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Archive for the ‘Ecophilosophy’ Category

Generally I quite like Adam Curtis’s documentaries. I admire the fact that at a time where expository documentaries presenting wide scale socio-cultural arguments are hugely out of fashion he makes films which probe big issues around power, politics and history. I hugely enjoy the aesthetic of his work, the heavy usage of archival material to visually illustrate the points the narration makes. In All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace I also particularly enjoyed the soundtrack (it was mainly a collection of Nine Inch Nails material) which combined excellently with the visual material to provide an affectively potent piece of media.

However while I found the argument made in part one of the documentary to be somewhat partial and lacking, I was immensely disappointed by the contents of the second part. The central argument the documentary makes is that from the 1950′s onwards there was a movement which began with cybernetics and sought to reduce humans to mere nodes in complex networks of matter and energy rather than following the enlightenment view that humans were distinct from the rest of the world, and unlike the determinate automatons of nature, that humans and humans alone possessed free will. Curtis appears to regard this idea as a dangerous proposition which de-emphasised the sanctity of individualism, and which undermines analyses of power and politics presenting instead the notion that systems can self-organise without a command and control hierarchy being in place.

Now the first thing which is crucial to point is that the Enlightenment view of humans as being ontologically distinct from the rest of the natural world as championed by Curtis is of course complete nonsense. It is based on on the nature/culture dualism which has roots in monotheistic theology and has no basis in fact. The notion which stemmed from the cyberneticists that humans, other living creatures, and machines could be understood as complex systems governed by circular causality – that is, feedback – is not a dangerous ideological myth, it is factually correct. The utility of the cybernetics movement, and indeed the disciplines which grew out of it such as systems biology, complexity theory, autopoiesis, connectionist AI, cognitive sciences etc all did so because the basic premises that feedback is a crucial process in dynamic systems was correct.

One of the places where Curtis goes hopelessly wrong was his definition of feedback. Curtis explored negative, or self corrective feedback, which was one of the two types of feedback loop discovered by the cyberneticists but completely omits positive feedback from the film. While the majority of the early cybernetics was dominated by issues around reducing noise through negative feedbacks, positive feedback has played a crucial role in contemporary understandings of how change occurs in dynamic systems, particularly within the domains of chaos theory, complexity theory and nonlinear dynamics. Indeed, current understandings of open systems, systems which are dynamically balanced at a point far from equilibrium, and maintain this dynamic balance through taking in flows of energy (such as food for many living systems) are largely predicated on knowledge which can be traced back to cybernetics. Yet Curtis’s film fails to mention anything about this. Probably because it totally undercuts the narrative he portrays.  What makes this ironic is that while claiming that the natural world is too complex for the analyses derived from cybernetics to provide useful models, we see images of swarming creatures to illustrate this argument. Swarming is of course an emergent behaviour which can be simulated and replicated using just three very simple rules; 1) Keep moving in the same direction as your neighbours 2) Keep close to your neighbours 3) Avoid colliding with your neighbours. This is a classic example of the kind of self-organisation which Curtis is trying to argue does not occur.

Similarly Curtis goes on to argue that unlike humans, who have free will and so can make choices, machines are purely determinate automatons, whose every action can be predicted. Which is true of many kinds of simple, linear and closed machines. But which is clearly not true of cellular automata, artificial neural networks or other systems which are based on emergence. Presumably the reason these types of system are not mentioned is that they would undercut the nature/culture dualism Curtis seeks to maintain which imbues humans with special properties not found elsewhere in the universe.

While the majority of the film presenting a very misleading picture of the legacy of cybernetics, the final section then deals with alleged examples of contemporary self-organising systems and protest movements. Which was so utterly woeful that it actually made the rest of the film appear competent. I was expecting to see the Zapatistas, the alternative globalisation movement, the Peoples Global Assembly, the World Social Forum or a range of other organisations who have organised in non-hierarchical ways to present a political alternative to the discredited radical politics of Leninist vanguardism, whereby a small elite violently seizes power in order to then create an egalitarian democracy. The motivation behind the movements which have used these types of democratic, grassroots organisation to mobilise pro-democracy movements has largely been to organise in a way that reflects the kind of politics a group seeks to achieve, rather than to attempt to create an egalitarian society via dictatorship.

