Category Archives: Climate Change

elements of that necessary magic

Well, I sure as shit picked a great week to start using the birdsite again, didn’t I?

I don’t have much to say about it all, really—which isn’t to say I don’t have opinions about it, mind you, but I think the having of opinions is best left to those most directly affected, at least for now. (As a British rat who only recently scrambled off his own sinking ship, I’m in no position to give advice or laugh from the sidelines, either.) But I will reiterate the fairly common consensus that, far from being some shocking breach of USian norms that came out of nowhere, this was being signalled clear as day for months, if not years, and represents exactly the norms of a country that’s done a heckuva job of draping flags over falsehoods from day one*. It’s the naked lunch: suddenly everyone can see what’s on the end of the fork.

But the long game, beyond the borders of that souffle empire, and beyond the foreshortened temporalities of the current crisis, waits for no players. Adrian Ivakhiv knows the score, and also picked the most succinct possible title for his own post:

… the fate of the world rests between contending uses of the same tools employed by those conjurors — the tools of media, imagination, narrative, and passion, as well as reason. If some are using these tools to conjure illusions, the “magic” they are practicing — a magic of fears, lies and half-truths, and outworn but (to many) comforting myths (like QAnon’s “Storm” and the return to the Confederate States of America, depicted above in yesterday’s events) — must be counteracted by another magic, one that conveys the hope, the joy, and the real possibility of building a world of respect, dignity, beauty, social justice, and ecological flourishing.

The latter magic is more challenging to produce. It is also challenging to the halls of power, such as those represented by the U. S. Capitol, and I harbor no illusions that that building will ever be the epicenter of the great changes we need. But the elements of that necessary magic can be found all over the world, and it inspires my continued work.

I’m currently working on—or trying to work on—some of the framing arguments for my current project, which involves me making the case for the co-production of relateable and concrete climate futures with ordinary people. In that framing I am, as I have done for many years, positioning it as a question of a battle of narratives, but it might just as well be thought of as magic—and it’s a comfort to know that there are others out there looking at it the same way, and working up their own spells and cantrips. As Ivakhiv points out, dark magic is easy; fear is a highly combustible fuel, and there’s a lot of it about. Hope is scarcer—but, just like fear, it can be generated, distilled, shared, and used as as a medium for a magic with a different purpose, to make a light against the encroaching darkness.

Mystical hippie bullshit, Paul? Well, maybe. But if you still think that good old-fashioned Enlightenment rationality and liberal norms are all we need to get us out of the downward spiral, then I suggest you revisit the footage from Washington DC last night, and think again. That story had a good run, but its narrators lost control of it. Unless we replace it with something better… well, we’ve now had a pretty clear foreshadowing of how the movie ends.

there is no transition

Maybe I’m being over-optimistic, but seeing arguments for non-solutionist and demand-side approaches to decarbonisation research appearing in a journal from the Nature stable feels like a sign that the idea is getting some traction at long last. That said paper is by Elizabeth Shove, a brilliant and tenacious researcher whose work has been a huge influence on my own—and who has done a huge amount of leg-work over the years in both fighting against behaviourist and managerial models of consumption, and advancing social practice perspectives as an alternative—makes it all the sweeter.

… the timescales across which energy research is defined and framed do not exist in isolation. Seconds are part of minutes, and seasons are part of years. What look like comparably massive ‘turns’, for instance from renewables (wind) to fossil fuels (coal), are made of overlapping trajectories, not all unfolding at the same rate and pace, and made up of different units (seconds, minutes) that are not equivalent but that are part of the historical periods in which they are set.

This is obvious, but research problems are routinely carved out in ways that obscure these interactions and the threading together of past, present and future. Energy efficient building renovation is a good example in which the age of the building, the payback time on investment, the lifespan of the owner/occupier, and the durability of different materials interact.

