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Monday, December 31, 2007

Planetary Geoengineering, Planetary Escapism, and the Anti-Democratizing Politics of Retro-Futurism

Jamais Cascio has published an enormously disturbing post on his blog Open the Future in which he indicates that he is becoming "increasingly convinced that, whether we like it or not, geoengineering is going to become a leading arena of environmental research and development in the coming decade."

"Geoengineering" is rather like the process of terraforming one encounters in science fiction novels that describe the process of re-engineering human-hostile alien planets into hospitable ones, but applied to the earth itself... on an earth that has been made inhospitable through human carelessness and greed. More specifically, geoengineering would involve deliberate, presumably megascale, interventions into geophysical systems intended to produce beneficial or remedial changes in climate and the terrestrial environment as a whole.

We are all aware that the practices of extractive petrochemical industry have produced planet-scaled environmental changes already -- namely, global warming, aquifer depletion, topsoil loss, species loss, cancer epidemics, and so on.

The idea of geoengineering is enormously attractive rhetorically and psychologically because it represents a would-be redemptive face of this human caused environmental catastrophe: proposing the application of industry to the wounds wrought by industry, proposing the progressive redirection of human ingenuity from the short-sighted personal pursuit of greed to the foresighted collective pursuit of a sustainable and resilient technoscientific human civilization.

But as Cascio together with many other environmental scientists and activists have repeatedly pointed out, the "technofixes" inspired by the geoengineering imaginary tend to be simplistic in the extreme, tend to ignore the underlying structural and social problems that keep producing environmental catastrophes in the first place, tend to involve hyperbolic and overoptimistic claims amounting to matters of public relations rather than consensus science, and tend to inspire interventions that would almost inevitably prove later to be far more limited in their actual beneficial impacts than promised, sometimes would prove unfounded altogether in their assumptions, and all too often would end up making matters worse rather than better.

Cascio points out we cannot altogether "rule out a breakthrough discovery making this [geoengineering] strategy safer," and concludes that, hence, "for now, its only environmental value appears to be as a desperate, last-ditch effort to head off catastrophe."

I agree with Cascio here, but I will admit that I am incredibly reluctant to voice even this highly qualified and circumscribed support for any expression of the geoengineering imaginary. The reason I say this is because I am so keenly aware (as is Cascio, by the way, I doubt this is a disagreement between us) of the way incumbent interests have demonstrated themselves to be all too capable and even eager to manufacture the false apocalyptic scene of just such a final "catastrophe" demanding just such a "last ditch effort" when it suits their interests in maintaining and consolidating their hold on unjustified authority and unearned privilege.

I speak here not only of the obvious apocalyptic conjuration of a "Clash of Civilizations" and "Global War on Terror" whomped up by neoconservatives (not to mention neoliberals) in an effort to maintain US hegemony and the supremacy of corporate-militarist elites in the context of planetary energy and resource descent, but more specifically of arguments like that of James Lovelock who proposes that we have crossed an environmental "tipping point" to justify his recommendation that we immediately start building many more dangerous, unhealthy, expensive, politically Pharaonic nuclear power plants.

What Cascio isn't emphasizing quite enough in his account of the politics of geoengineering (this is, by the way, entirely a matter of emphasis in my view, since Cascio is definitely aware of the issues, does not neglect them in his arguments, and holds positions on these questions with which I generally sympathize) is that the geoengineering imaginary is suffused with the assumptions, interests, and habits of what Yochai Benkler calls The Industrial Model.

The Industrial Model is in its particulars both literally and figuratively monolithic, centralized, and hierarchical, whether applied to traditional industries like steel, transportation, broadcast media, print publication, or imposed (usually catastrophically) onto more traditionally peer-to-peer practices like agriculture, healing, research, or mentorship. As Benkler points out, the particulars of The Industrial Model derive historically from the inter-implicated exigencies of risky capital-intensive investment (in the means of production, public infrastructure, and the like) taken on by moneyed and authoritative elites and by the distribution and application of limited but generally usefully knowledge by credentialed experts and professionals from core to periphery.

The contemporary face of democratic politics in my view consists primarily of the resistance of elite incumbent interests that have long preferentially benefited from social and cultural formations defined by The Industrial Model to the radically democratizing forces unleashed by peer-to-peer planetary networks and the collaborative practices they facilitate. As a practical matter, environmental politics represent the most urgent problems with which we are grappling collectively in this historical moment, but as a conceptual matter, these environmental politics politics represent one among a number of skirmishes across a technodevelopmental terrain undergoing the fraught transformation from industrial-elitist to p2p-democratic assumptions, institutions, practices, norms, and ends.