So what did Curtis have to say about this? Sadly the answer was nothing. Instead of focusing on the methods of these types of movement we instead were told that the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine was an example of self-organisation and a leaderless non-hierarchical movment. The Orange movement was in fact a movement heavily funded by groups such as the US State Department, who according to the Guardian had spent $67 million in the Ukraine in the two years before the disputed Presidential run off. It was a ‘leaderless’ ‘self-organising’ movement which was centred around trying to get one particular corrupt political candidate, Viktor Yuchenko, elected over a rival, corrupt political candidate, Viktor Yanukovich. Largely it was a struggle between the western half of the country, aided by western governments who wanted Yuchenko to prevail pitted against the eastern half of the country and Russia who wanted Yanukovich to prevail. In other words it had nothing to do with spontaneous self-organisation, non-hierarchy or systems thinking. It was a great example of corrupt politics as usual.

The only reason I can muster for Curtis to use such a ridiculously awful example to illustrate the point is that using a more relevant example would have undercut the epic narrative he sought to explicate. Which ultimately is a big part of why the kind of grand narrative based expository documentary is so out of fashion, while its easy to make a compelling argument based on affective manipulation through audiovisual means, an hour (or even three one hour parts) just isn’t enough time to really explore complex issues in any amount of depth. Which means that documentary filmmakers end up creating narratives which are hugely misleading, which is exactly what Curtis does here.

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Recently George Monbiot has been in the blogosphere for his exchange with Iam Plimer in which he joined the bastion of scientists, bloggers and journalists condemning Plimer’s recent book. Personally I found his debate with Paul Kingsnorth far more interesting,

Kingsnorth criticises Monbiot for seeking to create ‘Liberal Democracy 2.0′ arguing that

‘What we face is what John Michael Greer, in his book of the same name, calls a ‘long descent’ – a series of ongoing crises brought about by the factors I talked of in my first letter, which will bring an end to the all-consuming culture we have imposed upon the Earth. I’m sure ’some good will come’ from this, for that culture is a weapon of planetary mass destruction.’

Monbiot’s retort is that a series of crises would mean billions deaths and an immense amount of suffering, and that this scenario would likely see

‘instead of gathering as free collectives of happy householders, the survivors of this collapse will be subject to the will of people seeking to monopolise remaining resources. Thiswill is likely to be imposed through violence. Political accountability will be a distant memory. The chances of conserving any resource in these circumstances are approximately zero.’

Consequently Monbiot argues that

‘Strange as it seems, a de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse. For the first time in our history we are well-informed about the extent and causes of our ecological crises, know what should be done to avert them and have the global means – if only the political will were present – of preventing them.’

Of the two perspectives pertaining to the probable and possible outcomes for humanity in the medium term future I would say that I more closely associate with Monbiot’s position of remaining hopefull despite mounting evidence that climate change will create massive detrimental impacts to civilisation as we know it.

Similarly I consur with Monbiot that the likely consequences of inaction are widening global inequalities, which under the current geopolitical climate of nationalism and antagonism fuelled by a neo-liberal drive for competition and self-interest will likely translate into war between nation states for resources, the collapse of social welfare where it does currently exist and a vast amount of suffering for billions. I also agree that this kind of scenario would not represent a positive development.

Where I feel that I differ from both authors however is in the framing of the debate itself. Civilisations are not static objects which can be saved (preserved intact) or destroyed (completely) as some kind of binary pair, they evolve as dynamic processes dependent on a multitude of factors. This means that the actions we take now are relevant as these actions will have an effect on which of the many potential futures we realise. The more sustainable technologies are developed and implemented, the more ghg emissions are cut, the more social solidarity and a sense of community, both locally and globally are constructed in the here and now, the better the prospects for the future will be. The difference may only be a small one, but that will largely depend on how many people decide to actively engage with the problem – larger actions now mean better conditions for the future.

