Category Archives: Social Theory

“A sterile and decontextualised narrative”: Grossi & Pianezzi (2017), Smart cities: Utopia or neoliberal ideology?

  • Grossi, G., & Pianezzi, D. (2017). “Smart cities: Utopia or neoliberal ideology?”. Cities, 69, 79-85.

Pretty simple paper, this one, in the sense that it does exactly what it says on the tin; the specific case (Genoa, Italy) is not of great relevance to me right now, but I want to drag some quotes out of it and into the reading journal here in order to make citing and glossing it easier in future. This is made easy by its clear restatement(s) of the basic point… there’s also a pretty comprehensive lit review in there, though, so a good jump-off point if you wanted to dig deeper into the bloated floating signifier that is the “smart city”. (Insert old joke about wrestling a pig here.)

So, yeah: the top-line gloss would be that “there is a high level of agreement in the literature that there is as yet no common definition of a smart city”, and further that “despite private corporations and cities promoting the smart city as a revolutionary utopia, this paradigm is an expression of the neoliberal ideology” (p79).

After a (very) quick historical tour of the utopian concept, the authors arrive at Bloch’s notion of the “concrete utopia”, as distinct from the “abstract utopia”, and gloss the former as “a project connected with reality that leads citizens forward into historical transformation and social revolution” (p80). They then argue that a bunch of authors have identified the “smart city” as being a Blochean concrete utopia—though I know at least two of the papers that they cite as evidence for this claim (one of which I have already annotated here), and they do no such thing. I wonder if some subtlety of argument has been lost in translation, though, because it would be fair to say that the “smart city” trope self-identifies as a concrete utopia… and if we carry that reading forward, the rest of the paper still makes perfect sense, as the authors go on to note that “when translated into practice, the smart city utopia often conflicts with its aspirations” (p80), which is (in my own reading, at least) a significant part of the point that Söderström, Paache & Klauser were making.

There follows some referencing of Lovable Marxist Granddad David Harvey (one of whose works will be annotated here imminently, and not at all coincidentally) in order to delineate a dialectic between utopia and ideology. This leads up to a restatement of the paper’s main point, namely that “the smart city utopia is a fundamental facet of the neoliberal contemporary ideology” (p80), which az eny fule kno is about the penetration of market-fundamentalist logics into every aspect of life; e.g., “the diffusion of city rankings that measure the ‘smartness’ of cities is an example of the disciplinary and normalising power of neoliberalism to generate competition among cities by transforming their difference in deviances from a norm of smartness assumed to be best practices” (ibid.)—is a long-winded way of saying that the “smart city” trope sets up a nebulous and techno-utopian standard against which all cities are implicitly measured and, inevitably, found wanting. The paradigm is heavily focussed on the handing-over of the “management” of cities to privately-owned tech firms, which (no surprises for those of you following along at home) “results in the adoption of a profit-oriented approach and in an increasing involvement of private actors, holders of innovation and technological knowledge” (ibid.). Leaning on a classic Swyngedouw paper (2005), the authors note that enacting the “smart city” trope as (re)produced by its manifold advocates “may lead to a privatization of decision making and an exercise of power insulated from democratic accountability” (p81); an unbolted stable door through which numerous horses would appear to have already escaped. There’s another quotable riff later on, where they note that “the smart city discourse describes citizens as consumers rather than as political actors” (p84).

Middle section sets out a methodology based on Habermas’s “depth hermeneutics” (which I don’t know much about—but given it seems to involve Bakhtinian ideas about languages as structures of/for social philosophies, I probably should do), and looks at the case of flooding crises in Genoa, and the ways in which “smart city” rhetorics there have both devolved responsibility for amok urbanisation (manifest in part via the enthusiastic covering of historical floodplains with fancy new building projects), and explicitly called for predictive modelling and measurement to enable competitive development practices to continue apace. To label this as a neoliberal project is about as non-controversial as it gets—unless of course your audience is of the sort that objects to the existence of the term in and of itself (which is to say, unless your audience is itself ideologically oriented to neoliberalism).

