Sunday, 26 April 2015

'An Ecomodernist Manifesto' reviewed—Conclusion

The fourth and final part (1, 2, 3) of a review of the Ecomodernist Manifesto.

When criticising something, I think it's important to make a distinction between what that text is attempting to do and how well it achieves what it sets out to do. In other words, one can criticise a text's objectives, or its realisation of those objectives, or both.

The Manifesto, I think, can be praised on this basis: it achieves what it sets out to do. In response to Clive Hamilton's rather scathing critique, Matthew Nisbet replies:
History suggests that policy makers and their publics are far more likely to spare nature if options are available that allow them to meet their social development goals, than for any sacred, moral, or ideological reasons. 
Politics, argue ecomodernists, is about getting a diversity of people to act on behalf of the same goal but for different reasons. Politics is not about getting everyone to share the same belief, or vanquishing from politics those who disagree.
If that is what this text is about—presenting ecological imperatives in terms that well-meaning and more or less liberal politicians and bureaucrats can understand and make use of—then that's great. However, this cannot disguise the Manifesto's flaws.

My main constructive suggestion would be that the authors need to broaden their cohort to include anthropologists and postcolonial political scientists. The way in which liberal values are presented as obvious, incontestable and universal is a mistake. Perhaps that is what policymakers and business leaders need to hear so as to get their attention (and not scare them off with the idea that they might be part of the problem) but I, for one (and I'm sure I'm not alone), will never be satisfied with the sub-Pinkeresque verbiage that passes for their geopolitical analyses.

There are others than the ecomodernists doing similar sorts of work and doing it, in my opinion, rather better in some respects. Johan Rockström, for instance, in a recent article titled "Bounding the Planetary Future: Why We Need a Great Transition" writes:
Economic growth in the Global South and global sustainability are compatible aims. A world paradigm of abundance within planetary boundaries can be made plausible— if we act with sufficient rapidity, scope, and coherence to avoid crossing thresholds of irreversible change. But robust world development within [Planetary Boundaries] will need to ensure a fair distribution of this finite space among all nations and people. 
[...] 
Sharing finite planetary budgets will require fundamental value changes. Planetary regulation needs to spur innovation and technological breakthroughs. Ethical norms need to evolve to embrace a universal belief that all citizens in the world have the right not only to an equitable share of the available environmental space, but also to a stable and healthy environment.
Rockström also utilises some of the tropes and traits that I've criticised; e.g.:
Our species [emphasis added] must thus give up the illusion that a heavy reliance on market-based policy measures—which can, at best, deliver relative, not absolute, improvements—can deliver a flourishing civilization in this century.
However, the emphasis on boundaries and limits moves away from any tendency towards excessively utopian optimism and his attention to non-Western peoples and the poor is far stronger.

I hope that others better informed that me (particularly in scientific and technical terms) will get their teeth into the ecomodernist claims as, for all their faults, I think that this is a movement worth engaging with.

'An Ecomodernist Manifesto' reviewed—part 3

The third part of my review of the Ecomodernist Manifesto. The first instalment was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction (although I can't say that I've changed my mind). The second proceeded to go through the Manifesto point by point. I'll try to continue in that vein.

Part 3 of the Manifesto gets to one thing I particularly take objection to: the 'early' Anthropocene thesis. It does not use this phrase explicitly but it is implied:
Extensive human transformations of the environment continued throughout the Holocene period: as much as three-quarters of all deforestation globally occurred before the Industrial Revolution.
If the point being made here were simply that humans have never been 'in harmony' with nature—indeed, there has never been a harmonious 'nature' to sing such sweet choral lullabies to at all—that would be fine. But that is not what's happening here. The point being made is to attach the 'anthropos' in Anthropocene to homo sapiens as such—that is, to locate the driving force behind climate change, etc. in generic, biological human capacities rather than understanding it as resulting from a particular mode of production or an historically specific and peculiarly instrumentalist social formation.

It derives not, then, from a criticism of the concept of nature as such since it retains an essentialised concept of human nature that is taken as the aetiological basis of the planetary transformations that we are concerned with.