Interventions in buildings and in energy systems occur within and as part of multiple dynamic processes that defy easy description, but that are crucial for conceptualizing and fostering transitions not only in the types of fuels that are ‘plugged’ in to the supply system, but the timing of demand and thus in the making of a substantially lower carbon society.

Research agendas that focus on ‘the’ energy transition, and debate about how long this transition might take overlook this point. Given that energy systems (supply and demand together) are woven into society and into the constitution of always-changing sociotemporal rhythms there is unlikely to be any one such shift now or in the years ahead.

That last point—very much contra the self-referential definitions of ‘transition’ from the Geelsean MLP literature, still hugely popular in policy circles—was a major plank of the argument of my doctoral thesis. As I put it in my discussion chapter:

… if we are to think of transition at all, it is perhaps better to think of it not as a bounded entity, not as something that somehow happens to entire populations all at once, but rather as a basic condition of existence in human society. Transition is not “there, and then”, but ubiquitous and perpetual, always-already ongoing everywhere, albeit at different rates and in different directions. The transitions of the MLP are stories that only make sense in hindsight, tautological artefacts of their own analysis; in effect, “transition” is a fairytale that we repeat in the hope that repetition will make it come true.

If we wish to truly understand the dynamics of sociotechnical change, rather then merely describe a dynamic which we imagine might be amenable to certain forms of control or management, then we must abandon the hackneyed plot of transition and return our attention to the actual actors on the stage.

Raven, PG (2018), Making Infrastructure Legible, p262

The more distance I get from the process of writing that thesis, the more I understand why it was such a struggle to get the damned thing passed in the context of a civil engineering department…

luma daze / nine notions of the metasystemic

Among the many things on my list of events to speak at in 2020 was Luma Days, which is a kind of annual arts-community-philosophy shindig in Arles, southern France. Of course, the prospect of actually going in person went the way of almost all long distance travel this year—but Maria Finders and her team have made an admirable job of shunting a lot of their output into online channels, and pivoting the theme of the year somewhat; it was already about infrastructural uncertainties, but that ended up with a pandemic twist, just like pretty much everything else has done.

Absent the possibility of travelling and talking in person, the Luma folk had me write and present a short piece (titled “Nine Notions of the Metasystemic”) via Zoom, before Maria picked my brains in an interview about the piece and much more besides. Here’s the summary text from the website:

Throughout this conversation [Paul] offers us his comprehensive view of the neoliberal infrastructure within its own complex geography in the post-Covid world. He questions technological evolution and the connivance of platforms enabling the infrastructure to lock in and perpetuate existing hierarchies, as opposed to protocols. He also addresses the topic of socioeconomic change, and the role of artists and thinkers in this process, as well as their limits.

Sounds like the sort of thing I’d say, doesn’t it? I recall it being a hot afternoon here in Malmö… and I also recall realising that the somewhat synoptic thing I wrote/presented could be taken as a sort of preliminary survey for the work I want to spend the next decade or so doing. Other than that, in truth, I don’t recall a lot. Many pixels have been spilled, by far better writers and thinkers than I, on the topic of the Covidean timewarp… so I’ll spare any extra philosophising on that front, other than to note that late July feels like aeons ago, even as it also feels like I haven’t really gotten much done since. Selah—that feeling would be more uncomfortable were it not so familiar.

Anyway, point being: the video is up. (It may have been up for a while? I know it wasn’t up a month ago.) It’s not embeddable, I’m afraid—inconvenient, perhaps, but Luma is an independent arts organisation trying to do its thing outside of the usual circuits of capitalist exploitation, and so keeping their IP away from the Stacks is an understandable instinct, not least coz it means they actually get some click-through and engagement on their own site. So please do pop on over there and spend an hour in the company of my overheated brain as it was a little more than four months prior to time of writing… and if you want to pop back and tell me whether I made any sense, well, please do.

(I haven’t watched it back myself yet, so I’m kinda gambling against my own tendency to garble, here. I seem to recall they sent me a transcript, so I might look into tidying that up and seeing if they’re OK with me putting it up somewhere.)