Even if the future looks decidely gloomy, and both Monbiot and Kingsnorth argue that they are, the actions of people today still has some agency (not the myth of unilateral control Kingsnorth critiques, but an active factor in a dynamic causal network) in deciding what the future will be like. While individually our actions are only minutely consequential, collectively they can be massive. That is why I believe in building networks of change from the grassroots up.

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Last night I went to see the Age of Stupid at the Watershed followed by a brief talk by author and activist Mark Lynas.

During the Q+A session I asked Mark to clarify why he has recently come out in support of nuclear power on his blog in a piece entitled Why Greens must Learn to love Nuclear Power and whether the ensuing response from Greenpeace had changed his opinion. This led to slightly flustered looking Lynas claiming that decentralised renewable energy sources could not take over from fossil fuels rapidly enough to avoid risking climate destabilisation (a global temperature rise of over 2 degrees centigrade from preindustrial times which threatens to unleash various positive feedback loops which will amplify the anthropogenic forcing from fossil fuel usage and deforestation), and that the case against nuclear power is based on ‘flimsy evidence.’ This second claim in particular was met by a loud chorus of bollocks from several members of the audience, re-creating the polarised debate seen on Lynas’s blog where nuclear power is equally fiercely championed and opposed by different groups who selectively support contradictory evidence to support their claims, although all the participants undoubtedly have genuine concern over climate change and other environmental and social policy motivating their postions.

I don’t profess to be a nuclear physicist, or to fully understand the (currently largely hypothetical) claims made by Lynas and others surrounding fourth generation nuclear technologies. As someone who believes in nuclear disarmament I am sceptical of nuclear technologies because of their far from flimsy ties with nuclear weapons, along with the historical baggage the nuclear industries carry with regards to cost, efficiency (which is highly disputed, and both sides selective usage of supporting evidence makes it very difficult to make an informed decision here as elsewhere in this debate), waste disposal and safety, all of which have to be long term concerns when considering the long half life of some of the radioactive material utilised in nuclear power generation. Additionally I am sceptical, as are many environmental campaigners, of the quick and easy technological fixes to climate change offered up by capitalist industry. Biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, nuclear power and other technologies have been trumpeted by sections of business (usually those with vested financial interests in the technologies) as the answer to climate change. Of course there is no single silver bullet which will suddenly make everything okay and allow overconsumption to become ethically acceptable again, however at the same time it is important to remember that our understanding of climate change largely arises from advances in technology, and that the many of the renewable technologies being developed are again viable only thanks to numerous advances in technology; while it may not provide us with the solution, technology does provide us with a range of useful measures with which to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

This doesn’t mean that I think we should exclude nuclear power tout court as a potential short term measure to aid a transition to renewable energy sources, if indeed it transpires as Lynas claims and we are faced with a short term option of fossil fuels or nuclear. However whether this really is the case ought to be the investigation of in depth and readily available analyses.

What I don’t think anyone in the room last night would have debated, much less hurled obscenities at, is the call for huge emission cuts to be generated through cutting consumption and massive investment in renewable technologies. Once we have calculated what we can collectively generate from renewable sources, including large scale international projects such as solar farming in deserts and vast offshore wind farms connected to a direct current grid which allows the long range transportation of electricity with minimal power loss
en route, then we can start to look at what other less appealing steps we need to take. Given a choice between consuming a bit less and not flying or building a new generation of nuclear power stations I would choose the former every time, but I don’t know if that truly is a realistic choice because there isn’t readily available data.

