Friday 20 June 2014

Clive Hamilton on the 'new environmentalists' and the 'good Anthropocene'; the rough edges of political aesthetics

An important article by Clive Hamilton on the 'new environmentalists' and the so-called 'good Anthropocene':
[...] almost as soon as the idea of the Anthropocene took hold, people began revising its meaning and distorting its implications. A new breed of ecopragmatists welcomed the new epoch as an opportunity. They gathered around the Breakthrough Institute, a “neogreen” think tank founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, the authors of a controversial 2004 paper, “The Death of Environmentalism.” They do not deny global warming; instead they skate over the top of it, insisting that whatever limits and tipping points the Earth system might throw up, human technology and ingenuity will transcend them. 
As carbon dioxide concentrations pass 400 ppm for the first time in a million years, and scientists warn of a United States baking in furnace-like summers by the 2070s, Shellenberger and Nordhaus write that by the end of the century “nearly all of us will be prosperous enough to live healthy, free, and creative lives.” The answer, they say, is not to change course but to more tightly “embrace human power, technology, and the larger process of modernization.” 
The argument absolves us all of the need to change our ways, which is music to the ears of political conservatives. The Anthropocene is system-compatible.
In the words of the most vocal eco-pragmatist, the environmental scientist Erle Ellis, “We will be proud of the planet we create.” Ellis speaks of “the good Anthropocene,” a golden era in which we relinquish nostalgic attachments to a nature untouched by humans and embrace the new epoch as “ripe with human-directed opportunity.”
By the final quoted paragraph in particular I am reminded of Nigel Clark's thesis in Inhuman Nature (and other writings) where he holds constructivism (particularly of the Latourian variety) as being effectively complicit with the over-statement of human agency in the face of overwhelmingly inhuman forces. I don't agree with parts of his analysis; however, the above clearly demonstrates his wider and more important point: that we must reckon with our finitude -- and fast.

In another article on the same themes posted only a few days ago Hamilton writes:
In the end, grasping at delusions like “the good Anthropocene” is a failure of courage, courage to face the facts. The power of positive thinking can’t turn malignant tumours into benign growths, and it can’t turn planetary overreach into endless lifestyle improvements. Declaring oneself to be an optimist is often used as a means of gaining the moral upper hand: “Things may look bad but, O ye of little faith, be bold and cheerful like me.”
There is a point at which optimism starts to become pathological; I think this the point where it is taken to be an end in itself. In a society with a fully-developed pathology one can win an argument simply by being optimistic; one can, with a snide chuckle, merely brush off inconvenient questions simply because they are uncomfortable. One's cognitive comfort (and that of the well-heeled choir to which one preaches) comes first and prevails over and above all dissuasive shrieks and cries. Those who suffer must not only suffer but also do so quietly.

I must say that excessive optimism is not a condition not something that we Brits are overburdened with in general.

However, that does not mean that we are not similarly insensitive. Most of us would sooner starve half the world than give up our cars or our South African asparagus (though we would never admit this, least of all to ourselves).

I don't suppose that any of the 'eco-pragmatists' would agree with a word of what I am polemically attributing to them; however, this really does seem to be the unavoidable conclusion of their line of thinking -- how else will they sustain their fantasy if not by exporting disconfirmatory externalities into the bodies and atmospheres of others?

The incapacity to cognise discomforting information as anything other than a falsehood (false because it is discomforting) leads inexorably to chronic insensitivity.

If we're not afraid then we really haven't been paying attention.

Political aesthetics must have rough edges.

Political aesthetics, realpolitik and the composition of the common world

Michael L. Thomas has a really useful summary of Latour's diplomatic political philosophy and, in particular, the importance of aesthetics to this vision of politics (thanks to dmf for pointing to this).
An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, the most recent publication of Bruno Latour, represents an exciting new philosophical project in so far as it raises an audacious question in a novel methodological light: “How do we compose a common world?” On its surface, this question calls forth images of universality of human beings, a “kumbaya” society organized through a shared vision and lack of conflict. The question changes in the hands of Latour, however, insofar as it is not a question of normativity, but of what I term political aesthetics. In deploying this term, I mean to diverge from its usage in Benjamin and others concerned with the relationship between art and the state, and, instead, towards the sense in which the construction of a common world involves determining principles of the articulation and communication of forms of experience. These principles are not decided in advance but generated through making the construction of reality in the present more explicit, thus providing pathways to forge connection between modes of experience (existence) and generating a ground to negotiate reality in the present.
I don't know if Michael has looked at Latour's Gifford Lectures from last year but there he goes into much more detail on his political aesthetics. John Dewey's The Public and its Problems is key here. The fundamental point for Dewey is that:
the consequences of conjoint action take on a new value when they are observed. (24)
There is therefore a political imperative to render constituents sensible to both the consequences of their own actions and to the issues that affect them and their interests. Indeed, if this doesn't happen then there is no politics. In this vein Latour argues that we must:
[...] agree to hear in the word aesthetic its old meaning of being able to ‘perceive’ and to be ‘concerned,’ that is, a capacity to render oneself sensitive, a capacity that precedes any distinction between the instruments of science, of art and of politics. (97)
[...] we have to weave ourselves, to cocoon ourselves within a great many loops so that progressively, thread after thread, the knowledge of where we reside and on what we depend for our atmospheric condition can gain greater relevance and feel more urgent. This slow operation of being wrapped in successive looping strips is what it means to be ‘of this Earth.’ And it has nothing to do with being human-in-nature or human-on-a-globe. It is rather a slow and painful progressive merging of cognitive, emotional and aesthetic virtues because of the ways the loops are rendered more and more visible through instruments and art forms of all sorts. Through each loop we becomes more sensitive and more responsive to the fragile envelopes we inhabit. (95)
In these lectures Latour goes beyond the human-focused diplomatic politics of AIME and opens up onto a world where every living being is sensitive to the world around and which subtly adjusts its environment to suit its own needs during the course of its own evolution (as per the Gaia theory that Latour has made his leitmotif in the last decade or so). In this new political scenography our fragile Sloterdijkian atmospheres and envelopes are what is at stake; science is the most powerful tool we have in explicitating our immunological conditions:
Science is the new aesthetics able to render us sensible to where we are standing. (130)
However, science cannot replace politics. A scientised politics is as worthless as a politicised science. These practical institutions cannot be separated but not should they be conflated. Science cannot decide, only politics can. As Michael rightly notes, this is not a 'kumbaya' political philosophy. Political aesthetics is necessarily conjoined to a kind of political realism extended to non-humans. In AIME Latour writes:
Yes, there are beings that do not deserve to exist. Yes, some constructions are badly made. Yes, we have to judge and decide. (142)
In 2005 Latour argued for 'dingpolitik' as opposed to realpolitik; however, there is a strong strand of political realism that runs from his earliest works right up to the present.

The way in which Latour melds the self-consciously post-colonial, post-secularist peace-making political practice of 'diplomacy' with this thorny, decisionist, Schmittean ethos is the key to understanding his political philosophy. They are very much part of the same project, although how successfully they are combined is an open question.

Monday 16 June 2014

World Cup Comedy

For anyone who watched the 2010 World Cup final and recalls Mark van Bommel's unique take on the beautiful game:

The funniest thing I've heard in ages.

Also very funny and an absolutely brilliant summary of the whole sorry state of affairs that is FIFA: