Tag Archives: climate change

Flygskam

At the NYRB:

Non-flying academics can’t help but notice a conspicuous tension between, on the one hand, the espoused values of universities and professors, and, on the other, the flying behavior that is condoned, incentivized, and relished at their institutions. Professors are not especially highly paid, considering their educational credentials, and getting flown out to give talks and hobnob at conferences in destinations such as Berlin, Bangkok, or Johannesburg is a major perk of the job. At the same time, even if they would prefer to stay put, junior faculty members feel pressure to travel, in order to schmooze with colleagues and promote their work.

With their petition, which currently has signatures from more than 600 academics, Wilde and Nevins ask both universities and professional associations to take steps to modify this system. One idea they propose is the “regional hub” conference model, in which academics would congregate in their respective regions for personal connections and use video-conferencing to interact with other hubs. A few of these associations have begun to consider experiments with the conference model, which, after all, has remained static for decades—why shouldn’t it change in the face of both new technological options and new environmental imperatives?

If we took a fraction of the money spent on aviation engineering research — or a fraction-of-a-fraction of what Muskrat and Bozos et al are pissing away on their exoplanetary colonisation efforts — and threw it at the challenge of dragging videoconferencing out of the glitchy uncanny-valley hellscape where it still resides, the need for conferences would effectively disappear.

One problem being, as this this article points out, that the desire for conferences would not disappear. We academics are certainly part of the problem, but the globetrotting suits of capitalism are a far bigger one — and it’s far more about status for them than it is for the rest of us, as anyone who’s ever been upgraded to business class should be well aware.

(I’ve been a non-flyer for about three years now — with one exception for a job interview in the Netherlands last year for which there just wasn’t enough notice to arrange for trains — and it’s less of a sacrifice for me, because I utterly loathe flying, for an assortment of mental health-related reasons. But what’s been interesting to note is that when I’m asked why I don’t fly, if I say it’s because flying makes me crazy, no one bats an eyelid; but if I say it’s for ethical reasons, it’s like I opened Pandora’s box, and all the justifications come pouring out. As one respondent in the article notes, refusing to fly for ethical reasons sends a signal — and that signal really does elicit a reaction.)

The other problem is manifest in the multiple diasporae of immigration: how will those hard-working people see their far-flung families if not by flying? I don’t have a good answer for that — but while it’s qualitatively and quantitatively different to academics and businesspersons flying for work, it’s still an expectation of mobility which, historically speaking, is hugely anomalous, even within the timespan of my own lifetime.

The movement of mass through timespace is the basic function of all infrastructure; the faster and/or further that mass moves, the more damaging the movement is environmentally. That expectation has to end, one way or the other.

La sagesse de l’Oncle Bruno

Bruno Latour [BL] and Nickolaj Schultz [NS], in conversation with Jakob Stein in late 2018, from a transcript (sadly not open-access) at Theory, Culture & Society:

BL: … we are inheriting a history of 200 years of euphemizing and making invisible the material conditions of existence on which we rely. When we see the ecological crisis arriving, we do everything to delay or deny the situation, because we have learned that this was a question outside of our social order. But the fact that the earthly conditions come back and reinsist on being the most important aspect of the social order – which is actually very classical politics, since to have politics you need a land and you need a people – makes us very surprised. So I think it is momentary. It is a transition which is in a way going very fast, since everybody knows now that it is the essential problem. But it is still difficult to fit into the classical definition of politics, because it does not fit with the nation-state, etc. So there are all sorts of characteristics that explain the indifference. There are also theological reasons.

[…]

BL: The place or land where these neo-nationalist countries claim to live has no economic or ecological base. If you see the negotiations between Brussels and Italy, it is clear that the promises made have absolutely no connection with any soil. And the imaginary America of Trump and the imaginary Brazil of Bolsonaro have no land either. It simply has no existence economically or ecologically. And this is why we have to very quickly do the work of reconstituting the land under the feet of people. This is where things can be accelerated and politics can come back. If you ask people ‘What is the territory that allows you to subsist?’, at first, people immediately realize that they have no way of describing this territory and they are completely lost. Afterwards, they feel excited and regrounded. And if they have a ground, a land, a territory, they begin to have interests. And if they have interests, we begin to have politics. So it can and it will shift very quickly. If not, we will all be doomed. Brexit is a good example. What happens in England now is really interesting, because you see how people begin to realize that Brexit is a catastrophe in terms of conditions of existence. You see people who are deeply depoliticized, completely seized by the idea that you need no attachments, suddenly realizing that if you are cut out of Europe then you are nothing much. Because now people are talking concretely: with Brexit, these universities are going to disappear, these jobs are going to disappear, etc., and we have been completely lied to about what it is to be somewhere, in England, in the place of nowhere.