A good clear summary in the conclusions section (which kinda confirms my feeling that they’ve misread Söderström and friends, who were making pretty much the same points, absent the particular focus on the N-word):

The smart city utopia serves the interests of of big multinational ICT companies, while neglecting the need of political (not only technological) answers to public and common interests. It conveys neoliberal values and shapes urban problems by making visible some aspects while at the same time obscuring others. Thus, the emphasis on fancy technological solutions risks diverting attention away from issues, such as the broad impact of urbanization, that require a long-term “urban-planning based” approach driven by the political willingness of municipalities. […] What the promoters of smart city [sic] claim to be a concrete utopia proves to be on the contrary an abstract utopia, a sterile and decontextualised narrative that preserves existing relations of power, rather than challenging them.”

(p84)

Pretty simple; not the most original paper in theoretical terms, but then they do note that part of their aim is to take a predominantly theoretical critique into a more empirical territory via the Genoan case-study, which I guess they achieve.

But it’s got some useful quotes for an ongoing project, though, which I dare say will come in handy again if the zombie meme that is the “smart city” stumbles on into the post C19 world… which seems all too likely, given the enthusiastic embrace of privately-provided technological surveillance measures for infection control. What could possibly go wrong?

neither unprecedented nor revolutionary / bioethics, biopower and the pandemic

OK, this is gonna be a long one. And if the C19 situation is fraught for you, then consider this a content warning—I’m going to talk about mortality and our societal attitudes to such.

I’ve been wanting to write something like this for a good few weeks, but have frankly been too much of a coward to do so. I’m only now stepping into the arena because I can follow in the footsteps of Silvia Camporesi, an bioethicist currently under lockdown with her newborn child in Northern Italy. After setting the stage in the present, Camporesi returns us to the pivotal moment of serious outbreak, and to a well-intended attempt at medico-ethical transparency which ran afoul of the polarising morality-machine of media in an age of attention economics.

The document [that the Italian College of Anaesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care] released in early March aimed to guarantee ventilators for patients with the highest probability of therapeutic success – that is, those with the ‘highest hope of survival’. The criteria adopted were utilitarian: age and pre-existing medical conditions were factors that pushed a patient down the line.

The document provoked an uproar. The media feasted on it, spreading the panic. The situation in Italy was certainly exceptional due to the sheer number of cases presenting themselves each day. It’s likely the first time that many of these doctors, especially the younger ones, were being faced with such harrowing choices. Yet, from an ethical point of view, the document was neither unprecedented nor revolutionary.

She goes on to compare the triage process to that used in deciding how to distribute organ transplants, while pointing out a significant difference, in that folk in need of transplants can conceivably sit in a holding pattern for some time before a suitable donor is found; a C19 patient may die very fast if they can’t be given a ventilator.

But here’s the important bit:

The fact that we Italians think that these decisions are exceptional reveals the ways that our privilege has concealed the reality of finite healthcare resources. One of my bioethics students, Caitlin Gardiner, is also an Accident and Emergency (A&E) doctor in the UK. She reminded me that, in her native South Africa, such balancing acts are the norm. There, as she told me, only the tiniest fraction of patients who are ‘not too sick’ – that is, not too old, not living with HIV/AIDS, not too ill or too premature, if they’re babies – get to receive intensive care. And death from tuberculosis (another infectious respiratory disease), after being denied access to intensive care, is entirely normal. There are lessons to be learnt from the Global South, such as how to have humane but open discussions about prioritising patients. It’s best to have this kind of conversation in a non-emergency situation, when the emotions of patients, relatives and clinicians aren’t running quite so high. Arguably, we should talk not just about whom to intubate, but also about when to withdraw ventilation if a patient with a better chance of survival were to arrive. Beyond the context of a pandemic, developed countries don’t typically face these quandaries, which explains the moral distress on the COVID-19 wards in northern Italy, where doctors and nurses have been reported weeping in the hallways.

