Work is going slow today, which is to say not really going at all; I had a medical procedure this morning—nothing serious: an elective procedure, shall we say, rather than an emergency—and, while I’m in less discomfort than I expected, I’m still fairly distracted.
So I figure it’s as good a time as any to think-out-loud about a paragraph from Andrew Dana Hudson’s interview with the Long Now people—a paragraph that has really stuck in my head since reading it a couple weeks back.
There’s a real danger that in 02050, we’ll have achieved our emissions reductions pledges and people will say, “Okay, climate emergency over. Good job.” We’ll be having climate disasters all the time, but that’ll just be the world now. And we’ve had an additional generation unfold. In 02050, people in their thirties may have never known a world before widespread climate disasters. They’ll not know the difference, and people will say, “I don’t want to fund a million DAC machines, I want a tax cut.”
First point, nothing to do with ADH: that thing where the Long Now people add a zero to the start of the year really grates on me. It’s the eschatological equivalent of a Baby On Board car-sticker.
Second point, illustrative of different forms of utopianism: my immediate response to this paragraph was “nah, the real danger is that we don’t achieve those pledged reductions, and people will still want a tax cut”. This position might be labelled pessimism or defeatism, but as long-term readers know, I don’t see it that way: we have to face the very real prospect of failure, even as we must also engage with the genuine possibility of success, because presenting either outcome as inevitable or in-the-bag is discursively dangerous. The work of hope requires that you acknowledge the cost of leaving the work undone.
Third point, illustrative of deep technoscepticism: I remain to be convinced that technological direct air capture will ever work in a manner that “scales”, which it would have to in order to be worth doing; however, even if that hurdle is passed, then we end up squandering masses of energy to run the damned things… which, ok, sure, there are worse things to squander energy on, especially if that energy is (hypothetically, but let’s go with it) totes zero-carbon (rather than net-zero carbon, which is quickly shaping up to be the next form of fantasy accounting with which your KPMGs and your Deloittes are going to make serious bank, if they’re not already).
But the fundamental point, for me at least, is that it’s the squandering that’s the real root problem, with fossil fuels merely being the latest and most destructive expression thereof, and also being the one that has accelerated our capacity to
technologise the hell out of “scale” “solutions”, and then we have a solar panel on every roof and a DAC machine on every street corner and where the hell are the raw materials coming from to make those things, and who gets them first, and who’s profiting from their manufacture and management, and who the hell is this Jevons guy and how did his paradox get in here, and don’t forget that there’s a thermodynamic risk to just throwing energy at problems, which is something like the urban heat-island effect but for, y’know, the whole planet, and cooling a hot thing—even, or perhaps especially, if achieved by a more roundabout route like, say, decarbonising that thing’s atmosphere—results in waste heat, as you’ll know if you ever tried to move a fridge that had only just been unplugged on a hot summer’s day.
(Hmm—I appear to be channeling Dan Hon here, if only stylistically. Sorry, Dan! Imitation something sincerest form of flattery something.)
Now, technoscepticism is open to charges of hypocrisy, and yes, here I am, a white male middle-aged Anglophone in a country of the Global North, typing this post on a laptop with an external monitor, etc etc… but as I’ve been arguing for pretty much a decade at this point, we can’t go back (to the land, to the caves, to whichever notional utopian past you might advocate for) and the way out is through. Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto makes the point that technology has the potential to do good things for us as well as bad, and I see a lot of people pulling that point out of that venerable essay nowadays, and that’s great, but what tends to get left out of these readings of Haraway’s argument (which is admittedly verbose, in a way that makes me look terse) is that all bets are off while capitalism is at the wheel, because growth is the ideology of the cancer cell, etc etc. So I guess I might reasonably claim to be a Luddite, in the reclaiming-the-original-meaning sense that Gavin Mueller sets out in his breezy and much-recommended book Breaking Things at Work.
And there genuinely is a part of me that hates having to be This Guy, because every solarpunk I’ve ever met has been a lovely and well-intentioned human, and while I’ve never met ADH in person, I’ve read enough of his stuff to be convinced that he’s also lovely and well-intentioned, and I even think we’re broadly on the same page, to judge by his essay on Omelian thinking. But the part of me that came of age in the UK under Tony Blair gets the serious heebie-jeebies at the notion of a “third way” between degrowth and ecomodernism, because historically speaking the evidence suggests that any such third way inevitably and quickly gets dragged under the aegis of the side with the legacy money and power and, yeah, that ain’t Team Degrowth, is it?
And—to return, finally, to the paragraph I started riffing from—a DAC on every street corner is the most ecomodernist thing imaginable (unless you wanted to level up by insisting it’s powered by fission), and you if you’re keeping an eye on things (perhaps by sticking your face in the sewer of LinkedIn job-ads related to climate stuff?) you can tell that Team Ecomodern knows that damned well, because the money and rhetorical clout flowing into CCS “pathfinder” projects right now is kerrrrrraaazzzzy, meaning that if it ever does work out as a viable technofix, you can guarantee that the IP and licensing on it is going to make the IP and licensing of the COVID vaccines look like Fully Automated Luxury Communism (which, to reprise another critical riff, is itself basically solarpunk for people who find the solarpunk aesthetic too cringe and/or got Marxpilled in the early Twentyteens, neither of which, for the avoidance of doubt, are necessarily bad things).
And all of this as a massive digressional preamble to the fourth point, which is the bit of that ADH paragraph that really stuck with me, for its clear and concise articulation of something that’s been worrying me for ages, but I’ve never managed to express neatly: “people in their thirties may have never known a world before widespread climate disasters. They’ll not know the difference… “ This is exactly why the back-to-the-land nostalgia approach to decarbonisation and/or degrowth is risky: because it will likely have little traction with— and perhaps even be deeply offensive and reactionary-seeming—to those generations who by 2050 will never have known anything but a world of chaotic climate, and old people arguing about it.
(You know how everyone hates a Boomer posting those “bAck in mY dAy We pLAyed wiTh rUSty saWBlaDes In sCRapyArdS anD LeFt oUr dOoRs uNloCKed” screeds on FarceBork? That’s how current climate rhetoric will look to the twenty-somethings of 2050.)
I don’t think I’m being Omelian here, in ADH’s terms; I do not assume that human flourishing is necessarily predicated on suffering and exploitation. But I do believe that solarpunk’s handwaving of the supply-chain issue—which, to be fair, is a rhetorical strategy it has inherited from sf more broadly, which in turn inherited it from post-ww2 techno-optimism—means that, unwittingly or not, there is always a kid in the cupboard (or, if we want to be a bit more on the nose with the image, a kid in the rare earth metals extraction facility), they’re just beyond the scope of the story.
It is a bit much to expect a science fiction subgenre to address these problems comprehensively—and, for the avoidance of any doubt, I don’t expect that. But I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the narratological limits that constrain solarpunk’s ability to deal with these issues are the same narratological limits that constrain our ability to deal with these limits outside of the artistic sphere… so if it seems like I’m fully locked in to the role of being That Guy Who Likes To Rag On Solarpunk, understand that I’m only ragging on solarpunk because it serves as a synecdoche of futurity-under-capitalism, and I want to expose its weaknesses in the hope of fixing them, because then perhaps we might fix the same issues as they persist in the broader context.
That’s my labour of hope, right there.