, even as it poses sophisticated theories of emergence or process. (73)

I need to think more about objects and relations maybe. This too I find rather difficult to get my head around:

The abyss does not underlie things, but rather allows things to coexist: it is the nonspatial “betweeness” of things. Whenever I put my hand into the toaster oven I am thrusting part of my body into an abyss. (79)

Interobjectivity

The abyss in front of things is interobjective. It floats among objects, “between” them… On this view, what is called intersubjectivity— a shared space in which human meaning resonates–is a small region of a much larger interobjective configuration space. Hyperobjects disclose interobjectivity. The phenomenon we call intersubjectivity is just a local, anthropocentric instance of a much more widespread phenomenon… (81)

Stop privileging the human, the anthropocentric. There are many indigenous systems that do this, to all my relations is this same idea, no? Easier to understand, easier to incorporate into a better way of life. But I continue the struggle with these words, where everything is connected interobjectively through what he calls the mesh, and goes on to write things I am not entirely sure I find useful or not:

Hyperobjects simply enable us to see what is generally the case:

  1. Protagoras notwithstanding, objects are not made-to-measure for humans.

  2. Objects do not occur “in” time and space, but rather emit spacetime.

  3. Causality does not churn underneath objects like a machine in the basement, but rather floats in front of them.

  4. The causal dimension, in which things like explosions are taken to happen, is also the aesthetic dimension, in which things like Nude Descending a Staircase are taken to happen. (89-90)

There is some interesting stuff about cities I shall collect together at the end, but a final thought:

The present does not truly exist. We experience a crisscrossing set of force fields, the aesthetic-causal fields emanated by a host of objects. (93)

PART II: The Time of Hyperobjects

A hyperobject has ruined the weather conversations, which functions as part of a neutral screen that enables us to have human drama in the foreground. In an age of global warming, there is no background, and thus there is no foreground. It is the end of the world, since worlds depend on background and foregrounds. (99)

Ah, the end of the world! I still can’t quite grasp this, but unlike some of the other concepts to be found here, I rather want to. This too:

Lifeworld was just a story we were telling ourselves on the inside of a vast, massively distributed hyperobject called climate… (103)

On sustainability — a major development engine and fundraising mechanism these days, making perfect sense of this:

The common name for managing and regulating flows is sustainability. But what exactly is being sustained? “Sustained capitalism” might be one of those contradictions in terms along the lines of “military intelligence.” (111)

I like, too, the insight that given the way capital operates and how it is based on raw materials –

Nature is the featureless remainder at either end of the process of production. (112)

This is one of the lies our world is built on that is crumbling at the approach of climate change as hyperobject.

I rather like this sentence, what does it mean? I don’t know.

Marx was partly wrong, then, when in The Communist Manifesto he claimed that in capitalism all that is solid melts into air. He didn’t’ see how a hypersolidity oozes back into the emptied-out space of capitalism. (115)

So to come to the end, to look at the city metaphor he uses for the hyperobject — I am actually fascinated that we should have built something so legible, so mappable, that yet could serve as a hyperobject. That is rather fascinating. Morton writes:

The streets beneath the streets, the Roman Wall, the boarded-up houses, the unexploded bombs, are records of everything that happened to London. London’s history is its form. Form is memory. …

Appearance is the past. Essence is the future. The strange strangeness of a hyperobject, its invisibility–it’s the future, somehow beamed into the “present.”(91)

Later in the book he returns to this:

A hyperobject is like a city — indeed a city like London could provide a good example of a hyperobject. Cities and hyperobjects are full of strange streets, abandoned entrances, cul-de-sacs, and hidden interstitial regions. (120)

I’m playing with that idea more. But a final glimpse at Morton’s own descriptions of hyperobjects

What best explains ecological awareness is a sense of intimacy, not a sense of belonging to something bigger: a sense of being close, even too close, to other lifeforms, of having them under one’s skin. Hyperobjects force us into an intimacy with out own death (because they are toxic), with others (because everyone is affected by them), and with the future (because they are massively distributed in time.) (139)

[Morton, Timothy (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.]

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Death and the Anthropocene: Roy Scranton

25330145There is a name for this new world: the Anthropocene. The word comes from ancient Greek. All the epochs of the most recent geological era (the Cenozoic) end in the suffix “-cene,” from kainós, meaning new. Anthropos means human. The idea behind the term “Anthropocene” is that we have entered a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the advent of the human species as a geological force. (17)

There you have this new word being thrown around in environmental and urbanist and academic circles — anthropocene. It annoyed me at first, I confess. But new words often do, when they feel like an academic gimmick to make old ideas stand out. I’ve decided this isn’t one of those words though, I think it’s a good word.

I liked this tiny book as well, a couple of essays pushed into a just-long-enough form. There is plenty to ponder here with some solid references for climate change and the role human beings have played in entering this new period.

Thomas Schelling is one to remember, writing that carbon trading simply will not work. The idea of climate change as a ‘wicked’ problem, I am trying to remember where else I have seen that used:

Global warming is what is called a ‘wicked problem’: it doesn’t offer any clear solutions, only better and worse responses. One of the most difficult aspects to deal with is that it is a collective-action problem of the highest order. (53)

and this:

The problem with our response to climate change isn’t a problem with passing the right laws or finding the right price for carbon or changing people’s minds or raising awareness. Everybody already knows. The problem is that the problem is too big. The problem is that different people want different things. the problem is that nobody has real answers. The problem is that the problem is us. (68)

There were a few other references that fascinated me — Mount Tambora exploding in 1816, creating ‘The Year Without a Summer’ (52). And then the ‘dark snow’ effect that is helping melt glaciers in Greenland (52). I have never heard of either.