Camporesi goes on to discuss the intergenerational dimensions of the lockdown responses, whereby (to simplify a great deal) the young and less-at-risk are being cooped up and, in many cases, put in a situation where their already precarious employment circumstances are totally hosed—this being the same generation that (unavoidably) will have to pay off the debt incurred by the lockdown response in taxes and (more likely than not) endure yet more years of austerity in state provision. She also points out that the evidence that any of this will be any more effective at dealing with the virus in the long term (by comparison to, say, the Swedish approach) is extremely thin, to the point of being almost entirely based on speculative models assembled quickly for an audience of policymakers—i.e. for people whose working notion of futurity is rigidly delimited by the current electoral cycle.

For the sake of clarity, this is not to endorse the UK government’s much-discussed early-phase “herd immunity” strategy; I’m not doing that, and I’m pretty sure that Camporesi isn’t, either. (Nor is it to side with the misinformed rent-a-mobs besieging statehouses in the US—though there is perhaps at least one level on which we should sympathise with them, even while believing their actions to have been purposefully misguided by manipulative hucksters and shills.) The point is to get beyond the prevailing moral binaries and start grappling with the really tricky shit… and we can start by reiterating a crucial distinction which is getting lost in the discourse. To re-quote Camporesi again:

The fact that we […] think that these decisions are exceptional reveals the ways that our privilege has concealed the reality of finite healthcare resources.

Over the last fifty or sixty years, those of us with the privilege to be among the middle class of the Global North have grown accustomed to the idea that no one has to die before their time. That idea is illusory on two levels.

Firstly, it relies on a quantitative metric whereby the goodness of a life is measured by its length. This contradiction has its ultimate expression in the absurd and tragic immortalist aspirations of the transhumanists, and is tied up with the logic of accumulation: if capitalism is the game of seeing who gets to die with the most stuff, then the longer you’re in the game, the better chance you have of placing high on the leader-board. But the contradiction at the heart of that morality is manifest in privatised and for-profit provision of social care, an oxymoronic project in which miserable conditions for workers and inmates alike do little to disguise the extractive logic of the underlying system. The fact that it is this same for-profit system of social care where so many of the C19 deaths are concentrated is perhaps the grimmest irony I’ve ever encountered in my life so far.

The second level of illusion was pointed out by Camporesi further up. It’s never been that “no one” should die before their time, it’s that no one like us should die before their time—nice white middle-class people with money. Outside of the Global North, people die “before their time” all the fucking time—indeed, increasing numbers of them die in the course of their trying to get into the Global North. But that doesn’t merit much of a response, save either fleeting feelings of pathos which can be alleviated by charitable donations, or a more callous (but in some respects more honest) dismissal of those lives as being less deserving of duration.

It is the collision of these two illusions, and their simultaneous shattering by an Outside Context Problem which has demonstrated that a system over-optimised to the point that it has no slack is a system with no long-term resilience, that is causing the ongoing epistemic rupture. The grief over loved lives lost is real, and a significant part of the societal trauma, but there is another level of grief at play as well—namely the grieving of the shattered imaginary world in which this sort of thing wasn’t meant to be possible: the grief for deaths, but also the grief for the rediscovery of death in the abstract as an implacable and fundamentally unfair aspect of being alive. Death doesn’t care about your class, your education, about where you were born or how hard you worked. Death just ends you anyway. And our ability to assume otherwise is, to reiterate, a pretty recent (and unevenly distributed) thing, as Hugh Pennington’s memories of the all-but-forgotten flu pandemics of the late 1950s and early 1960s make clear.

I am a socialist. I believe that the entire point of a collectivised healthcare system is to minimise the inevitable suffering of our mortal existence, and to distribute what suffering cannot be done away with as fairly as possible, without regard to the privilege of circumstance. That neoliberalism has twisted that ideal into this lottery of misery is beyond tragic, and has made me very angry for a long time. The C19 situation has only amplified that anger. I am not for a moment suggesting that the UK government’s herd-immunity approach was ethically valid.

But I think it’s long overdue that the reasons for its ethical invalidity were discussed truthfully. Yes, to have followed that strategy would have resulted in far greater numbers of deaths than are even now currently occuring—but that scale of deadliness is in no small part a function of the socioeconomic structuring of UK society as currently constituted. As the experiences of Germany and other countries have shown very clearly, the rate of mortality could be much lower—and that’s nothing to do with the virus itself, but rather the systems in place to deal with such an eventuality.

