Monday, 20 April 2015

'An Ecomodernist Manifesto' reviewed—part 2

In my first (very hastily written) part of this review, I commented that the Ecomodernist Manifesto gets off to a very bad start, reproducing, as it does, the simplistic interpretation of ‘Anthropocene’ as ‘The Age of Humans’ (at least they didn’t say ‘Man’).

This etymologically correct but politically misguided iteration has been criticised from many quarters. For example, Bruno Latour in his Gifford Lectures:
“Indian nations in the middle of the Amazonian forest have nothing to do with the ‘anthropic origin’ of climate change — at least so long as politicians have not been distributing chainsaws at election times. Nor do the poor blokes in the slums of Mumbai, who can only dream of having a bigger carbon footprint than the black soot belching out of their makeshift ovens.”
(Incidentally, Latour is a member of The Breakthrough Institute, an organisation closely affiliated with the ecomodernist initiative, and is participating in their event ‘Breakthrough Dialogue 2015: The Good Anthropocene’ in June.)

The notion of a ‘good’ (and, as we shall see, ‘early’) Anthropocene is foremost in their thoughts:
“[…] a good, or even great, Anthropocene. A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.”
I, at this point, remain with the (objection-taking) opinion of Clive Hamilton. The Manifesto is not, however, uniformly disagreeable from any particular point of view:
“[…] we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.”
‘Hear, hear,’ exclaim environmentalists everywhere.

It soon becomes very apparent that the solution to most ecomodernist problems is technological. We must, they argue, put “humankind’s extraordinary powers in the service of creating a good Anthropocene.” Their narrative is based upon optimism not only for the future but also for the past and present:
“Humanity has flourished over the past two centuries. Average life expectancy has increased from 30 to 70 years, resulting in a large and growing population able to live in many different environments.”
Accordingly, they seem to endorse (without citation) Steven Pinker’s arguments regarding violence:
“Violence in all forms has declined significantly and is probably at the lowest per capita level ever experienced by the human species, the horrors of the 20th century and present-day terrorism notwithstanding. Globally, human beings have moved from autocratic government toward liberal democracy characterized by the rule of law and increased freedom.”
At this point they get rather Whiggish:
“Personal, economic, and political liberties have spread worldwide and are today largely accepted as universal values.”
If you’ve never travelled outside the Euro-American metropoles, sure. There are entire academic disciplines devoted to demolishing this sort of naive, coyly imperialistic liberalism.

They have little truck with ‘pessimistic’ assessments of the Earth’s carrying potential, scorning the “limits to growth” thesis of the 1970s. Solar energy, for example, is effectively unlimited and energy from a “closed uranium or thorium fuel cycle” or “hydrogen-deuterium fusion” could see a technologically advanced civilisation in rude health for millennia, so they claim.

The answer to our problems, in a word: decoupling.
“Relative decoupling means that human environmental impacts rise at a slower rate than overall economic growth. […] Absolute decoupling occurs when total environmental impacts — impacts in the aggregate — peak and begin to decline, even as the economy continues to grow.”
Humans must close themselves off in a kind of eco-citadel, technically disembedding their modes of social reproduction from the wider Earth environment. (Logan’s Run flashes to mind.)

They are on stronger ground when they note, for example, the relative ecological per capita efficiency of cities compared to rural modes of living:
“Cities occupy just one to three percent of the Earth’s surface and yet are home to nearly four billion people . As such, cities both drive and symbolize the decoupling of humanity from nature, performing far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs while reducing environmental impacts.”
Intensive, large-scale farming is, very unambiguously, the future: “modernization is not possible in a subsistence agrarian economy.” Intensification allows for progressive net reforestation as the square mileage of land required for every unit of food is reduced.

However, for every thought provoking point something ire-raising tends to follow:
“[…] in contradiction to the often-expressed fear of infinite growth colliding with a finite planet, demand for many material goods may be saturating as societies grow wealthier.”
While this is true, it is rather beside the point since the rise before the peak is so gargantuan. There’s no way that even a significant minority of the present-day poor could reach that peak without total ecological devastation – so does that help?

Not wanting to ramble on for too long (and being about halfway through the Manifesto), I’ll leave the rest for my next post.

Speaking of determinism and possibilism... (and ecomodernism)

Speaking of determinism and possibilism, Simon Dalby has just uploaded his paper to be presented at the AAG 2015 annual convention in Chicago. It's titled "Framing the Anthropocene: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly."

He examines, zeitgeistily enough, the ecomodernist movement and its critics before closing with remarks on determinism and possibilism:
Determinism has been finally demolished by the earth system discussions of the Anthropocene; insights from the earth system framing of current options now need much more attention from scholars in the humanities. 
A reworked notion of possibilism, one shaped by the much more comprehensive understandings of both earth system science on one hand and political ecology with its focus on lived environments on the other, offers a much better encompassing interpretive frame for present circumstances. It does so because it demands political action to shape the future, recognizing that we live in a world that, in William’s Connolly’s terms, is about fragile things and self-organizing processes that now urgently require democratic activism in the face of persistent neoliberal fantasies. Naomi Klein’s arguments for linking various forms of political activism in a coalition of fossil fuel divestment, protest against mines and pipelines and a reconstruction or rural economies using renewable energy, offers a broad outline of what is needed. Climate change adds urgency to activism in a world where opposition to fossil fuel production is obviously necessary if the majority of those fossil fuels are to stay in the ground and the planet not push pass 2 degrees Celsius heating.
Well worth reading.