However, again, curate's egg as this Manifesto is, they are making this assumption in the context of an interesting claim:
Insofar as past societies had less impact upon the environment, it was because those societies supported vastly smaller populations. [...] The technologies that humankind’s ancestors used to meet their needs supported much lower living standards with much higher per-capita impacts on the environment.
Of course, precisely who would claim that we must go back to a pre-Industrial collective tech-scape is unclear. There is a hint of the straw man here (as elsewhere). While the general point is indeed an interesting one, they then go and spoil it all again:
Ecosystems around the world are threatened today because people over-rely on them: people who depend on firewood and charcoal for fuel cut down and degrade forests; people who eat bush meat for food hunt mammal species to local extirpation.
They quickly qualify this by adding:
Whether it’s a local indigenous community or a foreign corporation that benefits, it is the continued dependence of humans on natural environments that is the problem for the conservation of nature.
However, the classic rightwing pseudo-environmentalist trope of blaming the poor for their feckless inefficiencies relative to the enlightened tech-savvy ways of metropolitan elites is more than echoed here.

The next section defends the project of affordable energy generation. Here, again, there is a valid point to be made:
Climate change and other global ecological challenges are not the most important immediate concerns for the majority of the world’s people. Nor should they be. A new coal-fired power station in Bangladesh may bring air pollution and rising carbon dioxide emissions but will also save lives. For millions living without light and forced to burn dung to cook their food, electricity and modern fuels, no matter the source, offer a pathway to a better life, even as they also bring new environmental challenges.
This is very important. Decarbonisation is a global goal that should not be taken to automatically prescribe the best course of action locally. Attention to this kind of complication and the way in which the negative effects of climate change, although they will disproportionately affect the already impoverished, are by no means the only concern that the poor, or those who govern them, have to contend with.

It does, however, seem to be a deliberate strategy of the Manifesto's textual composition to alternate progressive and conservative ideas because, once again, the bad follows the good:
Meaningful climate mitigation is fundamentally a technological challenge. By this we mean that even dramatic limits to per capita global consumption would be insufficient to achieve significant climate mitigation. Absent profound technological change there is no credible path to meaningful climate mitigation.
The suggestion seems to be that because restrictions to consumption alone cannot do the job therefore technological innovation must bear the larger weight of the transition. It's faulty logic, although it may reassure the conservative reader that their wealth is in no way under threat.

The point that the right kind of technological change might preconditionally necessitate political change is never addressed. An implicit teleology flows right through this text: technological innovation in and of itself is what is needed because technological innovation is a direct, rational response to a need, right?...

They do go on to say that:
Technological solutions to environmental problems must also be considered within a broader social, economic, and political context.
But this context only goes so far as noting misguided policy choices:
We think it is counterproductive for nations like Germany and Japan, and states like California, to shutter nuclear power plants, recarbonize their energy sectors, and recouple their economies to fossil fuels and biomass.
It'd be simplistic to call this Manifesto straightforwardly 'neoliberal.' The authors are wary of showing their hand in this regard:
Too often, modernization is conflated, both by its defenders and critics, with capitalism, corporate power, and laissez-faire economic policies. We reject such reductions. What we refer to when we speak of modernization is the long-term evolution of social, economic, political, and technological arrangements in human societies toward vastly improved material well-being, public health, resource productivity, economic integration, shared infrastructure, and personal freedom.
More liberal, Third Way apologistic Western triumphalism than strictly 'neoliberal' in the usual Anglo-American sense.
Accelerated technological progress will require the active, assertive, and aggressive participation of private sector entrepreneurs, markets, civil society, and the state. While we reject the planning fallacy of the 1950s, we continue to embrace a strong public role in addressing environmental problems and accelerating technological innovation, including research to develop better technologies, subsidies, and other measures to help bring them to market, and regulations to mitigate environmental hazards.
Despite criticising Germany's anti-nuclear policies above, this sounds an awful lot like Ordoliberalism.

The Manifesto's closing lines are programmatic:
We hope that this statement advances the dialogue about how best to achieve universal human dignity on a biodiverse and thriving planet.
It has certainly done that. I will try to make a more constructive and evaluative contribution in my next post.

The dialogue of Beelzebub and the Hermit—Leibniz, The Philosopher's Confession

Further to a previous post, and particularly Tim Howles' comment thereon, I thought I'd post an extract from Leibniz's 'The Philosopher's Confession,' which Isabelle Stengers references in her Penser Avec Whitehead (although it isn't mentioned in the English translation).

It is a dialogue on God's justness. The interlocutors are 'The Theologian as Catechist [i.e. instructor]' and 'The Philosopher as Catechumen [i.e. instructed].'