And so you get the UK lockdown situation, where the vast majority of people accept the need to endure the restrictions so as to minimise the deaths and suffering that would result from a less draconian response—because contrary to the Hobbesean mythology at the heart of liberalism, people are for the most part decent and compassionate, and would hate to think that they’d caused someone else to suffer through their (in)actions. But you also get a very successful manipulation of the narrative by the government, whereby the real and genuine horror of the consequences is positioned in such a way as to obscure the cause of their scale—a cause which was always-already political.

It is entirely right, and entirely human, to grieve for the deaths and suffering of individuals who contract a symptomatic case of C19. It is also entirely right, and entirely human, to point out and decry the systematic and wilful mismanagement of the social contract that has resulted in the number of those deaths being so huge, and to question what might be the long-term consequences of the panicked yet still highly performative and politicised responses to that circumstance; it is not a question of either/or, but a question of and/also. By keeping the focus on the immediate catastrophe, those same people whose actions have made the scale of the catastrophe possible are laying a trail down which they will abscond from responsibility, not just for the catastrophe itself, but for the decades-long aftermath to follow.

(And if that sounds cynical, well, hey: I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain, and then came of age in the ideological vacuum of Blair’s. I’ve seen the successful adaptations that neoliberalism selects for, and the vast majority of the current crop—on both sides of the house—seem like some tiny Pacific island crowded with moral mutants, the halting state of a game to determine who can best compartmentalise their own humanity in order to secure and hold an abstract notion of power for its own sake. None of them ever saw a catastrophe they didn’t fancy themselves fit to manage, because you don’t even make it onto the island if you don’t turn up with that mindset already fully internalised. I know we’re supposed to hate the game rather than the player, but I’ve rather lost patience with that position of late.)

It is my hope that the C19 crisis might do something to dispel the illusion of immortality that capitalism confers upon the privileged. This is not because I somehow relish the thought of people dying, or consider it “necessary”; if you’re looking for the social Darwinists in this situation, you should be looking at the architects of the lockdown, who are quite willing to exploit our emotional response (and, it seems, doing a bang-up job of it, too) in order to get away with retaining their own grasp on power.

Rather, I hope we learn to become more accepting of the uncaring randomness of mortality for two reasons. On an individual level, I think it might serve to make us more appreciative of the time we get—and in a world where pandemics like this are likely to be an increasingly regular event, staged against the unfolding deep-time catastrophe of as-yet all-but-unadressed climate change, we’re going to need that ability to live for the moment.

But on the societal level, I believe that we need to get reacquainted with the randomness of mortality because it serves to remind us that, whether within privileged societies or more globally, the current distribution of death and suffering—and indeed of risk more generally—is mapped by class and race and gender.

We cannot defeat death. But we can seek to distribute it without making tacit decisions about who is more deserving of life—and the first step to doing that is accepting that we cannot expect to be kept alive forever, and that the quality of the time we get matters more than the quantity.

I don’t want older people to die in lonely agony for the sake of corporate profits and political advantage. Nor do I want younger people to live straitened lives of penury and panoptic sousveillance against a backdrop of ecological collapse.

Morality is easy. Ethics is hard.

synthesis is an ever-complicating process

Here’s a gloriously rambling thing from Matt Colquhoun that starts off talking about dialectics. Hence my choice of title—I’m currently undergoing a sort of dialectics of my understanding of dialectics (if that’s not too pompously meta a way of putting it), and I keep getting sychronicitous little gifts of other people’s thought, like this one, that arrive just at the right moment to prod me along.

