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

Monday, December 09, 2013

Deus Ex Machina: The Three Climate Denialisms

Tim Donovan in Salon:
I’m no climatologist, but serious scientists with academic and professional bona fides have been voicing their extreme, sober concerns for my entire life. When scientific consensus is strong and widely acknowledged, I defer to it in matters of science. Climate change is no exception. But global warming (as it was called when I was a kid) seemed enormously far off, an abstraction, just one of many Big Problems that humanity would eventually be forced to confront. And even if the problem was unfathomably large, our technological solutions, our deus ex machinas, would themselves be unfathomably powerful. A lot of intelligent people still seem to think this way... I’ve [been] immersed in sobering research that’s only further deepened my understanding of the enormous danger, severity and proximity of our onrushing climate disaster -- I’ve confronted an insistent, almost desperate deus ex machina argument time and again. Technology, I’ve been repeatedly told, will save us from our oncoming ecological apocalypse, and if it can’t, did we really stand a chance in surviving our most destructive impulses in the first place?
It seems to me that there are three key denialisms that shape our ongoing collective failure to address our shared environmental problems. Donovan's quotation above alludes to all three. First, there is climate change denialism as it is conventionally discussed, as the factual denial of the overwhelming consensus of relevant scientists about the reality of global warming and resource descent. Second, there is climate change denialism in a temporal form, by which I do not mean simply another factual denial about the pace of warming or resource depletion or waste, but more the projection of the reality of climate catastrophe onto a distant -- or at any rate distant enough -- future, rather than grasping the urgent presence of environmental crises. Third, there is what I call democratic denialism, the refusal to accept the ineradicably political character of any adequate address of environmental problems, often facilitated by the embrace of market-based fantasies and boutique "green" consumer fandoms or by futurological "technofixes." I have been teaching courses on environmental issues, politics, rhetoric, and cultures in Berkeley and in the City pretty much every year for over a decade now, and though many of the students drawn to these courses in the first place tend to have high levels of awareness and interest in these issues, I find all three forms of denialism playing out in great force in students. I can only imagine their prevalence more generally among the insulated, stressed out, consumer-fixated, conformist narcissists in the mass-mediated extractive-industrial-petrochemical societies doing most of the damage here and now.

The first denialism, the factual one, seems to me to derive from the transformation of environmental issues from policy questions into culture clashes. I believe that this crisis is a cynically engineered one: delaying environmental legislation and education and incentives for sustainable practices is parochially profitable in the short term to key plutocratic incumbent interests, and hence they have deployed the anti-academic archipelago of think-tanks and media outlets to misinform the public but also to mobilize resentments and insecurities that displace environmental issues from a policy terrain onto the terrain of identity politics. This strategy was ready-to-hand, inasmuch as Movement Republicanism in the aftermath of the New Deal and Great Society has depended for a generation on mobilizing white-racist resentments and sexed-gendered patriarchal anxieties to create popular majorities for corporate-military policies that benefited plutocratic minorities at the expense of those majorities. It does not matter that many (although not all) of the key authors of this strategy probably "know better" than to believe that climate scientists are really engaging in some kind of great hoax to impose socialism or fascism and destroy "our freedom" for whatever paranoid reason is fashionable at the moment. It is crucial to grasp that this is not a clash over the affirmation versus the denial of certain facts, so much as a clash over the mode of fact relevant to the question at hand. The questions whether carbon pollution is raising global temperatures and whether rising temperatures have trackable predictable impacts on oceanic and atmospheric conditions are of course factual questions, but disputes over these facts are functioning less as ways to get at demonstrable/fasifiable facts of the matter so much as ways to performatively demonstrate cultural identity. The questions whether I am a good conservative, whether I believe in liberty, whether I am resisting the erosion of traditional values without which the good life is not possible are also factual questions, after all -- and the kinds of facts in question are radically different from one another. The methodological warrant of scientific facts and the performative testimonies to facts of identity are substantiated differently, their contestation is adjudicated by different sorts of authorities, which make recourse in turn to different forms of expertise. When the public site of deliberation over least harmful or most sustainable outcomes becomes instead a site through which members of defensive subcultures signal the reality and fervency of their membership to one another what is happening is not so much a general crisis of "truth" or "expertise" but a clash over the mode of belief and therefore the mode of reasonable warrant through which competing claims over best candidates for belief are to be adjudicated in the first place.