But really, this comes down to a rather interesting philosophical take on what is needed now from human beings:

To survive as a soldier, I had to learn to accept the inevitability of my own death. For humanity to survive in the Anthropocene, we need to learn to live with and through the end of our current civilization. Change, risk, conflict, strife and death are the very processes of life, and we cannot avoid them. We must learn to accept and adapt. (22)

There is a lot about death. A calling on samurai wisdom. I feel this probably works for some, but at the same time it is such a male path, a warrior path — and it feels like a path, a way. This is such a continuation of beat poets and City Lights tradition. Nothing about love, healing, compassion, creation, cooperation in here, though I think they are as much processes of life as anything else. Vandana Shiva is as much a warrior, but it has nothing of her love or hopes for the future or sense of connection to the world nor how we might change things in very different fashion. So all in all, I wouldn’t mind working side by side with people on this way, but it is not one I would chose. Or that would choose me.

I’m not one to completely discount the need for violence in liberation, but I disagree that violent struggle is the real maker of change. Nor do I quite see civil rights struggles in the same light. He writes:

‘What’s more, the success of the Civil Rights movement can’t be properly understood, without taking into account federal military interventions'(73)

He lists Eisenhower sending troops in 1957 to desegregate Little Rock schools, Robert Kennedy sending marshals to university of Mississippi in 1962, John Kennedy sending troops to stop rioting at University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama 1963, federal troops protecting marchers from Montgomery to Selma. (73)

‘…the fight to win fundamental civil rights and political equality from segregationists and racists was grinding, dangerous, and aggressive: it strove to take something from Southern white racists that they didn’t want to give up, namely power. (74)

And from this he goes on to quote Heraclitus:

It should be understood that war is the common condition, that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife. (76)

And:

Fight. Flight. Fight. Flight. The threat of death activates our deepest animal drives. (77)

I think there’s a bit more to us, to animals. I have to disagree strongly with Heraclitus.

The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality. (23)

I think acceptance of this statement will help some people, but I don’t think it will mean anything or be at all helpful to others.

The other really interesting thing in here, though, was on resonance, energy, our communication and how it is changing and potentially changing us. Think of bees and their dancing, their hive mind, and then think of twitter and facebook:

Politics, whether for bees or humans, is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems. (55-56)

Are we really organised entirely around energy? That is a really fucking interesting thought, though I’m not sure I buy it:

The key is energy: energy production and social energetics. Just as a beehive is structured around the production of honey, so are human societies structured around labor, horses, wheat, coal, and oil. How bodies harvest, produce, organize, and distribute energy determines how power flows, shaping the political arrangements of a given collective organism behind whatever ideologies the ruling classes may use to manufacture consent, obscure the mechanisms of control, or convince themselves of their infallible omniscience. (56)

He quotes Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy (on my list to read for some time now)

Workers were gradually connected together not so much by the weak ties of a class culture, collective ideology, or political organization, but by the increasing and highly concentrated quantities of carbon energy they mined, loaded, carried, stoked, and put to work. The coordinated acts of interrupting, slowing down, or diverting its movement created a decisive political machinery, a new form of collective capability built out of coalmines, railways, power stations, and their operators. (58)

I’m just not so sure this is entirely true as the foundation of power whether or capital or labour, or even of organising. Again it is such a male world, a working world that has nothing to do with women and children, home and community, words, race, sexuality, cities… so much is left out of this equation.

He has this interesting theory about vibrations though, the way we now share and thus amplify meme after meme, pictures, news, sound-bite beliefs:

But politics is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems, and we live in a system of carbon-fueled capitalism that we shouldn’t expect to work in physical human ways for several reasons, especially when it comes to responding to the threat of global warming. First, our political and social media technologies are not neutral, but have been developed to serve particular interests…Second, the more we pass on or react to social vibrations, the more we strengthen our habits of channeling and the less we practice autonomous reflection or independent critical thought. With every protest chant, retweet, and Facebook post, we become stronger resonators and weaker thinkers. Third, however intense our social vibrations grow, they remain locked within a machinery that offers no political leverage:  they do not translate into political action, because they do not connect to the flows of power. (84-85)

This is so SF, so William Gibson, I don’t think the internet and virtual reality has actually quite worked out like this. But maybe. It’s worth a ponder:

A new form of life has become evident: humanity has revealed itself as collective energy, light swarming across a darkened planet, a geological forcing, data and flow. We live in networks, webs, and hives, jacked in to remote-controlled devices and autonomous apps, moments of being in time, out of time. No longer individual subjects or discrete objects, we jave become vibrations, channelers, tweeters and followers. (107)

As is the idea that there are ‘new technologies of photohumanism’ and what that means.

I confess I like too the call for a renewed humanism — reminds of Edward Said’s defense of it really as a critical consciousness and an awareness of all that has come before us and all that will come after:

Philosophical humanism in its most radical practice is the disciplined interruption of somatic and social flows, the detachment of consciousness from impulse, and the condensation of conceptual truths out of the granular data of experience. It is the study of “dying and being dead,” a divestment from this life in favour of deeper investments in a life beyond ourselves. (91)

I like too that it is something we actively engage in, it is not just an archive:

The study of the humanities is nothing less than the [patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life. This nurturing is a practice not strictly of curation, as many seem to think today, but of active attention, cultivation, making and remaking. It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped, or digitized. (99)

I’m not sure at the end, quite where this leaves those of us who feel more called to life and love than death though.