The piece wanders around to Colquhoun talking about what his new book was (in part) an attempt to do, where this bit leapt out at me:

A death is one of those moments — if not the only true moment — where a person’s thought really starts to come apart from within. Without a self to maintain the boundaries, all sorts of things start flying out of it. And what we see emerging on the left, when faced with Mark’s posthumously rendered thought in particular, is either an attempt to cancel Mark outright or instead just a sheering off of his work’s unattractive bits. Either Mark doesn’t deserve any attention whatsoever because he wrote an essay like “Exiting the Vampire Castle” or we shouldn’t talk about that essay and just focus on the nice bits about party political organising.

Mark was so much more than either of those things. And this isn’t just because Mark was some great and complex thinker but because he was human. This kind of complexity is present within everyone. But today we live in a culture that rejects this absolutely, on the most mundane level which, I think, is the most damaging. Like, most will reject an argument like this with alarmist examples like the fact someone can be a member of the communist party and they can also be an abuser. That’s a alarmist contradiction of a certain type and one that must be cut out without a second thought. Of course I agree that abusers and bullies are really bad, and I have no interest in affirming their existence, and I’d be quite content bullying them out of the things I hold dear, but today we find people can be excommunicated for having far less troublesome contradictory thoughts than these. You can find yourself socially shadowbanned for simply not following The Narrative, and the people who will deplore this kind of whingeing the most are, of course, those involve in the sorts of institutions that maintain the narrative, whatever it may be.

I hadn’t read the infamous Vampire Castle piece before I bailed on social media, but when I finally did read it, I recognised in it not so much my own experience but the fears and anxieties that had been building up in me for some time before. Perhaps it’s indicative of a particular twisted form of narcissism (or, indeed, of the acute case of mental dysfunction I was going through), but at the time I was less worried about by being censured for broaching The Narrative than I was of finding myself pinned into a caricature of my own ideas. It took a while to realise that those are two sides of the same coin, and furthermore that the phenomenon is ubiquitous, albeit variable in degree depending on where you’re looking.

(And now I’m intrigued by the possibility that I preemptively shadowbanned myself, on the basis of an emotional calculus whereby it’s somehow less painful to exile yourself than to face the possibility, however marginal, of being exiled.)

It’s an indication of just how persistent and wide-reaching the issue is that—even now, even here, on this all-but-unread blog—I feel the need to caveat that point with a statement to the effect that “of course I’m not saying that Twitter is the problem, or that I have all the answers, or…”. So perhaps my synthetic path is to henceforth abjure further such abjurations in my work and in myself… which is easier said than done, given the extent to which those anxieties are a core feature of my psyche, and have been for as long as I can recall.

But nothing worth doing is ever easy, is it?

amphibiosis / the war against viruses will not take place

A fairly Harawayian staying-with-the-trouble perspective on the politics of this pandemic and all the other pandemics yet to come, from Charlotte Brives:

It is not against viruses that we should be waging a war, but against the political and economic systems which, far from being conceived as protection against the precarity (this itself being variable!) of human and non-human lives, use it and accentuate it because it is inherent and indispensable to the domination of neoliberalism and its way of operating. But these systems accelerate both the production of pathogenic agents, thanks to the industrialisation of farming and agriculture, and their dissemination, thanks to highly intensified exchanges within the general interconnectedness of spaces. Systemic standardization is incompatible with amphibiosis – with the amphibiotic condition of living beings.

[…]

If there is any meaning to the idea of political ecology, it’s about seizing on the diversity of the common futures of humans and the multiplicity of other living entities, in order to establish other conceptions of living environments long devastated by current economic systems. This will require using whatever administrative means necessary to act against the harmful effects of industry and mad financial logic, for example, and in favour of restoring adept public health services (with the budget and tax implications that entails). Our futures, which we necessarily share with others (human and non-human), depend on it. Because the next virus will be different. And our response to its emergence needs to be different as well.

necessary but not sufficient; on hope and optimism in solarpunk and cyberpunk

Start with a disclaimer: I do not identify as a solarpunk. However, I do know some folk who do—most notably m’good buddy Jay Springett, who is one of that scene’s ideologues-in-chief, in as much as it has such things.

