Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, January 25, 2010

Surveying Stewart Brand's Greenback-Green Futurological Litany (Part Two of Three)

Want to Start at the Beginning?
Stewart Brand told a 400-strong audience… [First:] There was “no hope” of mitigating against climate change. [Second:] Nuclear power was the only way we could provide enough clean energy for the world; [Third:] Cities were greener than the countryside; [Fourth:] Genetically modified crops were necessary to feed the world’s growing population.

And so, to return to Brand's litany of drearily predictable futurological "heresies," let me be as harsh as possible in the hope that vehemence might chisel its way past the rigidly enforced good cheer and self-congratulatory faux-contrarian and can-do crapola in which retro-futurists inevitably enshrine and en-shell themselves as they hawk their latest books.

First --

It seems to me that presumably "hardnosed" dismissals of hope for mitigating climate change by way of lifeway education-regulation-legislation-public investment are only issued in the final analysis by those who either mean cynically to sell some pie-in-the-sky corporate-militarist mega-engineering boondoggle to help billionaires who made their money destroying the planet in extractive-industrial-petrochemical enterprise make still more money pretending to be the only ones qualified to clean up their mess or by those those truly hard-hearted bastards (among whom I happen not to number Stewart Brand) who have calculated that climate catastrophe will not truly visit itself inside the high walls of gated suburbs behind GWOT-militarized Homeland moats in which they reside together with everyone they really care about, but will exact its toll instead always only on the same endlessly over-exploited regions of the world that already suffer genocidal devastation via treatable but neglected diseases and famine and drought brought about by catastrophic climate change in the already-arrived catastrophic future, all mediated and facilitated by arms proliferation and structured debt settlement and imposed market discipline to prolonged yawns from the people of the "Civilized World" in between occasional spectacular self-messaging charity benefit concerts.

Of course, any thinking person who truly entertained the slightest real expectation that global pandemics incubated in the slums of our neoliberal planetary "future," here and now, or that climate change refugees and warlord gangs armed and unleashed with the blessings of Judeochrislamic Mega-Churches and the NRA, or that Boschian scenes of energy and resource descent and its wars will arrive anytime soon on their actual doorstep don't waste time earning "street cred" with vapid Villager journalists by making tough-talkin' pronouncements about the hopelessness of legible democratic environmentalist politics. (And one must always emphasize how such pronouncements provide, and not at all co-incidentally, handy marketing and promotional advertisements and rationalizations for multinational energy and industrial-ag corporations to indulge in profit-making mega-scale "geo-engineering" and "bio-engineering" and ruinous nuclear-plant archipelago building projects in the name of "environmental remediation" after a century of their profit-taking destruction of the environment much of the time spent denying the plain facts at hand.) Again, nobody who is anything but a sociopathic monster would actually say out loud, while truly expecting such nightmares to unfold any time soon or anywhere near them, that we fellow-eathlings, peer to peer, are in any sense "beyond hope" or "past the tipping point" or "beyond politics" in the face of climate catastrophe.

No, serious people who believe they personally confront catastrophe do whatever they can, however they can, with whomever they can, hopelessly or not, to do what can be done to save their lives and the lives of the ones and world they love so long as they remain alive to do it.

They do not resign themselves to futurological wish-fulfilment fantasizing, they do not relinquish their democracy and welcome our corporate-militarist overlords to start throwing their weight around, they do not give up on the precarious, the marginal, the already over-exploited people with whom we share this earth and then claw their way to the top of the bloody pyramid of skulls hoping it reaches its way at last to heaven, or some other escape hatch.

No, serious people continue educating, agitating, organizing, legislating, regulating, investing, helping, hoping, working, shoulder to shoulder with their peers, until either together we fail or we prevail in the making of a sustainable, democratic, consensual, equitable, diverse, convivial planetary civilization together. None of those adjective is dispensable to the achievement of any of the others, and the mark of seriousness must be precisely that recognition.