The next point to consider is that the problems of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change and resource descent induced and exacerbated by carbon pollution, industrial agriculture, toxic materials, wasteful over-consumption are not problems for a distant future. Environmentalism isn't predicting catastrophe in the future. That future is now. Storm damage, extreme weather casualties, exploding rates of respiratory and other ailments linked to pollution, climate refugees in the over-exploited regions of the worlds (the regions North Atlantic financiers like to call "underdeveloped"), rising freshwater scarcity conflicts, expanding pandemic vectors, species diversity loss, topsoil loss, resilience loss, and decreasing yields from the "green revolution" con of stealthy high-energy input-intensive industrial petro-monocultural farming practices, massive deforestation, vanishing and salinating aquifers near desert cities are all shaping the politics of nations and lives of millions right now. The threat isn't that your grandchildren may be killed in the death throes of a poisoned planet, the threat is killing and spoiling the lives of grandchildren and grandparents right now: And while these may not be your own grandchildren or grandparents they do share the world in this unrepeatable moment with you, they do have the same standing and right to life that you do, they do have knowledges and capacities that could serve your shared interests but are stolen from you in their distress. Those who say environmental catastrophe "won't happen" are really saying they think it "won't happen" to people like them, and that they don't care about the people "over there" it does happen to. And while they project their selfish delusive disinterest onto the future the fact is that they are actually indicating their disdain for the unnecessary suffering and death happening in the world right now, right this minute in our shared environmental crises. As happens so often, the displacement of concern from the palpable present onto the imagined future, matters first of all as the displacement of ethical concern from the lived diversity of our peers onto a cramped parochial moralism concerned with the prevalence of a homogeneous subculture or class.

This second, temporal, denialism -- this displacement of concern from palpable presence onto projected futures -- is enacting a very familiar futurological operation (I've spent years elaborating it). It is no surprise that this futurological discourse generates techno-fixated symptoms in particular. This leads to the third denialism, what I am calling democratic denialism. Chris Mooney, for one, has described this move of mine as simply weird, but I continue to persevere in making it even so. Rather than focus on factual questions whether this particular infrastructural investment or that particular remediation strategy should be a policy priority given its likely impacts, I am trying to draw attention to the fact that so often so-called "bright green" "natural capitalist" "green consumer" "neoliberal developmentalist" "viridian" "technocratic" "geo-engineering" environmental discourses foregrounding promises of technical solutions to environmental problems arriving from underspecified entrepreneurial innovations and technocratic tinkering do so in a way that tends to circumvent democratic political processes, either out of despair for their efficacy given government dysfunction in the face of the urgency of these problems or out of a reactionary disdain for democracy in the service of plutocratic and other incumbent interests (and in my view libertarian commitments, even the insistently left varieties, always amount in substance to reactionary apologiae for incumbency).

It isn't an accident that neoliberal and technocratic environmentalists stress that solar panels and energy efficient appliances can preserve contemporary consumer lifestyles intact and that rising demand will lower costs of that preservation to negligibility -- even if there is no evidence at all that our wasteful restless consumption can be made sustainable any more than it can be shown to actually yield satisfaction in the lives of those devoted to it. It isn't an accident that masturbatory megascale cartoon fantasies of the geo-engineers are usually framed as the "Plan B" for when politics fails -- even if there is no explanation how one could choose among conflicting projects, adjudicate conflicting claims about the impacts of these projects on one another, let alone reliably fund, oversee, maintain, equitably distribute costs, risks, as well as benefits of such projects without depending on the very politics the failure of which presumably justifies them.

I have said that "geo-engineering" futurology is premised on a profoundly alienated vantage on the earth as an extra-terrestrial world to be techno-terraformed, and that only such an alienated vantage could inspire the fantasy that the very same short-term parochial profiteering brute-force industrialism that is destroying the planet before our eyes will somehow save the planet before it's too late -- but what the superlative futuristic techno-transcendence of the "geo-engineers" shares with more prevailing corporate-military developmentalist futurology is the disdain for democratic stakeholder politics. While it is catastrophically true that our notionally representative political systems have been tragically paralyzed in the face of the single most urgent political problem of our time, anthropogenic climate change and resource descent, this truth unfortunately has no bearing on the truth that only through the collective problem solving agency of government legislation and public investment can we be equal to this most urgent political problem of our time anyway. It is not true that technofixes can seamlessly rewrite contemporary infrastructural affordances and contemporary lifeways into sustainability -- living in cities that are zoned for walkability and bikeability without food deserts and with people living near their workplaces will be living differently than we do now; living in more modest-scaled homes with porches, attic fans, geothermal pumps, solar roofs, food gardens and local-ecosystemic landscaping instead of lawns will be living differently than we do now; subsidizing local, organic, soil enriching, polyculture farming and dis-incentivizing ruinously costly and destructive high-energy input-intensive petrochemical farming producing cheap corpse-food and corn-food will change the way we live now. Democratically accountable and responsive political processes will be indispensable to the recreation of a planetary civilization that is sustainable -- not least because to be sustainable civilization must also be more equitable and more diverse. It is not true that our politics have failed to take up the definitive environmental crises of our time -- but only that our politics are failing and that they are going to keep on failing right up to the point when they stop failing, else we simply will fail utterly.

