Tag Archives: climate change

(failed) states of exception

I’ve been an admirer of Christopher Brown’s fiction ever since I bought a two-handed piece for Futurismic that he wrote with Chairman Bruce (“Windsor Executive Solutions”, which is still up and available to read, amazingly enough). I finally got my hands on one of his recent novels back in the spring, and found myself thinking two things, both of which I attributed in some part to the sort of seemingly serendipitous reflections of one’s own ongoing interests that can emerge from a habitual tendency toward overreading—or, to put it more plainly, the tendency for the things that’s you’re reading and thinking about to leak into each other as your forebrain does its work of pattern imposition.

But sometimes, the forebrain gets it right, as with my instinctive tagging of Rule of Capture as a critical-utopian fiction. Here’s Brown in (machine-transcribed?) conversation with Andrew Liptak in the latter’s newsletter:

I come at this from kind of a background of political economy and political theory. I’m really interested in the idea of utopian thinking, I think that most of the political history of the Western world — from the Enlightenment forward — is guided in large part by a series of aspirational utopian visions of how society could be reengineered to create healthier and happier and more just communities, that provided a balance against pragmatic conservatism that sort of sees the world as it is, and assumes as it’s that way for a reason. And that balance produces a certain kind of forward movement around the idea of progress. You saw some of that in our science fiction as well, especially peaking in the 1970s. But then with the so-called End of History, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the arrival of the boom boom years in the 1990s, I think that the only utopian vision that was left was the utopian vision that was also the vision of conservative pragmatism, which was the vision of neoclassical economics and perfect markets — the kind of whiteboard fantasy of how that could be the path to universal improvement of social welfare.

So I was interested in resuscitate in the idea of utopia, of just what would — especially in a moment where I feel like in the current moment, we can’t even get a handle on the present, and the idea of the future is mostly just kind of a amorphous and scary, especially when you factor in climate. And so, what would a future you would actually want to live in look like? And so that’s sort of the problem it’s trying to tackle as a narrative problem. It is, in many respects, much more challenging than writing dystopias for a lot of different reasons, including the fact that as a writer, utopia is kind of like the Talking Heads song “Heaven”: a place where nothing ever happens.

“[W]hat would a future you would actually want to live in look like?” is exactly the question that informed the recently-released Rough Planet Guide to Notterdam 2045 (about which I keep meaning to write in greater detail, now that it’s actually out in the world); to put it another way, I’m trying to port that understanding that Brown describes (and which shows up in le Guin and others, and in utopian thinkers both prior and subsequent to them) into the rhetorics of (social) science communications, in order to get away from the solutionist and information-deficit paradigms of talking about climate adaptation and mitigation and instead describe plausibly flawed futures in which we haven’t fixed everything, but we’ve nonetheless fixed something, even though we’ve likely uncovered more problems along the way. Which we might think of as science fiction with a sense of political economy, as Brown puts it above… which is also by implication science fiction with a sense of history, a discipline with which the genre more broadly has had a rather instrumentalist relationship, in such cases as it has had a relationship with it at all.

The other thing that I thought about Rule of Capture, to the extent of writing it in my margin notes a number of times, was that it was very engaged with the Agembenian state of exception, albeit quite possibly avant la lettre. Elsewhere in this interview Brown talks about the long legacy of the (still ongoing) state of exception instigated as a response to 9/11 in the US, which is the canonical example (and the one which effectively made Agamben’s career, albeit in a way I expect he’d have preferred to have never happened); given his stated interest in political theory, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that Brown’s at least passing familiar with the same theoretical edifice which, for an assortment of reasons, I was exploring with an online reading group of former colleagues from Sheffield over the summer. Maybe I should just drop him a line and ask him…

Also worth a read is Brown’s recent essay at Tor.com, a slightly more generalist take on the same themes… which offers a polite rejoinder to the blaming of dystopian fictions for dystopian outcomes.

One reason the real world feels yoked to our dystopian imagination may be the failure of other science fictional futures to deliver the goods. The techno-utopian Tomorrowland 20th century science fiction promised us this century would bring turned out to be something much darker. Real life never lives up to the movie version our popular culture and politics teach us to expect. The “End of History” and the birth of the World Wide Web promised us a cyber-utopia of peace, progress and prosperity just around the corner, but the first two decades of the 21st century delivered a very different story, from 9/11 and its dark aftermath to the financial crisis and the resurgence of ethno-nationalism. Now our response to the pandemic has the world looking at the U.S. as a declining nation with some of the characteristics of a failed state. You can’t blame science fiction dystopias for all that, any more than you can blame the mirror for how you look in the morning

Then there’s the novels themselves, which I can confidently recommend on the basis of Rule of Capture alone. Brown’s newsletter is also well worth the sub; less pessimistic than unflinchingly realistic, but leavened with an attentive eye for the environment, as well as hints of that critical-utopian yearning. It’s one of the few newsletters that reliably gets read on the day it arrives in my inbox.

collecting for the collective

Got yer weak signals right here, guv:

Called B-Wa(h)renhaus (an untranslatable pun meaning both department store and “conserving house”), the store covers over 7,000 square feet and sells used and upcycled clothing, furniture, phones and other electronics. In an attempt to reach beyond the usual people who already patronize secondhand shops, the store’s location is also significant: It’s not in an especially hip location, or a flea market known for knock-down prices, but within one of Berlin’s most established, middle-of-the-road department stores.

