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

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Planetary Is Political

I am of course an enthusiastic advocate for vast public investment in renewable energy and transportation infrastructure, not least because it would stimulate the economy, but I am also well aware that renewable energy technologies (in which I do not include nuclear power, and neither should you) cannot in fact scale to replace our current fossil fuel energy and transportation infrastructure.

Thinking otherwise, thinking that we can preserve the essence of our suicidal genocidal extractive-industrial-petrochemical civilization by translating it directly into terms made available by existing solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal techniques is to indulge in a kind of climate catastrophe denialism less pernicious than outright anthropogenic climate change denialism only because fewer people, for now, are indulging in it. Loose talk that existing renewable techniques supplemented by "innovation" will do the trick -- and talk of magical geo-engineering sooper-technology is just more of this loose talk, with the difference that it tends to be accompanied by cartoon illustrations -- is another face this denialism takes.

That there are people who think of themselves as "green" in some construal who also believe in such techno-utopian daydreams -- whether putting their faith in existing or in fantasized technofixes -- is all the more worrying, since it suggests that once a political consensus finally does emerge to address the reality of change, that address can be channeled all too readily into (parochially profitable) distractions nearly as useless as our present paralysis. To the extent that this technofixation is not simply an ideologically plutocratic circumvention of the threat of the real demands of environmental politics to the position of incumbent elite actors, it amounts to subcultural lifestyle signalling among certain consumer fandoms indistinguishable in its negligible impact to the signalling happening through other marginal boutique green consumer niches. None of this is in any way serious, except to the extent that it can distract attention from the still absolutely necessary collective educational, agitational, organizational work to change party platforms and existing laws to respond to our shared environmental crises.

Because, face it: There is no way around the reality that our shared environmental problems are not technical but political. There is a real question whether the glacial pace of political reform (well known to anyone who struggles for progress toward greater equity-in-diversity) will be equal to the rapid pace at which global warming and resource descent and toxic waste imperil human civilization and so much life on earth. Those who don't have the patience or stamina for the fraught demands of stakeholder politics simply aren't serious about environmental politics whatever their protests to the contrary on this score. And those who are temperamentally disposed to anti-governmental cynicism or hostility are more or less not even playing on the game board where the real action is. Rage and despair at our environmental politics is not only a matter of the privileged disdain for the exactions of political change in history -- as it so often amounts to in other progressive struggles for social justice. But when it comes to it, that is neither here nor there. That our present politics are so dysfunctional does not alter the reality that it is to public investment, public regulation, public mandates that we must eventually turn to address our ongoing (not future, but very present and escalating) environmental crises. To entertain fantasies that there are adequate non-political alternatives to environmental education, agitation, organization, legislation is to engage in an anti-environmentalist anti-politics.

Those who despair of our politics need to grasp that the politics may indeed keep on not working... right up to the point when they do. And we must be ready most of all for that moment when they do.

We need serious regulations on carbon emissions, and we need to make international trade treaties contingent on preserving atmospheric and freshwater commons. We need to more or less regulate coal mining and oil pipelines out of existence. We need to subsidize solar rooftops in every public building and private residence. We need more penalties and subsidies to incentivize energy efficiency in every domain. We need to stop subsidizing the ruinous factory farming that enables cheap mass corpse consumption, and allow the price of meat-eating to rise to reflect its real environmental and healthcare costs. We need to subsidize the appearance of organic local farmers markets in urban food deserts. We need to change the principles guiding zoning rules to facilitate walkable, bikeable, liveable urban neighborhoods. We need to empower women in over-exploited regions of the world with money and education so that they have the position from which to make healthcare decisions for themselves, which will result in a declining global population.

These are all indispensably political outcomes, and not all of the politics that matters most environmentally will be immediately recognizable as environmental per se. Environmental costs and risks are stratified by national, racial, sexual, class realities -- and the address of environmental problems will reflect these complexities. I should point out, as it happens, that even the most foolish technofixated imaginary of our greenwashing geo-engineers ultimately disavows the extent to which even its vision would depend in fact on the working of the politics it inevitably disdains: in order to fund or finance, educate the workers, regulate the risks, maintain the effort, distribute its effects. Hell, even personal consumer lifestyle environmentalism, ineffectual and distracting though it is, arises out of and expresses political conditions.

But my point here is to insist that it is not only the personal, but also the planetary that is political.

There is no getting around it: the personal virtue of eco-aware consumers will not overcome our shared environmental crisis, loose talk of entrepreneurial innovation (just another ugly variation on the personal virtue thesis) will not overcome our shared environmental crisis, neither god nor the god of technology will overcome our shared environmental crisis. The crisis is political, and it is only through politics that we will collectively meet its challenge or perish in failing.

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