I also know some folk who study solarpunk from the perspective of the environmental humanities (EH), which is a discipline which overlaps somewhat with whatever the hell it is that counts for my own (un)discipline. For me (and I think for some of the EH people), solarpunk represents a predominantly (though, as Jay would point out, not at all exclusively) literary attempt to construct utopian imaginaries of climate-change adaptation achieved predominantly through the deployment of non-fossil energy generation technologies, plus a grab-bag of sociopolitical approaches which range from the full tech-bro-topia, to something that looks a lot like a form of degrowth as forced by an apocalyptic and out-of-frame climate Event. Heretofore, solarpunk has struggled to establish itself as a successful subgenre in commercial terms—though I am given to understand this is not really the point of it for “movement solarpunks”.

Part of the problem is that the development of literary form has rendered the classical utopian mode archaic and uninteresting to anyone not predisposed to its underlying theory: put more simply, classical utopias just don’t do the things that most readers want and expect a novel to do (which, at the risk of being reductive, is to depict characters struggling against obstacles to achieve goals, often in some derivation of the Hero’s Journey or similar metanarratives). The technological utopian mode, which dominated sf for most of the twentieth century, still has a significant (if dwindling and greying) fanbase, but it’s founded on the notion that all challenges are soluble through predominantly technological means without significant reconfiguration of the dominant socioeconomic and political backdrop; to be reductive again, the technological utopia is about depicting the successful human mastery of nature through the dynamics of capitalist production. As I understand it, solarpunk clings to a technological-utopian ideal—it’s very much about depicting desirable futures enabled by technological means. But its tacit admission that climate change is not only caused by the consequences of technocapitalism, but also cannot be fully “solved” by it, means it can’t “fit” into the expectations of the technological utopian modality—which means it won’t sell to the grey fans of what Clute has called “the ‘old’ [or twentieth-century] sf”, in which “the future is the reward for saying ‘yes'”.

Dystopia, as any glance at the bookstore shelves—or Twitter, for that matter—still sells pretty well. There’s a long-running debate as to the ethics and morality of producing dystopic literatures in response to a challenge such as climate change that I don’t want to get into here, except to say that I’m largely in agreement with Ryan Oakley when he says “what the fuck is the point of writing dystopia if not to try to prevent it?”, and that I find Peter Watts’s wallowing in fatalism to be a great disappointment, coming as it does from someone who is both a brilliant writer and far more scientifically clued up than even the average sf author*. To be clear, I’m not in denial about the scale of the challenge—though there are days I wish that I could be, it’s a hazard of my profession, just as it is for Watts. It’s more that I suspect the climate defeatism is in a way almost as pernicious as climate denialism. With apologies for resorting to cliche: to try is to invite failure, but to not try is to ensure it.

All of which brings me to Nader Elhefnawy’s review of a new solarpunk antho at Strange Horizons. Now, to be clear, I’ve not read the book, nor indeed much solarpunk fiction; my interest here is less with the literature itself, and more the professed ideals of the movement which surround it. What first interested me about Elhefnawy’s piece was that we appear to be in agreement on the defeatism issue—Elhefnawy suggests that it’s a function of the manufacture of consent, which I suspect is at least in part true. (Though the case of Watts suggests there’s something in that particular imaginary that appeals even to those who are very aware of the scope of the climate challenge, to the extent that they will reproduce and spread it.)

Where we part ways—and where Elhefnawy, Watts and I perhaps begin to form a triangle of positions, rather than merely a binary—is in the conflation of optimism and hope. This conflation is pretty widespread, as indicated by the backlash and mockery piled upon the notion of hopepunk—which, admittedly, was a terribly corny name (though I suspect it was intended as a deliberately ironic construction, a riff perhaps upon solarpunk itself, which went on to be misparsed in the prevailing cultural vibe of the New Sincerity). But the original hopepunk pitch very clearly abjured optimism. That was the whole point: that optimism is passive (in much the same way that pessimism/defeatism is passive), but that hope is (self-)motivating, an action rather than a position: to hope for a better future is to look for ways in which you might work to bring it into being.