Second --

Nuclear power isn't "clean energy" in any factual sense and so describing it as "the only way we can provide enough clean energy for the world" is a deception -- or, to elaborate the point a bit more, this typical futurological utterance is an example of that genre our debased culture has come to view as acceptable deception, namely, it is an act of advertising. Corporations, you will recall, have been given the legal right to lie in their advertisements, since to deny this would be to curtail the flows of money and force that are the only real kind of speech on the part of the corporations that are in turn the only the entities that connect real people to real power in this corporate-militarist chapter in the unfolding (and possibly consummating) history of industrial-extractive-postcolonial-capitalist modernity.

Futurology is best understood as continuous with that most prevalent mode of public discourse in our distressed debased order -- marketing, promotion, self-promotion, and advertising. It bears notice that the family-resemblance of futurology's future and futures trading is not accidental, nor is the family-resemblance of financial speculation and speculative fiction accidental, especially such speculative fiction as one finds in that least accomplished and least original form of science fiction, the futurological "scenario."

I might as well also point out that in its most extreme forms this futurological deception takes on the tonalities of that most sweeping of creative fictions, outright religious faith. And the fraudulent hyperbole of our all-encompassing advertising-promotional-marketing discourse which is amplified in the pseudo-scientific "trend-spotting" and prophetic utterances of think-tank gurus, then becomes further amplified into the promise of outright techno-transcendence of the finitude of the human condition itself -- superintelligence, superlongevity, superabundance -- vouchsafed by subcultural membership and True Belief in one or more of the many sects of the Robot Cult, the transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, nano-cornucopiasts who pimple the cyberspatial sprawl and the great State of California.

I personally believe that a smart grid of millions of commercial and residential solar rooftops, supplemented with thousands of square miles of in-field and offshore wind-turbine co-ops, coupled with public works projects retro-fitting and LEEDS-certifying public buildings and schools and public housing across the country and transforming our military and postal vehicular fleets to electric plug-ins together could transform the United States into a sustainable and renewable civilization offering a model for China and India and all the while revitalizing our neoliberal devastated and immaterialized economy (for which digital-utopian futurologists like Brand provided breathless rationalizations, by the way) into a unionized empowered middle-class nation (the kind of equitable and diverse nation and economy that enables to bloom and flourish the kind of hippy subcultures and everyday creativity California Ideological futurologists like Brand like to think they celebrate and champion even as they blithely kick out all of its indispensable social supports), and in a way that costs less and takes less time than installing Brand's oh-so-necessary nuclear archipelago would, all the while decentralizing rather than shoring up central and incumbent authority, and in a way that leaves no long-term radioactive legacy for future generations to curse us for.

Third --

While it is true in the abstract that dense cities can provide efficiencies in principle that overcome unsustainable consumption of land, resources, and energy, this result is only possible when efforts are made to ensure through principled urban planning and investment that there are open spaces, that natural services and local ecosystems remain intact to cope with the added stress and waste and use of urban populations. Such efforts require sustained reliable accountable regulation and oversight on a scale and of a kind which takes place in hardly any hitherto actually existing cities. And the consequence is that actual cities, unlike the abstract cities offered up in futurological generalities like the one Brand chirps about here, are the farthest imaginable thing from "Greener than the countryside."

In my view, such futurological utterances actually enable and even sell anti-sustainability through the conjuration of an abstraction that does not connect to reality -- and worse still could never connect to reality given the way futurology tends at best to redirect concern with actual substance into insubstantial abstractions and wish-fulfillment fantasies and at worst is freighted with outright anti-governmental and anti-regulatory biases that actively disable our collective capacity to address shared problems in a responsible and intelligent fashion at all.

In the well loved "Bright"-green futurological design-guru Bible Cradle to Cradle, the authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart declare:
In a world where designs are unintelligent and destructive, regulations can reduce immediate deleterious effects. But ultimately a regulation is a signal of design failure.

This attitude seems to me ubiquitous in futurological and self-identified green design discourse, and this "principled" hostility to regulation precedes and enables the reluctance with which many "geo-engineering" enthusiasts now proclaim the failure of regulation to demand planet-scaled re-designing projects under their supervision.