We may join them in the closing stages of their discussion, as our principal interest vis-à-vis Stengers' remark concerns a 'dialogue within a dialogue' that occurs soon after:
Philosopher: [...] No one who does not know God can love him properly, but such a person can hate him nevertheless. Therefore, he who hates God, hates nature, hates things, hates the world: he who wants these things to be different wants God to be different. He who dies malcontent dies a hater of God and now, as if pushed to the edge of an abyss, he follows the path on which he began, external things no more calling him back. With the access to the senses closed off he nourishes his soul, which has withdrawn into itself, with the hatred of things already began, and with that misery and loathing, indignation, jealousy and displeasure, which increase more and more. When reunited with the body, and when the senses have returned, he continually finds new material for contempt, disapproval and anger, and is so much more tormented the less he is able to change and endure the torrent of things displeasing to him. However, in a certain way the pain turns into pleasure and the wretched are glad to find something by which they are tormented. Just as with humans too, the unhappy, while envying the happy, seek at the same time to wear them down, with no other outcome than that they become indignant, as they think the inept are the masters of things, and their pain, more unimpeded and more unchecked, is turned into a kind of harmony, i.e. an appearance of reason. For in the case of the jealous, indignant and malcontent of this kind, pleasure is mixed with pain in a remarkable way, for just as they are pleased and delighted by their belief in their own wisdom, so they suffer so much more furious pain because they lack the power they think is due to them, or rather is in others they deem unworthy. Here you have the explanation of those extraordinary paradoxes, that no one is damned unless he wills it, but also that no one remains damned unless damned by himself. The damned are never absolutely damned, always damnable. They are damned by stubbornness and a perverse appetite, by an aversion to God, so that nothing gladdens them more than to have something by which they may feel pain; they seek nothing more than to discover a reason for them to get angry. This is the highest degree of madness of reason - it is voluntary, irredeemable, desperate and eternal! The damned, therefore, even if they wanted to, can never make use of those complaints which we ascribed to them earlier, and so cannot accuse nature, the universal harmony and God as being the authors of their own misery. 
Theologian: Immortal God! How you have brought about endoxa from your paradoxes. I realize that the Holy Fathers were not averse to this kind of explanation. And the pious ancients summed up the innate character of the damned very much like this in a simple but wise fable. Some hermit, in the depths of contemplation as if intoxicated, begins to be pained in earnest on account of there being so many creatures coming to ruin. Therefore he approaches God with his prayers, and shows the sincerity of his own longing - 'Oh father,' he says, 'can you watch the destruction of so many healthy children? Ah, receive into your grace those wretched demons, which drag so many souls with them into the abyss.' To him who cried out like this, the almighty calmly replies, with an expression which brightens the sky and quietens the storm: 'I see, my son, the simplicity of your heart, and I forgive the exuberance of your emotions, and in my case there is indeed no obstacle. Let those who seek forgiveness come to me.' The hermit then says, in adoration: 'You are blessed, oh Father of all mercy, oh inexhaustible source of grace. And now I go with your permission in order to meet he who is wretched to himself and others - he who so far is ignorant of the happiness of this day.' He departs to meet the prince of devils, not an infrequent visitor for him, and immediately upon making his way in, says: 'Oh you are fortunate! Oh fortunate this day, on which the way of salvation is opened to you, which almost from the beginning of the world has been closed! Come now, and complain about the cruelty of God, in whose presence the supplication of a miserable hermit on behalf of rebels of so many centuries has been effective.' The prince of devils, like the indignant and like those speaking menacingly, replies 'And who has appointed you as our agent? Who has persuaded you to so foolish a pity? Understand, foolish one, that we need neither you as mediator nor God's pardon.'
The Theologian then proceeds to recount this intra-dialogue:
Hermit: Oh the stubbornness! Oh the blindness! Stop, I beseech you, and allow me to discuss this with you.
Beelzebub: Evidently you will tell me.
