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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mr. Burns As "Geo-Engineering" Archetype

Alasdair Wilkins reports this good news over at io9:
The United Nations's Convention on Biological Diversity is expected to either ban outright or limit research into space sunshades. Although NASA and other organizations are looking into these sunshades as a possible way to slow climate change, environmental advocates have criticized this research as providing only a short-term fix that wouldn't affect the underlying issues, like humanity's overuse of fossil fuels. There are also serious questions about how blocking out part of the Sun's rays could affect weather patterns, ecosystems, and agriculture.

But more important still is Wilkins's next insight:
But let's be real here -- we all know what happens when people try to blot out the Sun… Matt Groening has extensively documented the folly of trying to block the Sun… on The Simpsons...

I have often complained -- most notoriously, I suppose, here -- that the futurological enthusiasts for "geo-engineering" have never really offered a coherent definition of the thing for which they nonetheless cheerlead so desperately. Sure, the word immediately conjures up images of vast orbital mirrors and monstrous pipe complexes belching icy water from ocean depths to the warming surface and fleets of ships spewing who knows what who knows where who knows why according to the latest geo-engineering fashion, iron filings into the sea, salt crystals into the clouds, sulfur into the atmosphere, and so on, what I have called in the past a constellation of mega-engineering wet dreams.

But though the images arise naturally enough one discovers upon closer scrutiny that there isn't much reason to corral such proposals together conceptually, really, there aren't the sorts of commonalities among the proposals that would properly lead one to think, at the concrete level of assessing actual costs, risks, benefits, stakeholders that one so-called "geo-engineering" proposal's relative successes or failures would tell us much about any other's. This is distressing because talk about "geo-engineering" tends to function precisely to dissuade discussion of individual proposals and displace it onto what amount to more philosophical claims (about "innovation" "human ingenuity" "overcoming despair" "desperate times demanding desperate measures") masquerading as "technical" and "engineering" discourse offered up in tonalities of superficial scientificity and can-do spirit (that is to say, futurological stock-in-trade).

I have also pointed to the ways in which, as a rhetorical operation, "geo-engineering" discourse indulges in two kinds of disavowals or denialisms. First, "geo-engineering" tends to take as its point of departure the decisive "failure" of democratic avenues of environmentalist politics, education, agitation, organization, legislation, regulation, a failure which impels industrial-authoritarian corporate-military avenues be implemented instead. Quite apart from the obvious dilemma that precisely these sorts of presumably failed democratic and regulatory processes would have to function well enough over the very geo-engineering enterprises supposedly rescuing us from their failure, else we know these vast-scaled geo-engineering boondoggles would surely culminate without regulation and oversight in Hindenburg heaps of slag and the usual corruption and embezzlement scandals -- but if democratic oversight and regulation has not irredeemably failed after all then why would we be indulging in highly questionable highly expensive highly risky futurological circle-jerks rather than pushing forward with democratic environmental politics after all, again? Second, "geo-engineering" really amounts to an inappropriately cheerful chirpy can-do variation on the premise of anthropogenic climate change itself, namely that human actions have collectively brought on or definitively exacerbated ongoing and upcoming climate catastrophe (from which it follows in a facile way that human technique, differently directed, might also, then, change the climate for the better as well).

Given that many of the actors who are warming (as it were) to "geo-engineering" discourse are the very corporate-military interests that acquired their positions by polluting and depleting the planet's resources but, much more to the point, actively maintain their position by denying their role or humanity's role in that climate catastrophe in defiance of evidence to the contrary, it is interesting that "geo-engineering" can function as a stealthy disavowal of anthropogenic climate change by the most guilty of the parties involved in the form of a recommendation of "geo-engineering" that makes no sense unless anthropogenic climate change is real.

It is this last point that has lead me to the conclusion that "geo-engineering" does indeed have a content, but that this content is specifically political rather than scientific. While "geo-engineering" does not corral together techniques according to coherent assessment criteria, even as it mobilizes inchoate passions (as usual with futurology fears of impotence and fantasies of omnipotence through hyperbolic technoscience imagery largely imported from the science fiction/fantasy imaginary), it does indeed corral together very definite political constituencies, whose address renders a category that otherwise seems incoherent instantly coherent:

"Geo-engineering," at its essence, is that discourse addressed to corporate-military incumbent-elite interests that proposes the redress of planetary pollution and depletion can be as profitable as was the pollution and depletion itself, so long as the mode of the response is framed in corporate-militarist terms and hence undertaken by incumbent-elite interests themselves.

It is hardly accidental that "geo-engineering" is functionally a declaration of war on climate catastrophe, inasmuch as declarations of war -- whether literal or figural (as with the War on Drugs) -- are also always circumventions of the consensual and democratic politics and processes of civitas and invoke more imperial and authoritarian War Powers: it is in such environments that the war-profiteering and state/proprietary secrecies of corporate-militarist elite-incumbency thrives best to the cost of the rest of us (and quite probably, soon enough, the ruin of us all).

A clip follows Wilkins' claim over at io9 about the key role of The Simpsons in educating a whole generation about the folly of sun-blotting schemes, in which his point is illustrated (er, that is to say, Mr. Burns blots out the Sun). But I was reminded in watching the clip of another of my favorite episodes, The Old Man and the Lisa, in which Mr. Burns is reduced momentarily to penury and finds his way back to super-wealth through the opportunistic exploitation of Lisa's earnest environmentalism, culminating in the creation of the Burns Omninet, woven together from plastic six-pack yokes (yes, that's what they're called, awesomely enough, I looked it up), which "sweeps the sea clean" of life, from which to create "L'il Lisa's Patented Animal Slurry." (L'il Lisa "makes Little Debbie look like a pile of puke," declares Moe, a line from the episode Eric and I repeat with ridiculous regularity at home, as we also do the line from the episode in which Mr. Burns is paralyzed in his first trip to a grocery store pondering the difference between "Ketchup…? Catsup…" The applicability of early season episodes of The Simpsons to life's every circumstance is truly wonderful.) Right then and there, pondering the memory of Mr. Burns's vast recycling plant and Lisa's horror upon realizing that the vile corporate-militarist Mr. Burns could indeed turn even wholesome environmentalist impulses to evil in the service of his profit-taking, I realized it, Mr. Burns is the pop culture archetype of "geo-engineering" as such.

I'm sure that other fans of The Simpsons can provide legions of examples in which Mr. Burns attempts comparably catastrophic evil futurological schemes. Do please let me know.

Let's make Monty Burns the face of "geo-engineering."

I suspect that doing so could do more damage to the prospects of dangerous greenwashing "geo-engineering" discourses than any number of patiently analytic arguments I might come up with.

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