Think carefully for a moment about what it means to declare any regulation to be a signal (to whom exactly?) of design failure, and what that implies about the guiding ideal of a futurological design subculture whose utopia would be one in which the collective intelligence and effort of everyday citizens that is reflected in the legislative and regulative acts of a state of, by, and for the people is effaced, replaced with the vision of a "successfully" designed world provided by the better-intelligence of that privileged coterie of elite-incumbent designers whose parochial positional assumptions and aspirations are, after all, all that really matters.

Fourth --

Once again we are treated to a generalization in the Litany, this time called "genetically modified crops." To this monolithic generalization is then falsely attributed a uniformly positive outcome -- "feeding the world's growing population" -- on the basis of which a kind of political position, namely, that these "crops" "in general" are "necessary," is all too predictably championed.

Let us set aside the enormously relevant fact that we already know runaway population growth is far from inevitable and can be addressed immediately, the moment in fact one simply empowers women in patriarchal societies with even minimal financial resources and social support on the basis of which they take control of their lives and their reproductive health, and also by providing accurate and reliable knowledge about reproductive health and access to family planning services to women.

Literacy, family planning, a financial stake, and equality before the law for women and all the world's people is the solution to overpopulation, in my view, not blanket celebrations of multinational corporations and energy-input-intensive irrigation-intensive petrochemical Industrial Agriculture and their genetic-branding genomic-enclosure IP-strategies, if Mr. Brand will forgive my saying so. And before any of you roll your eyes at my prescription, consider seriously what assumptions would lead one to treat it as an outcome less possible to accomplish than one in which we presumably resign the fate of a sustainable equitable diverse world to the profit-mad extractive-exploitative-competitive corporate-militarist actors who are responsible for the crisis at hand.

Now, I am far from denying that quite a lot of what might be described as genetic modification might indeed be beneficial -- selectivity and hybridity have been part of the cultural archive of agricultural cultivation (the words culture and cultivated are etymologically connected after all) since well before that culture was transmitted through writing technologies, and I do not doubt that both sustainable agriculture and especially polycultural practices might benefit from sound genetic science as from other relevant science in a well-regulated accountable social order.

What is most troubling to me about the conjuration of the hyper-generalized abstraction "genetically modified crops" in Brand's futurological chestnut is that it is conspicuously indifferent to many of the genetic modifications we know to be designed not to improve nutrition or disease-resistance or insect-resistance or the like, but instead to promote short-term profitability in the usual ways corporate logic dictates: either by dismissing or externalizing possible costs and risks by devoting insufficient critical scrutiny to the manifold longer-term or wider-scale impacts of modifications or even suppressing problematic results, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, by deploying modification instead simply to create or consolidate artificial brand dependencies. Consider "Roundup-Ready" crops and seeds with terminator genes that eliminate traditions of seed-saving and seed-sharing that have defined agriculture for centuries and provided some measure of autonomy for family farmers and small-scale community agriculture, much of which is incomparably more sustainable than Industrial-Ag and provides nutritious food no longer available through Industrial-Ag: both of these are promoted under the generality of "genetically-modified crops" but with no discernible positive impact on the urgent quandaries of global poverty or mass starvation which presumably provide Brand's pretext for championing this abstraction in the first place.

As with "Green Cities" championed in the abstract as a way of evacuating the actually fraught environmental politics of actually existing cities, "genetically modified crops" championed as Brand does in general evacuates our engagement with the actual substance of grasping and weighing the developmental risks, costs, and benefits of different modifications to different stakeholders in different contexts.

This leads to a more general charge I regularly level at the futurological mindset; namely, that it is a politics that functionally de-politicizes the substance of technodevelopmental struggles in history, and in a way that structurally benefits incumbent interests and hence is functionally conservative even when it is advocated by those who imagine themselves or at any rate portray themselves as progressives.

Continue to the Next Part?

1 comment:

Poor Richard said...

OMG I'm glad I found my way to this via P2PF blog.

I have long wanted to say exactly this about Brand and his current brand of crap. If I still had a copy of Whole Earth I'd have burned it when I encountered his current corporate incarnation.

I love the formulation "greenback-green".