Hermit: But how trifling is the loss of a few moments you spend listening to a little man who is desirous of the best for all?
Beelzebub: So what do you want?
Hermit: You should know that I have pleaded with God concerning your salvation.
Beelzebub: You? With God? Oh disgrace of heaven, oh infamy of the world, oh humiliation of the universe! And this is he who rules things, this is he who so demands the angels tremble before an authority which has prostituted itself before these worms of the earth? I am bursting with anger and rage.
Hermit: Ah, refrain from these curses as we are on the verge of reconciliation.
Beelzebub: I am beside myself.
Hermit: You will return to yourself when you have learned with how much fatherly tenderness the lap of God hopes for the return of a son.
Beelzebub: And is it possible that he who has exasperated us through so many injustices wants reconciliation? He who has so often harmed has recovered his senses? He who considers himself all-knowing has recognized his error, he who considers himself all-powerful humbles himself? Eh, and what is the price, do you think, for agreeing to the peace?
Hermit: A single supplication will extinguish the angers, will bury the hatreds, and will make the memory of earlier events submerge as if in the depths of the sea.
Beelzebub: Go and announce that by this condition I am prepared for friendship.
Hermit: Seriously?
Beelzebub: Not a doubt.
Hermit: You are not making fun?
Beelzebub: Only go, and enable the matter to be accomplished.
Hermit: Oh happy me! Oh cheerful day! Men freed, God blessed! 
God: What news do you bring with so much dancing?
Hermit: The matter is settled, oh Father! Now the kingdom and the power, and the salvation, and the strength, and the honour, and the glory are of our God and his son Christ, because he who accused us every day, and who bellowed by night and by day for our death, has turned.
God: What? You have also added the condition of begging mercy?
Hermit: He has approved it.
God: See that you should not be deceived.
Hermit: I go in order to bring him so that he will keep his promise.
God: But listen, you: let us work out in advance the form of words.
Hermit: I shall follow them.
God: Therefore give notice to whoever may want to be accepted in grace that they will have to commit to the use of these words before my throne: 'I confess with my mouth and acknowledge with my heart that my wickedness has been the cause of my misery and that it would have been made eternal if your ineffable pity had not dispelled my stupidity. Now that I, with a subdued mind, have understood the distinction between light and darkness, I would rather suffer everything to the end than return to the condition where I repeated the offence to him, which the nature of things can consider nothing so vile.'
Hermit: I have it. And now I shall go, or rather I shall fly. 
Beelzebub: Can it be that you are winged?
Hermit: The emotion has made me so fast. Here is the form of words of the supplication.
Beelzebub: I shall read it if it pleases you. But when will the condition be fulfilled?
Hermit: Whenever you want.
Beelzebub: As if the delay is on account of me.
Hermit: Come then. Let us go to the throne of God.
Beelzebub: What? Are you quite sane? Do I go to him, or him to me?
Hermit: Do not mock with regard to a matter so great.
Beelzebub: He who is going to beg for pardon will go.
Hermit: Let's go then.
Beelzebub: You are mad.
Hermit: Are you not the one who has to beg for pardon?
Beelzebub: Is this what you have promised?
Hermit: Who would think differently, even if he were dreaming?
Beelzebub: Is it not I who am offended? Shall I become suppliant to that tyrant? Oh excellent mediator! Oh plague of man! Oh model of a colluding advocate!
Hermit: Ah, what are you doing?
Beelzebub: Poison enters the limbs, and already rages the anger Through the whole body: crime is heaped upon crime. Thus we are purified. The only victim for the frenzied Is the sacrifice of his enemy. It is pleasing that he be scattered in the winds And mangled alive, drawn into a thousand pieces, Persecuted with as many marks of my own pain, The trumpet itself summoning those to be resurrected To withdraw the flesh.
Hermit: God, turn to my assistance.
Beelzebub: Gaping jaws of pale Avernus, and you lakes of Taenarum...
Hermit: He has vanished, I breathe again. That wretched creature left behind testimony of where he would go in his last words. Oh despair! Oh enemy of God, of the universe, of himself! The cursed should go to him, and have their deliberate insanity. But to you praise, honour, glory, oh my God, who have condescended to reveal your pity and also your justice so splendidly to your servant; you have removed all those temptations of doubts which were trying to make out that you are either unjust or powerless. Now my soul is at peace, and basks with unexhausted delights in the light of your beauty.