Again, my critique of techno-fixes and geo-engineering is not primarily a dispute over factual claims about the plausibility or efficacy of particular "technological" proposals -- one should judge individual proposals on their merits, whether they are proposals to invest in a new infrastructural affordance or proposals to reform a law or proposals to incentivize a practice -- but a dispute over the assumptions and aspirations of environmental discourse in a mode that is technofixated in a way that distracts from or deranges the democratic politics of any realistic environmentalist effort. So, too, my critique of the futuristic horizon of the environmental imaginary is that it displaces our awareness of the environmental problems and crimes we share in the present -- in no small part enabling the a-political and anti-political politics of technofixation in the first place -- but this is not primarily a dispute over the pace and range of environmental forces and possibilities for their melioration. Even the most apparently factual dispute over the reality of anthropogenic climate change as such seems to me to be at core a dispute over the kinds of belief brought into question by environmental claims, a dispute over the kinds of authority and the kinds warrants relevant to those beliefs. This is not to deny the factual reality of the consensus of relevant scientists that anthropogenic climate change is indeed urgent as are various crises of resource descent -- but it is to emphasize the discursive formations enabling the denial both of that factual reality and any collective address equal to that reality. That environmental problems are the occasion for public policy and public investment more than an occasion for performances of defensive selfhood and subcultural signaling, that these are problems of the ongoing and emerging present and not for "The Future," and that these are political problems that demand political solutions that cannot be circumvented by technological innovation, parochial profit-taking, or retreats into armed or otherwise delusive separatisms -- these are conflicts that set the stage for the ways in which factual disputes come to be adjudicated as such.


jimf said...

> It isn't an accident that neoliberal and technocratic
> environmentalists stress that solar panels and
> energy efficient appliances can preserve contemporary
> consumer lifestyles intact and that rising demand will
> lower costs of that preservation to negligibility. . .

Y'know, I ran into a DVD of "Transcendent Man",
the documentary about Ray Kurzweil,
a couple of months ago at a
Barnes & Noble, and I couldn't resist.

I've actually watched it several times now, with
various people.

There's a scene in which Kurzweil meets Colin Powell
and briefs him on the prospects for "clean" energy:
There’s a scene in Transcendent Man, for example, in which
Kurzweil explains his theories on solar energy to Colin Powell.
Solar energy technology, says Kurzweil, is doubling in efficiency
every two years, and is only eight doublings away from being
capable of filling 100 percent of America’s energy needs.
Powell regards him with a look of cautious optimism steadily
subsumed by skepticism, but Kurzweil persists, knowing that
deep-rooted notions are the hardest to displace.

“This is another of these myopic views: that we’re running out of
energy, that we’re running out of food and water. That’s nonsense:
we could have 10,000 times more energy than we need from the sun,
all of it free, if only we could convert it, and our ability to
do that is increasing as we approach the point where we can apply
nanotechnology to solar panels. Same with water: 98 percent of
the world’s water is salinated or dirty, but we’re increasingly
capable of cleaning it thanks to emerging technologies.”

I guess we've had two doublings by now in the efficiency of photovoltaic
cells since 2009 when the movie came out. Only 6 more to go --
that's just 12 years: by 2025, no more coal-fired power plants,
no more fracking. No need for gasoline-powered cars.


jollyspaniard said...

If we keep increasing our energy use at our current rate we'll have to surround every star in our galaxy with solar panels in thirteen centuries. In other words we'd have to expand faster than the speed of light, harnessing the full output of every star as we go. I don't mention that because I think it likely but to illustrate the absurdity of growth forever. You're right to mention that third type of denial it is in fact the most tenacious of the three and it needs to be tackled head on.

jollyspaniard said...

jfmf- Yes all we need are solar panels that convert 6000% of the light that hits them into electricity and our worries are over.

Dale Carrico said...

What writing this post allowed me to clarify for myself were the ways these denials enabled one another -- the projection into the future enables the anti-politics which in turn encourages both the techno-fixation and the transformation from outcomes-politics into identity-politics. As a rhetorician I teach students about the ways parts of arguments relate to one another -- how logical entailments yield conclusions from premises, how hypotheses are adduced from instances, how frames circumscribe attention, how linked figures and tropes paint pictures of abstract concepts with something like evidenciary force, how citations of topical or figural conceits mobilize familiarity, and so on. But their are also definitely discursive mechanisms that function as projections, displacements, compensations, supplements in ways that recall Freud's unconscious mechanisms -- I never bought Freud's own characterization of his work as scientific, Reiff's proposal that Freud was a moralist always made better sense to me, but possibly the best way to understand him is as a rhetorician.