Geology and empire : Jemisin (2015), The Fifth Season

So, N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. I’m going to have to try to restrict myself a bit here, because I can’t spend all day writing about a novel (or at least I can’t spend all day today writing about a novel), but it would be very easy to spend all day, or possibly more than one day, writing about this novel.

Confessions first, though: I didn’t think I was going to get much out of it before I started. I really hope that’s not some sort of internalised racism thing on my part, but I guess I shouldn’t discount the possibility, because, well, internalised racism? It’s a thing, and I have it, like pretty much anyone from my background has it, and the whole point is that you don’t realise you’ve got it until a teachable moment turns up. Mostly, though, I think it has to do with the way the book is dressed up, which looked to me to be very much a sort of secondary-world fantasy kind of vibe; also perhaps because I’d seen it listed many times as climate/ecofiction, but the blurb made it sound more like your average fantasy cataclysm. You’d think that by now I’d be well past the error of judging books by their covers… but then again, while marketing’s claims to being a science are merely meta-marketing, it nonetheless knows something about how we react to certain signs and stimuli. And it might well be the case that, running the numbers on these things, the marketing folk would conclude (and possibly conclude correctly) that making Fifth Season look more like a secondary-world fantasy cataclysm would shift more units than making it look like a work of very advanced (in both senses of that term) dying-earth science fiction. Point being: it’s kind of both of those things at once. But it’s also so much more than just that.

Already my attempt at brevity and concision is falling apart, so let’s try to break it down to a few main points. First up, as we’re already there, the worldbuilding here is… well, look, if I was blurbing this thing for an audience that was au fait with the sf canon, I’d say that it’s perhaps the most ambitious work of worldbuilding I’ve encountered since Aldiss’s Helliconia. And that’s no faint praise: Helliconia is one of the few books (or sets of books—I still have the old paperback trilogy version that I found in a Southsea second-hand shop back in the late Nineties, the spines of which are screwed by rereading to the point that the pages come out in sheafs if I’m not careful with them) that I re-read every couple of years, just to remind myself of what’s possible. The world of Fifth Season easily matches its imaginative scale, and there’s a certain consonance in the underlying conceits of both books: layered cycles of seasons. But the mechanics of that seasonality are very different… and while you can say that Helliconia is on some level a story of changing climate, Fifth Season is a novel of climate change in our more modern sense of the term.

But like I say, that wasn’t immediately apparent, in the way that it’s immediately apparent that, say, Parable of the Sower is a climate change novel; the displacement into a deep futurity of Fifth Season seems at first to detach it from any of the more immediate dynamics of climate change as we’re facing it. Sure, we’re facing temperature increases, changes in weather patterns, sea level rise… but runaway tectonics, vulcanism, five-year seasons of acid rain, continent-wide fungal blooms? This seemed at first too much, like a metaphor turned up not to 11 but to 50, 100, more. But then as you get sucked into the story—and this happens quickly, for reasons I will get to—you start to realise that Fifth Season is a climate change novel because it uses that overdriven environmental metaphor as the basis from which to build from scratch a long history of imperial/colonial politics that both produces and exploits environmental degradation and maintenance for its own reproduction. That this history is effectively detached from the one we know is a stroke of understated genius, because it removes the possibility of quibbling with interpretations of the history we know, and obliges that the reader engage with the history of the future that Jemisin has constructed here. And through that history it is made clear that not only are alterations to the environment made by human meddlings–sometimes deliberately, sometimes less so—but also that the power to make those meddlings, and the power to take advantage of their second-order consequences in such a way as to consolidate and expand power, is closely tied up to assumptions of entitlement and historically compounded advantage.