Thus spoke our hermit, and I with him.
 To quote Tim's previous comment:
This is not Milton's Satan. It's a much more cowardly, dastardly, niggardly refusal of truth: the perfect analogy, as Stengers points out, for the destructive/ deconstructive/ denunciatory reaction that she doesn't want from the reader of this book.
The crucial thing here is mediation (this is why I think that the figure of the diplomat must be kept in mind throughout Stengers' writings, even when she doesn't mention it explicitly).

The Hermit is the mediator here who is abused and betrayed by Beelzebub. God, as the previous discussion between the Theological and the Philosopher indicates, is conceived of as a substance of pure harmony. To make peace with God is thus to find peace; to reject God is to wallow in an inwardly and outwardly destructive circle of loathing and contempt.

However, I am inclined to hold at least a moment's thought for Beelzebub's position here. Is his objection not that he is being summoned to kneel before a Father? He is being granted a divine invitation to peace and harmony—an invitation that his loathing and self-importance cannot allow him to accept. However, it is an offer issued from a position that is discernibly monarchical.

Indeed, Stengers says something similar on this same dialogue towards the end of her Cosmopolitics II:
"When Leibniz attempted to consider the question of damnation and introduced Beelzebub's refusal to 'ask forgiveness,' which God had decreed to be the condition for his salvation, he also showed, perhaps in spite of himself, the extent to which apparent generosity, whenever it is one-sided, can exacerbate the rage of the one it was supposed to benefit. The cosmopolitical calculus will always remain exposed to rage, to Beelzebub's despair [...]." (415)
She goes on:
"Beelzebub's venomous rage is the rage liable to invade the victims of crimes to whom the risky commitment of the calculemus is proffered." (415)
The calculemus ('let us calculate') in Stengers' reading refers to the construction of a temporary common measure, a 'middle ground' between estranged parties for the purposes of conciliation. It takes two to conciliate; we may infer that the condescension of a benign deity is insufficient to this end.

I think it's also important that Stengers notes that Leibniz might be making this case "perhaps in spite of himself." Her reading of Leibniz posits him as a 'minor key' thinker, in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari. Leibniz is notoriously impossible to pin down—a multiplicity if ever there was one. However, the minoritarian, diplomatic reading is, I think, really fruitful, even if it has to be constructed to some degree 'in spite of' certain facets of the man himself.

Between common ground and middle ground; or, the unbearable lightness of being Earthbound

Terence Blake writes:
Do we need a “common ground” in order to communicate with each other effectively or enjoyably?
I think we should have no qualms about needing 'grounds.' Not any more. We now understand very well that no ground—not even the proverbial bedrock—can be understood as a secure, unyielding foundation; however, at the same time, we are equally well aware that there is no groundlessness, no infinite nomadism. Groundlessness is death, floating in the vacuum of space.

However, I think that one can make a distinction between 'common ground' and 'middle ground' (as the latter term is used in ethnohistory). Both imply a convergence, a political or cosmopolitical coming together (in the pragmatic conception, compelled by mutually concerning issues). However, while the common is something shared (thus suggesting an underlying unity either revealed or constructed), the middle is simply the temporary milieu fabricated between two distinct parties that may thoroughly misunderstand each other but, nevertheless, are thereby able to exchange well enough to negotiate. The common aims at a settlement 'for us,' the middle aims at a settlement 'between us.' Settlement—i.e. ground—is the issue for both but borders are drawn in completely different ways.

The common should not be prioritised over the middle because of its greater unity. However, equally, the middle is not preferable simply because of the looseness or bagginess of its mode of belonging. The conception of grounds as constructed between distinct groups implies commonality within these groups (albeit with fractal micro-divergences at every level, and so on and so on).

So, which of these conceptions pertains to democracy? If we are talking institutionalised democracy then I think it is plainly a common ground that predominates. To the extent that there are established rules that authorise participation then we are in the common. Of course, a rule is never simply 'applied' and every democrat constantly pushes their luck; however, the fact that they have to 'push their luck' implies a covenant that is recognised to be binding to some degree.

The common cannot imply harmony or an absence of dissent; however, it does imply a collective project in a way that the notion of middle does not. Although, substituting the French 'milieu' for the English 'middle' brings the notion of environment and envelopment into it. But perhaps this is the difference between ground and atmosphere: an atmosphere can be shared without in any way implying a unity. In this sense we can say that every collective on Earth shares an atmosphere but they do not yet share a ground. Not that there is one atmosphere—there are indefinitely many and of endlessly varied kinds; however, there is an atmosphere that envelops us all and that therefore serves as the medium, the ether for our collective problems—but emphatically not our unity.

There is, as I have said, a connection between atmosphere and ground (without ground we are floating in a vacuum). However, atmosphere carries qualities of envelopment that ground does not. In this much we might say that a middle ground is closer to an atmosphere than is a common ground.

Every ground can ultimately float away as if on a breeze but we would be ill-advised to valorise our being of such unbearable lightness! The bittersweet ungroundedness of the émigré understands both edges of the sword.

'All that is solid...,' says Marx. His voice shook with fury but the ground beneath his feet did not. Do we share his common ground?

The unbearable lightness of being Earthbound.