In the book Heat, George Monbiot’s thoughtful and honest analysis of the conflicting information available on nuclear power draws the conclusion that it’s impossible to get an entirely truthful or objective picture of nuclear’s possibilities, however the enduring risks regarding weapons proliferation, waste disposal, long term costs etc mean that nuclear should only be a last ditch resort to be used after all other avenues prove insufficient to provide humanity with power, and I would tend to agree there. However given the urgency of concerted action over climate change it may be that as Lynas, James Lovelock and others have argued, short term usage of nuclear power can be a large and valuable contributor to the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the way the debate over nuclear ought to be approached, and it is a debate which needs to be happening at the moment, should be to encourages consensus and diversity of voices wherever possible, rather than the manichaen pro/anti dogma seen last night and elsewhere. We should start off by looking at what all of us – Mark Lynas and Greenpeace included – can agree upon as useful and necessary steps towards combating climate change and after that we can debate how (if at all) we need to start implementing less than ideal decisions such as turning to nuclear power based on a pragmatic perspective of how best to prevent climate chaos.

This begs the question as to how we can try and create debates which are inclusive and based on direct democracy and consensus rather than simply having two opposing sides trading insults, and given the antagonistic and hyper-competitive society we inhabit I don’t feel it’s an easy question to answer. When a group of concerned and intelligent people resort to dogmatic, polarised positions in place of consensual and informed debate on important issues, it’s fair to say that we really are living in the Age of Stupid. So how do we get out?

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The Three Ecologies is one of the final works published by Felix Guattari (1930-1992), a French philosopher, political militant and institutional psychoanalyst. While Guattari is perhaps best known for his co-authored projects with Gilles Deleuze; Anti-Oedipus, A Thousand Plateaus and What is Philosophy; The Three Ecologies provides an excellent insight into Guattari’s stance on politics, social movements and subjectivity.

The concept of the three ecologies; three interconnected networks existing at the scales of mind, society and the environment, was originally formulated by influential theorist Gregory Bateson in Steps to An Ecology of Mind, however Guattari seeks to elaborate and refine the concept in more detail, while additionally adding a more radical form of poststructuralist Marxism to Bateson’s ecological system.

Pre-empting the global networks of power and resistance described by Hardt and Negri in Empire and Multitude, Guattari argues that ‘The only true response to the ecological crisis is on a global scale, provided that it brings about an authentic political, social and cultural revolution, reshaping the objectives of the production of both material and immaterial assets.’ (28) Whereas previous revolutionary movements have concentrated on creating political changes at the level of the nation state, Guattari claims that the shared nature of the environment that we live in, and our collective impacts on it such as anthropogenic climate change, reveal the commons on which we are ultimately dependent, and thus the ecosophical position he advocates is one of global resistance to what he describes as ‘Integrated Wold Capitalism,’ which is very close to a less deeply theorised version of Hardt and Negri’s Empire, and resonates with Castells’ delineation of the rise of the network society, and Jameson’s understanding of postmodern capitalism.

Such a global and unificatory position may at first appear to contrast sharply with commonly understood models of postmodernism, which following Lyotard claim that postmodernity is marked by the death of the modernist meta-narrative, and indeed some such as George Myerson have claimed that ecology, and ecological crises mark the end of the fragmented and partial era of postmodernism. To such claims, Guattari argues that ‘The ecosophical perspective does not totally exclude unifying objectives such as the struggle against world hunger, an end to deforestation or to the blind proliferation of the nuclear industries; but it will no longer be a question of depending on reductionist, stereotypical orderworlds which only expropriate other more singular problematics and lead to the promotion of charismatic leaders.’ (34) While ecosophy can hold unifying ideas and objectives, these do not insist on a scalar homogeneity – difference and plurality are encouraged at each of the levels of ecology, mind, society and environment – however these differences themselves are not absolute, and so limited unifying objectives aimed at securing freedoms and rights for all subjects are possible under such a philosophical framework.

Consequently Guattari’s argument is that ‘Environmental ecology, as it exists today, has barely begun to prefigure the generalised ecology that I advocate here, the aim of which will be to radically decentre social struggles and ways of coming into one’s own psyche… Ecology must stop being associated with the image of a small nature-loving minority. Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations.’ (2) For Guattari then, as with Bateson, ecology is far more than a concern for the environment, it is an epistemological system based on an understanding of nonlinear systems governed by feedback loops and nonlinear causality. An understanding of connectivity, of balanced systems, network topography and complexity theory are fundamental to the way in which this ecosophical model operates. In contrast to a capitalist system predicated on economic growth, Guattari’s ecosophy seeks balance allied with a reevaluation of what we value; going well beyond GDP as an indicator of quality of life, in what can be understood as a decentred socialism, or ecologically informed variant of anarchism, where goals are collectively negotiated rather than dictated by economic elites.