Latour’s latest book, Down to Earth, is literally the work of a lifetime: a distillation of everything he’s done in the past four decades plus into around a hundred short, crackling pages. For most of his career, he has played the distanced sociological role impeccably, but has slowly been shedding it over the last decade or so (or perhaps ever since “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”); Down to Earth sees him shrug it off completely and make these clean, clear connections to a political project. It’s a masterpiece, full of energy and urgency. You could read it in an afternoon, and I thoroughly recommend that you do so.

Also found this bit from Schultz of great interest:

NS: I am still not sure if I understand why we should not be able to theorize power exerted over future generations. Why should power relations not be able to travel through time? That power relations travel through time – is this not what sociology has always showed with concepts such as ‘social heritage’, ‘social reproduction’, etc? I do not think it takes a lot of metaphysical imagination to realize that our generation and previous generations are dominating and have dominated future generations’ possibilities of breathing and living on habitable soils. Unfortunately, it takes more of an imagination to imagine the opposite. As you say, time is colonized. In this perspective we maybe need to understand that we, the Western, modern civilization, was, is and will be a sort of ‘geo-historical elite’, while future generations, rich as well as poor, Western and non-Western, will be living in our ruins of capitalism, as Anna Tsing would say, as a geo-historical proletariat. It is not a nice thought, but …

Cf. this bit from a while back here at VCTB re: the colonising present, riffing on Deb Chachra. I suppose every generation is given to thinking that its challenges are of world-shattering importance and urgency, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

The kids are all right

Greta Thunberg interview at Teh Graun. Full of things I already know be true, but which I nonetheless struggle to articulate through the weary cynicism of four decades of life under capitalist realism. The killer line:

We must focus on what we can do. Not what we can’t do.

It’s true. It’s also difficult. That’s how you know it’s true.

She’s quite a character, Thunberg — in the literary sense. (Having not met her, I’ve no idea what she’s really like, obvs.) I worry on her behalf that she’s gonna be used — maneuvered into position as a media-cyborg figurehead, a living secular saint to which corporations and governments might genuflect as a way to perform a piety that does not extend beyond the surface.

But at the same time, I think that she’s in some respects more cynical than I am, and can see all that coming from a mile off. If she’s wise enough to pick the right allies, she might be able to judo those genuflections into genuine action. I worry more that she’ll endure a lifetime of monstering — and while she’s clearly wise to that already, it’ll make her life an endurance test of epic proportions. It takes a lot of guts to face that and not flinch; it takes guts to lead with actions rather than words. I won’t label her a hero, because as Rebecca Solnit (and Donna Haraway and Ursula Le Guin, and many more before them) have pointed out, heroes are exactly the problem. But she’s inspiring, and hell knows I need some light in the gloom. Maybe you do, too.

#

Quiet week here last week, as I was distracted by (among other things) the formalities of my doctorate graduation. I would happily have skipped the ceremony, in truth — and had a paper I sent out earlier in the year been accepted, I would have skipped it without hesitation. But the paper wasn’t accepted (indeed, the person running the seminar never received it, for reasons unclear), and so my mother and sister got the full ceremonial theatre malarky, complete with me dressed up like Raistlin™: The Early Years.

It’s not that I don’t value ritual; on the contrary, the power of ritual is a big deal for me. But rituals are about flows of power and energy — and when they’re scaled up, the power and energy flows toward the institution rather than the individual. Graduation is about your absorption, not your escape. I don’t regret going, but for me the important thing is the piece of paper that documents the conferral of the degree: that’s my passport, a thing that will help me get across the borders between here and wherever the hell it is I’m headed.

And much as I regret the necessity for such (not to mention the existence of borders where one’s papers are checked, whether literally or metaphorically), I recognise it nonetheless. Because as Thunberg points out, it’s time to get a move on — it’s time to do the thing(s) we can do.