Also worth noting that the secondary-world/dying-earth ambiguity is actually a strategy in and of itself. There are very faint clues from the start that this might not be a secondary world after all, but it was probably only two-thirds of the way through that I could feel confident in coming to the dying-earth diagnosis, and even then I was left wondering what had happened (besides, y’know, humans doing the regular human stuff) to put the planet into that condition… and while I don’t normally hold much truck with the Spoiler Police, I will only note here that a) it’s not until the very last page of this book that you get a clear steer on one of the big things that messed up this particular future earth, and b) the reveal of that thing was a genuine sensawunda slingshot such as I’ve not had from a novel in a long, long time. I’d be looking forward to the rest of the trilogy even if seeing the worldbuilding get fully worked out was the only enticement.

But that is far from being the only enticement, because Fifth Season also manages to be a novel about race and repression which, as it does with the question of climate, uses its deep temporal distance to totally remap those questions away from the white/non-white binary of our present politics, and build a whole new intersectionality based on ethnicity, social assumptions of inherited aptitude, and a seemingly magical ability to channel thermodynamic energy (which I think is going to turn out to be the only novum without a historical-technological backstory… though given how consistently this book has managed to subvert every expectation I had of it, I’m fully prepared for the sequels to prove me wrong on that point, too). But saying that Fifth Season is “about” race would be reductive, and to do it a great disservice; what it’s really about is structural repression, institutional abuse and trauma, the damage done to individuals by a social system built to sustain its own autopoeisis of power. Again, without wanting to blow the whistle on the story here, I found myself getting multiple shocks of recognition from the depictions of educational-institutional abuse (and consequent internalisation of self-loathing)—shocks which were less about the violence thereof, and more about the recognition of violences that disguise themselves as forms of care, or even love, for both abused and abuser.

So, yeah: probably pretty clear by now that this is not a cheerful happy-ever-after fantasy, I’m guessing. In fact, it’s pretty harrowing at times, though there are moments of peace and respite. But it is incredibly compelling, a tour de force of characterisation; it’s a reviewerly cliche to batter on about “having to know what happens to these people”, but Jemisin’s characters here spring so instantly to life on the page, in all their brokennness and persistence, that you have no choice but to follow them through the traumas of their psyches and the traumas of their world. I get the impression from the students I discussed it with that it was a more challenging read than, say, Parable of the Sower—and perhaps the digging into internal trauma, compared to Lauren’s cold bottling-up of it, makes it all the more emotionally harrowing. But it’s also technically challenging, and I know that a large part of my admiration for this book is rooted in its narratology. Three viewpoint characters, each approached with a different narrative POV modality, but not for the arbitrary sake of showing off a writerly skill-set; rather, the choice of POV mode is carefully tuned to and reflective of the character in question, and their circumstances and situation. (And as with the worldbuilding/dying-earth thing, your understanding of why those choices make sense, and who those characters are, slowly unfolds and blossoms through the book.)

I could gladly write an essay on each of these themes, and probably a few more besides—I haven’t really touched on the question of sociotechnicality, for instance, and an STS-centric reading of Fifth Season would be well worth doing. But time is short, and this isn’t a commission… so I’ll leave that work to others, who will likely make a better job of it (if they haven’t already; I’ve gotten rather out of the loop on genre criticism in recent years). The main point to make is that Fifth Season is a masterpiece, an sf gesamtkunstwerk for the 21st century, bleak and rich and incredibly involving. I’m ashamed for having prejudged it, but immensely pleased to have been proven so wrong in doing so.

Thirst, fear, faith : Butler (1993), Parable of the Sower

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is another canonical work of sf / dystopia / climate fiction which I’d never got round to reading. It was interesting to go through it with the LUCSUS Masters students, because they picked out things I might not have noticed, or would otherwise have passed over as a given thanks to my specialist knowledges.

