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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

More on Chemtrail Conspiracists

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot in response to yesterday's throwaway post, "It's hard to decide whether the futurological fantasists or the chemtrail conspiracists represent the most depressing derangement of environmentalism enabled by 'geo-engineering' discourse," long-time Friend of Blog "jollyspaniard" congenially commented:
The chemtrail folks are pretty garden variety conspiracy theorists for the most part. I've bumped into a number of them and they don't even seem that bothered about it. They're both forms of climate change denial.
My elaboration:

Of course, some high-profile "geo-engineering" schemes have involved batty notions of fleets of aircraft replicating volcano eruptions to promote cooling (what could possibly go wrong?) or aerosols to turn cloudbanks into mirrors reflecting the away sunlight (what could possibly go wrong?) and so on, and, of course, there might be a DARPA white paper here and there blueskying (no pun intended) along these line as there is a DARPA white paper blueskying about almost every damn fool thing imaginable, and of course no doubt you can find a photogenic cranky midwestern zillionaire willing to blow a million bucks using cropdusters to realize his fever-dream of spreading uplifting nootropic substances over America's malls to save the white race or some such. America has, after all, crazily skewed distributions of wealth as well as of sense and such things happen here.

But when the chemtrail conspiracists whomp up their diabolical visions from this scattered breadcrumb trail they are tapping into the same reservoirs that Bircher anti-fluoridation panics do (actually, there were chemtrail panics in the early 60s predating my birth that drew not only their ideas but their partisans directly from the anti-fluoridation folks) but which also find UFOs in skies empty of anything but cute curious clouds -- that is to say, there is more to contrail dissipation than is dreamed of in their philosophy.

The hostility to the very idea of good or representative governance yields an endless and unfalsifiable harvest for such conspiracy thinking, usually to the cost of necessary scrutiny and useful criticism of actual government abuses: very much in line with 9/11 "truthers" for example, who distracted attention from the fraud of pre-emption based on the pretext of WMD, the incompetence and warcrimes of the prosecution of the war and occupation, and the authoritarian measures enabled by the paranoia in part symptomized and exacerbated by the truthers themselves. Needless to say, the "chemsters" now have their youtube documentaries with millions of hits and tweets and likes as the "Loose Change" truther crowd did before.

I do agree that this amounts to climate change denialism but I think we should be clear that what is most interesting here is not the blunt denial of a factual phenomenon and its stakes according to an enormous consensus of relevant scientists, but a denial about secular social democratic governance. The geo-engineers and chemtrail conspiracy would both circumvent education, organization, and reform alive to constituted accountable governance: the geo-engineers want to use the emergency to obtain a free pass to continued profit taking, the chemsters want to retreat into survivalist isolation.

The pattern here is actually very familiar to the student of futurology -- it replicates the ideological polarities of transhumanists and bioconservatives, each committed to a fantastic construction of "the natural" with which one dis-identifies and the other identifies, yielding under-critical technophilia in one and then under-critical technophobia in the other.

This reminds us that climate change denialism itself is not most essentially a denial of facts so much as the denial of the secular-democratic forms through which scientists arrive at consensus as to what constitutes facts (results, publications, tests, deliberation that weaves novelty into the body of knowledge and into educable forms) and of the secular-democratic forms through which citizens (scientists and non-scientists alike) hold policy-makers, representatives, and scientists accountable for their role in public decision making beholden to consensus science in a mass-mediated, p2p-mediated, at least notionally representative governmental formation.


ian paul said...

Bruno Latour walks into a bar.....

"My argument is that a certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path, encouraging us to fight the wrong enemies and, worst of all, to be considered as friends by the wrong sort of allies because of a little mistake in the definition of its main target. The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism. What I am going to argue is that the critical mind, if it is to renew itself and be relevant again, is to be found in the cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude—to speak like William James—but a realism dealing with what I will call matters of concern, not matters of fact. The mistake we made, the mistake I made, was to believe that there was no efficient way to criticize matters of fact except by moving away from them and directing one’s attention toward the conditions that made them possible. But this meant accepting much too uncritically what matters of fact were. This was remaining too faithful to the unfortunate solution inherited from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Critique has not been critical enough in spite of all its sore scratching. Reality is not defined by matters of fact. Matters of fact are not all that is given in experience. Matters of fact are only very partial and, I would argue, very polemical, very political renderings of matters of concern and only a subset of what could also be called states of affairs. It is this second empiricism, this return to the realist attitude, that I’d like to offer as the next task for the critically minded."

Dale Carrico said...

Oh, yes, I quite agree! And I do see the rhetorical force of proposing a fact/ concern distinction to mobilize, let us say, a certain intellectual missionary zeal on the topic as well...

But, strictly speaking, the etymology of the term "fact," turning at once on factum "event, occurrence," as well as on facere "to do, to make" seems to me that the ambivalence Latour is playing with was there all along in the facts themselves. Not that there is anything wrong with the word "concern," mind you, I love concern, from cernere "to sift, perceive," with the prefix com- "with," hence to sift, perceive together with one's fellows, collective attention producing shared subject-matter. Lovely.

I think sometimes Latour, like other public intellectuals, especially the ones popular in the grad school theoryhead gravity well, sometimes puts more emphasis on the force of changing a word-usage than on changing minds via arguments (which of course he is also doing, I love Latour, don't get me wrong), which reminds one more of the role of jargon and sloganeering in self-promotion than of the role of analytic precision in understanding. I think the word fact has not worn out its usefulness, let's say. The spirit of the quotation, though, was indeed wonderfully apt.

jollyspaniard said...

There was a proposal back in the 80s to modify jet plane engines so that they produce normal contrails that last longer as a way of combating climate change. Unfortunately this means that the jets have to burn more fuel and the contrails don't stop forcing. So the proposed solution does nothing except to make the problem worse.

I tell people who bring up Geoengineering that they can avoid the worst effects of climate change by being over 40. For some reason that tends to shut them up.