The way out is through.

Thick skein

You can’t talk about every possible future in one work of science fiction—that would be crazy. But what you could do is tell a bunch of stories that are relatively plausible, that are set in the near future, and that describe a course of action that readers can imagine in a kind of “thick” texture. Where you really feel like you’re there. There’ll be some contingent events and some characters that are representative, but they are also individual characters with their own quirks. There’ll be a story, and yet the reader will also say: “Well, yeah—this could be one way forward.” This way, you have the utopian strand of describing things going right. Do we have a sense that things could go right? Even if it’s physically possible, the question is: Is it politically possible, and is it humanly possible?

[…]

I would invite everybody to think of the Green New Deal as it currently exists (a document which is quite impressive in its amount of detail and substance) as a science-fiction story. It’s a utopian science-fiction story written in the form of a proclamation or a blueprint for action. In my short-story collection, The Martians, I experimented with all kinds of formats, including a short story in the form of the Martian Constitution and a short story in the form of an abstract in a scientific journal. In the case of the Green New Deal, and in the best possible way, I want to suggest that seeing it as a kind of science-fiction story is what we need. We need that kind of vision.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Re: the upper paragraph of this quote, cf. my piece for The Sociological Review (originally posted back in 2016) in which I argued for sf as a tool for speculative ethnography, providing a “thick description” of reconfigured sociotechnicalities; that argument was extended in my (open-access) paper for Energy Research & Social Science from 2017.

Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of the blueprint utopia per se, but note that KSR is here advocating specifically for multiple such blueprints, rather than simply advancing a single vision; that plurality is one way of avoiding the pitfalls of the solutionist technotopia. But it’s interesting to hear a fiction writer arguing for the treatment of policy documents as fictional forms, even if only in part; that understanding of the transposability of narratological approaches into political imaginaries is something my colleagues and I are working to develop further, and it’s good to have someone with the profile (and, let’s be honest, the charm and candour) of KSR arguing the same case.

Resistance to the colonising present

While I was in Hebden Bridge, I looked out of the window of a coffee shop one Friday at lunchtime, and saw a small crowd of schoolchildren on a climate protest. Sensitized by being in England, it dawned on me that what I was seeing was a rebellion of the natives against the colonizers – the inhabitants of the future marshaling resistance to the colonizing present and to the extraction of the resources that they will need to thrive.

The response of colonizing powers to uprisings has been chillingly consistent. […] It’s hard to stay optimistic when the worst of history is repeating itself, and writing a thousand words about colonial atrocities isn’t exactly helping. I want to be able to say with total confidence that we’re not going to open fire on anyone’s children for standing up against us and demanding a better world, but it’s really, really hard.

Deb Chachra

The notion that the present is colonising — or, in economic terms, externalising — the future is a powerful, if distinctly bleak metaphor. But I think it also contains some cause for hope regarding the ultimate result of this struggle, provided we lean into the metaphor a little further.

If the future stands for the colonised territories, then the past stands for the colonial core, the base of power from which the colonial project is directed and sustained as both project and narrative, through and into the present.

And we are currently seeing a substantive and drastic remapping of the past, a new narrative being pieced together by ever more subaltern voices: the enslaved, the oppressed, the exploited, slowly and painfully dragging into the light the stories of their subjection.

Empires collapse from the center outward. As the hold of capital and whiteness (which are effectively synonyms) over the past is loosened, its ideological supply-lines and recruitment strategies are thus broken and undermined. This would seem a good explanation for the recent surge in overt attempts to reassert this narrative, which previously had relied upon euphemism, effacement, and a veneer of scientism. The old metanarrative is breaking down, and we are living through the ever-more-desperate attempts of its primary benefactors to shore it up.

The hazard of collapse is the absence of a new narrative to take over from the old one. Deb goes on to say that:

… there absolutely is a path through to a better future for everyone, one that’s sustainable and resilient and equitable. But we have to learn to see it, to stay focused on it, and to follow it down. That’s the work.

That IS the work. It is all of our work — not just to tear down, but to replace. This holds true for physical systems as well as social ones — which, as I hope you know by now, are so entangled as to be inseparable.

Network is a verb. A network is a becoming, a thing that happens — a performance taking place upon and across a physical substrate. The engineering of the latter is part of the poetry of the former, and vice versa.