For example, the cause of the escalating price and scarcity of water is (as far as I can recall) never remarked upon in the text. And of course there’s no reason the characters would think to discuss it: even for those of them who might have known the cause of Californian drought (i.e. basically decades and decades of over-abstraction), by the point they’ve reached in the process of collapse, there’d be little point (other than making yourself more angry, scared or frustrated) that you’d mention it; better to focus on where the next drink is coming from than why it’s hard to find. It’s not entirely clear from the text itself whether Butler was thinking of a drought specifically caused by agricultural practices, rather than one caused simply by a more general environmental decline due to increased temperatures; one might argue this is a missed opportunity for making a didactic point, but given the overwhelming moral content of Sower, even were you to add such material I doubt anyone would come away from the book thinking “well, we’d best get busy on water rights and agricultural reform!” It’s not that sort of sf, and Butler not that sort of writer.

Still, it was notable that the students questioned the cause of the high water prices, not as something that spoiled the story, but as something that nagged at them throughout—and perhaps, if we’re dabbling with the intentional fallacy, we might imagine that may have been one of the results Butler was hoping for. (Given the premium she places on self-directed curiosity and learning in the book, it doesn’t seem an unreasonable guess.) The cause was obvious to me, in part because I spent six years surrounded by people who live and breath water infrastructure, in part because some good friends have explored and discussed California’s water infrastructures in detail for exactly this reason, and also because I’d read and reviewed Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (Interzone #260) when it was published. TWK was another of the books in the “club”, and they make an interesting pairing in the context of climate change pedagogy for exactly this reason; they’d also make an interesting pairing for sf-literary reasons, too. (Another essay to add to the ideas list, I guess.)

The students were also curious about the broader causes of the “boiled frog” collapse that forms the setting for Sower; they couldn’t understand how things could have gotten so bad without something having been done about it. With no criticism or malice intended, I think this can be put down in part to their comparative youth and European perspective: not to put too fine a point on it, but the actual USA right now is providing a grim demonstration of exactly how things could be allowed to get so bad, which is less a case of everyone ignoring the problem, and more a case of a slight majority being susceptible to the message that the problem is Someone Else’s Problem, and/or a market opportunity for good ol’ fashioned American entrepreneurship. These are also students for whom climate change is more than just a given, it’s the thing that’s driven them to do the course they’re on—and as such I’m going to infer that they’ve probably been raised in households where “doing something” is a daily occurrence. However, they’re also young enough to perhaps not fully understand that sorting the recycling and turning off the tap while you brush your teeth is not really enough to make a dent in the systemic extractive/emissive paradigm; hell, it’s really only in the last ~10 years that I’ve come to understand that myself. The problem is still addressable for them, in a way that gives me hope even as it makes me sad; if anything is going to “be done about it”, it’s their generation that’ll (have to) do it.

(And as such, us X-ers and Millennials had best make a good show of trying to get the Boomers out of the driver’s seat before it’s too late, because the kids have got more than enough reason to lament our generational futzings already.)

What was exciting for me was how easily they latched onto the characterisation and POV. I had primed them a little on this narratological stuff in a lecture the week before we discussed it, but they weren’t just parroting ideas back at me, they’d actually thought it through. They observed that Lauren is cagey and judgmental, even a bit conceited at times (which is all implication, given the first-person modality), and they also identified the paradox of her hyperempathy: yes, she feels the pain of others, and that encourages her to be cautious about surrounding herself with pain and conflict, but it also makes her cold and distant, an outsider even within the group she ends up leading. Perhaps that would change in a context where hyperempaths were in the majority, but then again, perhaps not… and reading Sower has reinforced the feeling I had when reviewing the Ecotopian Lexicon (for the SFRA, due out summer 2021) that Rebecca Evans had taken a rather too optimistic read on hyperempathy, partly because she treated it more as a phenomenon whose existence might make the world a better place than as a concept whose introduction into the lexicon would help advance the climate discourse (though, to be fair, this conflation of concept and term kind of haunts that whole book, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness); all the evidence in Sower, to me at least, suggests that quite the opposite. Sure, a a culture in which empathy was not considered as correlative with (female-coded) weakness would be a fine thing… but unless hyperempathy were effectively universalised instantly, it would make community clusters of hyperempaths incredibly vulnerable to explotation by the less- (or indeed non-)empathic majority, just as hyperempathic individuals already are in the story.