'Determinism, environment and geopolitics: an interdisciplinary conversation' — RGS-IBG 2015, Exeter

I'm pleased to announce that my proposed session for the RGS-IBG 2015 Conference on 'Geographies of the Anthropocene' has been accepted. The conference will be held on 1st – 4th September at the University of Exeter.

It differs a little from the original CfP; however, I'm very pleased with how it's turned out. The abstract is as follows:
“There are no necessities, but everywhere possibilities; and man, as master of the possibilities, is the judge of their use. This, by the reversal which it involves, puts man in the first place [au premier plan] – man, and no longer the earth, nor the influence of climate, nor the determinant conditions of localities.” — Lucien Febvre, A Geographical Introduction to History ([1922], p.236)
Issues of environmental determinism and possibilism have structured human geographical debates since at least the 1920s. However, in recent decades these concepts have become more a matter for disciplinary textbooks than intellectual debate. This session is motivated by the conviction that, given the challenges of the Anthropocene, this must change. Febvre’s response to determinism, now nearly a century old, is plainly inadequate. ‘Man’ can no longer be considered either ‘judge’ or ‘master.’ The ‘influence of climate’ will not be washed away by 1920s-style humanism. And yet, for all human geography’s theoretical riches, the alternative is not obvious. 
Our challenges are vast, complex and ineluctably interdisciplinary. Bearing this in mind, this experimental session consists of four diverse, open and conversational roundtables on interrelated but distinct themes:
  • Determinism and representation (chair: Gwilym Eades)
  • Possibilism and historical geography (chair: Simon Dalby)
  • Calculation and environmental science (chair: Lauren Rickards) 
  • Complexity and potentiality (chair: Jason Dittmer)
These roundtables will debate their respective matters of concern individually before presenting their findings to the group. The session has two major goals: first, to collectively sketch ‘the state of the art’ of environmental geopolitics with regard to these issues; and, second, to discern the major contours of agreement and disagreement between the interested parties. We will not pretend to produce any definitive conclusions but, rather, attempt to more broadly outline the problematical terrain that requires further collective exploration. 
This session is, of course, open to all; however, we would particularly welcome participants from physical geography and the environmental sciences.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

"My readers have now been warned"—halfway through Stengers' Thinking With Whitehead

At the end of chapter 16 of her book on the work of Alfred North Whitehead (just slightly over halfway through the text), Isabelle Stengers writes:
"My readers have now been warned. If they are fascinated by the heroic grandeur of refusal, and despise compromises; if they deplore the fact that the radical demands of every new position are recuperated by what was supposed to be subverted; if 'to deconstruct' is a goal in itself for them, and scandalizing self-righteous people is a testimony to truth; if they oppose the pure to the impure, the authentic to the artificial; if they cannot understand how the most 'unplatonic' of philosophers situated himself as a 'footnote' to the text of Plato ... let them close this book. Never will they see celebrated in it the power of a truth that is verified by the destruction of false pretenders. They will therefore find in it only disappointments and reasons for contempt." (Thinking With Whitehead, p.275-6)
And slightly different in French:
"Le lecteur est maintenant prévenu. Si, comme le Belzébuth mis en scène par Leibniz dans Confessio philosophi, dont la rage se déchaĆ®ne à l'offre de salut, il est fasciné par la pureté du refus et méprise les compromis, s'il déplore que les exigences radicales de toute position nouvelle se monnaient progressivement en contrastes enrichissant ce qu'il s'agissait de subvertir, s'il ne peut comprendre que le plus « non platonicien » des philosophes se soit situé lui-même comme « note en bas de page » au texte de Platon... qu'il referme ce livre. Jamais il n'y verra célébré le pouvoir d'une vérité qui se vérifie par la destruction de faux prétendants. Il n'y trouvera donc que déceptions et raisons de mépris." (Penser Avec Whitehead, p.310)
This is my third attempt to read this book and it's the first time that I am sure that I will reach the end. It is not that it is a 'difficult' book as such. Stengers, in her own inimitable way, writes with extraordinary precision. However, being something of an autodidact with respect to philosophy, I wasn't quite ready for such a dense and demanding text in the past.

It is a work that requires a very particular routine of reading. It cannot be read casually, put down and picked up a week or two later (not usefully, anyhow). At over 500 pages it is not something that can be read in one sitting, or several sittings, either. (There is no quick way through such a text—the whole point is that the reader slows down.) It requires, for me at least, extreme attention and focus. It's not something that I am able to read except when at my most clear headed, and then for a few hours at a time. Unfortunately, there aren't many windows like that in my week (I hope that soon this will change). I, out of necessity, do most of my own reading and research in the evenings—not a time of day conducive to this kind of endeavour.

Nevertheless, I am gradually working my way through the book—one immersion at a time—and it is most certainly worth the effort. It's the kind of book that, after having read it, I will never be able to read any other book in the same way again. It neither condescends to its reader nor indulges in unnecessary dissimulation. It attempts to be clear but, at the same time, transformative. This time around, I am finding that it succeeds in both respects. Again, I find that the best words for it are: precise but, at the same time, extraordinarily dense. It is the most exquisitely constructed thicket.

There is far, far too much in this book to even begin to summarise or select. However, I find the above quotation(s) to be a perfect signal of its tone and intentions. This dissuasion addressed directly to the reader is at the same time reassuring—I am assured that none of the things described appeal to me (and their sirenic allure is further muted with each and every passing page).