The new store’s initial six-month run will be on the third floor of the Kreuzberg neighborhood’s well-known Karstadt department store, but the city’s plans to sponsor its own re-use stores extend way beyond that time limit. The city says that it aims to open three or four re-use stores across Berlin in the near future. Its longer-term ambition, according to the city’s 2020-2030 waste master plan, is to launch a store in every one of Berlin’s 12 boroughs.

These city-run stores (which already have one-off, smaller-scale counterparts in cities including Hamburg and Vienna) won’t just be standard secondhand markets designed to save useable goods from going to landfill sites. According to the city’s press release, Berlin hopes to use the stores to “anchor the re-use of used goods in urban society” by functioning as centers to educate and spread tips on re-use — especially to sections of the public that aren’t currently much involved in the circular economy. The initiative is part of a broader plan from Berlin’s ruling center-left/Green/left coalition that looks to slash waste in all areas of the city’s economy. 

This is a form of scaling up I could happily get behind; the city-state is the ideal scale for this sort of operation, because the material logistics needed to centralise the stock can be made pretty efficient. It’s notable that the city is actually collecting the stuff rather than simply taking donations; the article doesn’t mention it, but I dare say that they’ll save whatever they’re spending on those collections through a reduction in flytipping. The article also doesn’t mention whether they have a delivery option; I’m guessing there must be one, given Berlin’s the sort of city where a lot of folk go without owning a car.

(All the second-hand stores in Malmö—which are not state-run, but predominantly charity-based operations—do affordable delivery, or at least the ones that carry furniture. And you can get some surprisingly good stuff for surprisingly low prices… almost all the furniture in my apartment which didn’t come over with me has come out of second-hand stores, or from a loppis, which is basically the Swedish word for a yard-sale. It helps that Malmö, much like Berlin, is a very left-leaning town; where one finds batikhäxorna, there too will one find bargains.)

The Berlin thing chimes with a bit toward the end of Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, which I was re-reading last week:

“… in making recycling the responsibility of ‘everyone’, structure contracts out its responsibility to consumers, by itself receding into invisibility […] Instead of saying that everyone—i.e. every one—is responsible for climate change, we all have to do our bit, it would be better to say that no-one is [responsible], and that’s the very problem. The cause of eco-catastrophe is an impersonal structure which, even though it is capable of producing all manner of effects, is precisely not a subject capable of exercising responsibility. The required subject—a collective subject—does not exist, yet the crisis, like all the other crises we’re now facing, demands that it be constructed.” — p66

OK, so “world’s hipster capital opens state-run thrift-store” is not exactly a epochal change in terms of the quantitative impact of consumerism—though I’d argue it’s still far better than nothing. But beyond that, it’s a sign of governmental structures—heavily-left-leaning ones, admittedly—stepping up to be the face and the logistical infrastructure of that collective subject that Fisher’s talking about above; it’s the State de-cloaking, taking responsibility, getting its hands dirty, and (assuming I’m not misparsing him on the basis of a very quick skim of the latest immense tranche of words he released) trying to grapple with the slowdown economics that Dan Hill has been thinking so hard about all summer long.

Oh, and there’s one more thing missing from that article which took me a while to notice: there’s no mention of an app. Even if there is one, and it just didn’t merit inclusion in the press release, I think that’s a weak signal in its own right—particularly in the context of a tech-heavy city like Berlin. The first cracks in the facade of solutionism? Well, a guy can dream…

defeat the dread

Good chewy long-read from Cennydd Bowles, starting with a look at the ongoing situation (and a zinger of an opening line), and building out to a measured and respectful but nonetheless pointed dig at the futures industry:

For too long we’ve been serving the wrong goals: helping large multinationals and tech giants accrue more power and wealth at the expense of other actors, contributing to the atomisation of society by designing products for individual fulfilment ahead of the wellbeing of our communities. Our rethought world will need to prioritise people and societies, ecologies and environments, ahead of profit and productivity. If you use this crisis to thought-prophesise about the new era ahead, don’t you dare return to your cosy consulting gig with Palantir or Shell afterward. Own your impact. Act in the interests of this better world you espouse, and withdraw your support for the forces that brought us to the brink.

Selah. (Though it goes without saying that it’s yer Palantirs and yer Shells who are most likely to have the money to hire people after this sitch calms down some… and those who’ve taken their money before are unlikely to have too many qualms about taking it again.)

Setting my cynicism about the consultancy sector aside, Cennyd has a riff near the end that’s a timely reminder to me in the wake of yesterday’s long post about hope in the context of climate change:

… we will not succeed by simply evangelising our own paternalistic, privileged messages of hope upon others. We won’t convince others that we can conquer the climate crisis by pointing to our previous models of utopias yet unrealised. The only sustainable way to defeat dread is to give people the skills and the powers to forge their own preferable futures. Hope comes from communities, not from experts; it arises with empowerment and inclusivity, not the promises of politicians.

This is exactly the sort of work my postdoc project is intended to do, as luck would have it. But I need to remember that for “hope” to have a concrete meaning and manifestation, I have to come down out of the theoretical tower and do the work. That will be counter to my customs, certainly, but I’m confident—hopeful, even—that it’s not counter to my instincts.

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. ]

the new normal is that there is no normal

15th January 2020, Sheffield; the Beeb (and all other sources I’ve checked) suggesting a peak temperature of 12 or 13°C* this evening. I think I can recall a single night over the last two or three months during which there was a mild frost.

Are you worried yet? Because you fucking well should be.

[ * Edit: I initially mistyped the temperatures as higher — 15 or 16°C — than they were. I’d argue that the lower, truer forecasts are not a lot less worrying. ]