I’m in agreement with Elhefnawy’s insistence that reducing climate change to a singular Event in the distant past of a narrative is counterproductive to solarpunk’s supposed ideals—indeed, it’s a kind of pessimism, as well as a rejection of the fundamentally dynamic notion of ecosystems that does no favours to anyone who really wants to work for that better future. (If you assume that the climate might be “fixed” or returned to some notional idealised earlier state, by technological means or otherwise, then you’re just reproducing the social/natural dichotomy that enables the ongoing externalisation of said climate by propping up the dogma of perpetual growth.)

I also agree that there is a necessity for imaginaries which “[present] the possibility of a positive response to the problem, and acknowledging something of what it calls for—technology, organization, global scale”, as Elhefnawy puts it. But while I see those things as necessary, I do not see them as sufficient—and furthermore, I suspect that those things cannot be achieved without the smaller-scale community reconfigurations which solarpunk stories have heretofore focussed upon. That they haven’t yet done so in a manner that makes for good literature, nor often done so in a manner which recognises the linkage between the local and the global, between the individual and the systemic (which is, of course, the infrastructural metasystem), is a deficiency—but Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that some solarpunk authors are edging in that direction, albeit very gradually.

It seems to me that Elhefnawy is caught in the rubble of “the ‘old’ sf”, the literature of an older technoutopian metaimaginary: he recognises the poisonous legacy of technoutopianism (as seen in his rejection of defeatism as a fossil-sponsored narrative), but is still trapped by the legacy solutionisms of technological change and global governance as the only answer to the problem, and the route toward “the rejection of ‘the inevitability of our doom'”.

In other words, Elhefnawy seems to share at some level that same assumption that the problem can be “fixed”, when in fact the challenge is to adapt to a world in which a significant (but as yet not fully quantified or qualified) amount of environmental change is already a fait accompli. We could turn of every spigot of greenhouse gases today, and we’d still have perhaps a century or more of climate change to come, albeit change of a gradually lessening intensity. And even then, the new state into which the ecosystem settled would no be “how it was before we started with the fossils”—nor indeed would it be “settled”, as this is not how ecosystems work. They are in constant complex motion, even when seemingly in equilibrium as seen from the tiny temporal scale which our mortal monkey brains provide us. To be clear, we can—and should—still work for mitigation, and we should do so through global organisation to whatever extent that is possible. But more pressing for the vast majority of human and non-human beings on this planet is the challenge of adapting to what’s already in the pipe… and on that front, technological solutions (in the commonly-used sense of “novel” “entrepreneurial” “innovations”) and top-down governance aren’t going to do much good.

For regular readers, it will be no surprise that I think that solarpunk has the potential to be a subgenre that operatisonalises the critical-utopian mode—though whether that will necessarily make it commercially viable is another question, and perhaps to some extent beside the point. Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that the authors are not not there yet, but also that the audience isn’t quite ready for it either; while both authors and audience instinctively recognise the necessity of hope, it remains conflated with the legacy of twentieth century sf’s passive and solutionist techno-optimism.

However, I’m starting to think that the precursors of the critical-utopian modality I’m looking for have been hiding in plain sight all along, disguised by a misparsing of anything that isn’t necessarily (techno)utopian as being therefore dystopian. It’s not a fashionable thing to say in this day and age, but the better writers and writings of cyberpunk seem to me to have been grappling with the challenges of adaptation to neoliberal capitalism run amok all along (rather than celebrating it, as seems to be the prevalent critical position, at least in the more fannish ends of the critical junket); that those challenges were not always exclusively ecological-environmental is, if anything, a prop to my assumption. Think of stories like Sterling’s “Green Days in Brunei” or “Bicycle Repairman”: I’d say they’re clearly solarpunk, albeit very much avant le lettre. Or at least I see them as being what solarpunk claims it wants to be… and what it might become when it sheds the techno-optimistic legacy and sees more clearly what the challenges really are.

[ * I also find it a bit jarring that someone so very certain that the climate is hosed will still fly around the world to consultancy events to deliver his doomer prophecy… though I guess if you think there’s no chance of changing anything, then you might as well carbon-party like it’s 1999. It’s a shame; he’d be a great ally to the cause of hope, if he could bring himself to have some. ]