From my own perspective as a writer/reader, I was struck most forcefully by the incredibly direct and simple style of Butler’s prose—there’s a staggering mastery of the epistolary/diaristic first person mode on display here, which goes a long way to explaining how easily the students parsed Lauren’s complexities. But it’s also Lauren’s nigh-clinical detachment that strips the story of any sense of spectacle, with the arguable exception of the fire-by-the-highway scene that acts as the transition into the final stage of the book, which is all the more striking for its vividness on the page after so many pages of seemingly normalised and dispassionately-described dystopian events and scenery. As with Oryx & Crake, there’s a hint of the biblical about the last part of Sower, but it’s dome very differently to Atwood’s structural satire. Of course, Butler is herein playing a much straighter game with the question of faith than Atwood—straighter, and more subtle. Butler has more compassion for the necessity/inevitability of faith, particularly among oppressed communities, as well as a more nuanced eye on the way it eventually twists into dogma (and makes dogmatists of its adherents); I’m given to believe this comes out a lot more clearly in the sequel Talents.

But damn, the bleakness of this book—more than once I found myself wondering how a book so grim in its inevitabilities could be so readable, even compulsive. (It’s not quite up to the same level as, say, Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, but it’s in a comparable league.) This can’t be put down to any thriller/horror dynamic, either: there’s no titillation, no spectacle. You also know immediately that Lauren is going to survive. As Clute has noted, the first person mode implies that the narrator survives the plot in order to tell the tale (though the epistolary/diaristic form can break that rubric easily enough), but even that aside, you just know: right from the get-go, her status as a stubborn, capable survivor is never in doubt, and presents an interesting blackening and feminising of the Competent Man trope so common to sf and dystopian thrillers alike. But it’s made more complex by her categorical inability to play the “kick-ass heroine” archetype: she can’t just Mad-Max it out due to her hyperempathy, so she has to be survivor, strategist, orator, leader. She quite literally inherits the loquacity of her preacher/teacher father, the skill for framing familiar stories and ideas as homilies, parables… and so it’s ironic that her anti-religion is destined (in Talents) to become a religion much like all the others, but that dynamic is dealt with far more carefully and insightfully by Butler than it might have been by someone from a more secular or outright atheistic background (viz. Atwood).

Also notable for me was the paucity of white characters—not, to be clear, in a “hey, what’s up with all these minorities?” way, but rather in the way that the very unshowy but direct foregrounding of the ethnicities of the cast made me realise (much to my discredit) how rarely I read anything in which the whiteness of a white character is remarkable from the purview of the others. The (almost-all-white, almost-all-Euro) students didn’t remark on this, though they literally cannot have missed it—and they definitely picked up on the slavery theme, and understood where that concern came from for the characters and the author alike. They’ve grow up with a somewhat more diverse media landscape than I did; I’m tempted to take this as en encouraging sign that such things really can make a difference, but again I probably need to correct for the intersectional aspects of the group. (If you wanted a caricature of trainee SJWs, these kids are probably it—and amen to that.) For me, it was probably that threat of (corporatised/company-town) slavery that made the thing feel most relevant to present events, quite beyond the eerie alignment of the dates in the storyline.

It’s a sad thing that this book should (still) be so timely, but that’s where we are. In a telling and somewhat tragic synchronicity, it was announced while I was halfway through the book that Sower had just given Butler her first appearance on the NYT Bestseller list. I strongly suspect that’s down to it having been placed on a very large number of college and university reading lists for the fall semester, by teachers who figured that—under circumstances featuring water shortages, massive fires, vigilantism, mob violence, and the seeming evacuation of even the pretense of democracy from the USian experiment in favour of naked commerce and white supremacy—forewarned might be somewhat forearmed. It’s hard to conclude that they weren’t right to do so.