To clarify what I mean by this, let me point out that I read Cascio's comment on the rise of the geoengineering imaginary in light of Naomi Klein's equally disturbing recent piece in The Nation, Guns Beat Green, in which she shows that investment in general and venture capitalists in particular are throwing enormous amounts of money at the moment into military r & d, surveillance, privatized security, gated community services for the rich and so on, rather than into the enormously promising avenues for solar, wind, desalination, and other renewable technologies that one would expect -- especially given the Greenwashed public face corporate-militarism likes to show the world via the bought and paid for corporate media at every opportunity these days.

Although I would not want to deny the force of straightforward head-in-the-sand climate-change denialism and the usual Ugly American Exceptionalism in play in much of the skewed monetary investment and attention Klein is documenting in her piece, what seems to me most chilling in the story she is telling is that beneath the surface of much of the public cheerfulness and denialism of our corporate-militarists in the face of human-wrought environmental catastrophe is some serious behind-the-scenes plotting and planning that is clearly premised on an awareness of the scale, scope, and pace of climate disaster quite as keen and shrill as that which one might hear from the keenest and shrillest environmental scientists and advocates incumbents are so quick publicly to disdain.

This is because the actual environmental politics of incumbent interests is not so much Denialist as Escapist on Klein's account here.

Ultimately, I think the escapist fantasies of moneyed and war-criminal corporate-militarist elites is just that: facile fantasies.

Whether they hope to abscond with their ill-gotten loot and sex-slaves to Dubai or some tropical tax-haven or beneath a bubble-dome on Mars or in the asteroid belt (as one finds seriously discussed by more "futurologically" inclined corporate-militarists, typically the ones who really fancy themselves the smartest guys in the room wherever they go, poor things), the greedy bloodyminded would-be aristocrats who have been cheerleading humanity largely against our regular and loudly expressed will through the interminable unnecessary murderous vulgar and gross chapters of their "Great Game" and war adventuring will surely discover to their cost that they are finally no more secure atop their piles of treasure and skull-heads than anybody else is from environmental devastation and violent social unrest.

And so, it is probably right to say, when all is said and done, that while the Escapists are not Climate-Change Denialists in stricto senso, theirs is still a Denialist position… It is the usual denialism of people attracted to the reactionary rightwing politics of incumbents and self-appointed elites, the denial of the facts of the dependence of all individuals, however momentarily august and glorious they may be, on the collective inheritance of history and on the ongoing collaboration of their fellows for their survival and flourishing.

What Klein and Cascio are documenting, then, in my view, are two different but importantly complementary faces of the anti-democratizing politics occasioned by the growing planetary awareness of and increasing impacts of environmental catastrophes:

The "Geoengineering" Imaginary, on the one hand, represents the efforts of incumbent interests to divert as much energy, investment, intelligence, and attention to Industrial Model solutions to environmental problems, not because these are the best solutions to the problems but because these are solutions least likely to challenge their authority and privileges -- as authors and facilitators of these very problems -- but more likely in fact, obscenely enough, to represent opportunities for the further consolidation of their authority and further accumulation of their privileges.

The "Escapist" Imaginary, on the other hand, represents the desires and efforts of incumbent interests to insulate themselves from the adverse, unsustainable, socially destabilizing impacts of the of their irresponsible profit-taking enterprises (no doubt soon enough to include their opportunistic embrace of geoengineering strategies), primarily through an ultimately doomed fantasy of perfect physical sequestration and perfect military supremacy.

And so, one encounters yet again in the industrial and incumbent-elitist confrontation with environmental catastrophe a deeply conservative (however "futurological") politics conjoining a selective fetishistic embrace of the technoscientific toypile to a selective hysterical disdain of the open secular democratic technoscientific multiculture on which scientific discovery and progress actually depend to produce the usual idiotic feudalist retro-futurism.

7 comments:

peco said...

Whether they hope to abscond with their ill-gotten loot and sex-slaves to Dubai or some tropical tax-haven or beneath a bubble-dome on Mars or in the asteroid belt (as one finds seriously discussed by more "futurologically" inclined corporate-militarists, typically the ones who really fancy themselves the smartest guys in the room wherever they go, poor things), the greedy bloodyminded would-be aristocrats who have been cheerleading humanity largely against our regular and loudly expressed will through the interminable unnecessary murderous vulgar and gross chapters of their "Great Game" and war adventuring will surely discover to their cost that they are finally no more secure atop their piles of treasure and skull-heads than anybody else is from environmental devastation and violent social unrest.

There will be enough resources for many people as long as the environment is not completely destroyed. Violent social unrest can be handled easily with guns if the aristocrats are willing to use them (just shoot rioters--if some aristocrats get a sizable military, it can fight off most things).

dangerous, unhealthy, expensive, politically Pharaonic nuclear power plants

They are expensive at first, but they generate enough energy to be profitable. Any meltdown would cause local effects, and there has only been one so far that actually killed anybody. Nuclear power plants aren't unhealthy if you can get rid of the waste (that problem is almost solved).

Dale Carrico said...

Violent social unrest can be handled easily with guns if the aristocrats are willing to use them (just shoot rioters--if some aristocrats get a sizable military, it can fight off most things).

Would-be aristocrats are always sure of this right up to the end. They are wrong. But even if this were true, it would still be evil and wrongheaded.

Nuclear power plants aren't unhealthy if you can get rid of the waste (that problem is almost solved).

Get back to me when the problem is actually solved, not always endlessly "almost solved." By the way, even when this not yet solved problem is (if it ever is) solved, there remain the problems that nuclear power plants take too long to build, are ridiculously expensive to build and maintain, are pointlessly vulnerable to attack, keep energy provision controlled by centralized minorities when decentralizing methods of energy-provision like solar roofs, co-op windfarms, better batteries are available (or certainly as "imminent" as healthy safe nuclear plants are), more resilient, less vulnerable to attacks and breakdowns, and better compatible with democratic ideals.

peco said...

Would-be aristocrats are always sure of this right up to the end. They are wrong. But even if this were true, it would still be evil and wrongheaded.

Why wouldn't a group of aristocrats be able to shoot all (non-aristocratic) opposition? It doesn't matter if it's evil and wrongheaded; if it works, someone will try it and gain an advantage, causing other people to try it, etc.

Get back to me when the problem is actually solved, not always endlessly "almost solved." By the way, even when this not yet solved problem is (if it ever is) solved, there remain the problems that nuclear power plants take too long to build, are ridiculously expensive to build and maintain, are pointlessly vulnerable to attack, keep energy provision controlled by centralized minorities when decentralizing methods of energy-provision like solar roofs, co-op windfarms, better batteries are available (or certainly as "imminent" as healthy safe nuclear plants are), more resilient, less vulnerable to attacks and breakdowns, and better compatible with democratic ideals.

"Healthy safe nuclear plants" are not imminent. They already exist. Nuclear plants don't generally melt down, so they are safe. The problem with nuclear waste is already solved. The Yucca Mountain site is opening sometime in the future, and the nuclear waste can stay at the power plants for a while without any problems.

Nuclear plants may be vulnerable, but they haven't been attacked yet, and they've only broken down twice (and one of the breakdowns didn't do much harm).

Being "(in)compatible with democratic ideals" doesn't mean it's bad.

peco said...

Nuclear power plants are expensive, but they provide a lot of energy.

Dale Carrico said...

"Healthy safe nuclear plants" are not imminent. They already exist. Nuclear plants don't generally melt down, so they are safe. The problem with nuclear waste is already solved. The Yucca Mountain site is opening sometime in the future, and the nuclear waste can stay at the power plants for a while without any problems.

This is not just wrong, it is surreally stupidly wrong. Even if you are not convinced by the many critics of these actually enormously controversial claims you can't just blithely pretend the problems don't exist and still expect to be treated as a person one extends the benefit of the doubt to in polite conversation.

Nuclear plants may be vulnerable, but they haven't been attacked yet, and they've only broken down twice (and one of the breakdowns didn't do much harm).

Wow. You sound like a guy who thinks getting shot in the face with a bullet is perfectly wholesome just because it hasn't arrived yet (and because you are sublimely unaware of the dead bodies piled around you with bullets in their heads already).

Being "(in)compatible with democratic ideals" doesn't mean it's bad.

It does to me. And if you disagree I think you are a bad person. Own it, as I do.

And don't expect me to waste much more time pretending that nuclear apologists and anti-democrats and the like are worth talking to in my free time unless I am being paid to teach them. I draw lines.

Dale Carrico said...

Why wouldn't a group of aristocrats be able to shoot all (non-aristocratic) opposition? It doesn't matter if it's evil and wrongheaded; if it works, someone will try it and gain an advantage, causing other people to try it, etc.

Asking these question doesn't make you smart it makes you stupid.

If your idea of governance that "works" includes shooting all opposition you are a crazy and evil person. Are you? If not, grow up and stop posing, it's revolting.

Finally, just pretending for the moment that your "interventions" deserve responses (they don't):

[1] even aristocrats need more of the opposition than they would like (because the atomistic fantasies of self-sufficient elitism are delusive and delusions are paid for whether the delusive like it or not);

[2] few can survive psychically (let alone physically) intact anything remotely close to the genocidal elimination of all their opposition, which makes the effort inevitably self-defeating;

[3] guns find their way to different hands than their intended ones, the street finds its own uses for things.

That's the end of this stupid disgusting conversation.

I'd still be well pleased to hear reactions to the actual content of the argument from non crazy people.

peco said...

I wasn't saying that that would be good (it would be bad, because shooting violent opposition doesn't prevent them from coming back). I was saying that many aristocrats would try it and find that it works pretty well.