According to Guattari, creating such an ecosophical society requires a reorientation of thought, so that we understand ourselves, the society we live in and the ecosystem we inhabit as three different scales of ecology, linked by a series of processes (or abstract machines). ‘Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the interactions between ecosystems, the mecanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference, we must learn to think ‘transversally’. (43) Indeed Guattari goes as far as to argue that ‘It is quite wrong to make a distinction between action on the psyche, the socius and the environment. Refusal to face up to the erosion of these three areas, as the media would have us do verges on a strategic infantilization of opinion and a destructive neutralization of democracy. We need to kick the habit of sedative discourse, particularly the ‘fix’ of television, in order to apprehend the world through the interchangeable lenses of the three ecologies.’ (42)

The role of mediated communications occupies a central position for Guattari, and he is particularly scathing about the effects of television as a centralising and hierarchical media which privileges economic and social elites’ perspective on public discourse, effectively negating the potentiality for a dialogic and democratic debate about how to create more sustainable and equitable relationships within and between the three ecologies. Indeed, Guattari states that ‘An essential programmatic point for social ecology will be to make the transition from the mass media era to the post-media age, in which the media will be re appropriated by a multitude of groups capable of directing its resingularization. Despite the seeming impossibility of such an eventuality, the current unparalleled level of media-related alienation is in no way an inherent necessity.’

The three ecologies was written a few years before the creation of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, and Guattari’s death meant that he never saw the explosion of user-generated content and dialogic forms of communication which are currently to be found online, and it would have been fascinating to learn as to whether Guattari would classify some of the co-creative models for collaborative communication such as; Indymedia’s open publishing or the wiki’s used by sites such as Wikipedia and Crocodyl, as examples of ecosophic media.

One hugely positive message to be found within the ecological warning of impending disaster across all three ecological registers (the increase of mental health disorders and stress related disorder; warfare, failed states run by competing warlords, the rise of right wing religious fundamentalisms in both the East and the West, and of course the ecological crises of anthropogenic global warming and natural resource depletion) is that the solutions to these problems are already at our doorsteps. ‘Wherever we turn, there is the same nagging paradox: on the one hand, the continuous development of new techno scientific means to potentially resolve the dominant ecological issues and restate socially useful activities on the surface of the planet, and, on the other hand the inability of organised social forces and constituted subjective formations to take hold of these resources in order to make them work.’ (31) Industrial capitalism has enhanced our knowledge and technological capabilities beyond belief. Yet despite this technical and scientific advancement we still are faced with massive inequalities of wealth, poverty on an enormous scale, millions of annual deaths from easily treatable diseases and numerous wars, both between and inside states. As Martin Luther King famously stated back in the 1960′s “We have learned to swim the seas like fish, and fly the skies like birds, but we have not learned to walk the earth like brothers.’ Guattari’s ecosophy then is a philosophical attempt to remedy this situation, calling for a new way of understanding the world and our place in it allied with a new method of being to create an ecologically sustainable and socially equitable world. (more…)

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We are constantly being reminded by environmentalists that we only have one planet on which to live, a single set of resources which are being depleted at an ever increasing rate…

But our biosphere is not a static pool of resources. The world is constantly changing. All around us life is growing, evolving, renewing itself, becoming a new world in every passing instant… The earth is a dynamic system capable of replenishing itself, as life on this planet recovered and evolved following the Permian extinction where 250 million years ago most life was wiped off the planet.

So what then is the worry over natural resource depletion? Is the logic of ecology a new conservatism aiming to ensure that the world’s poorest people remain impoverished, unable to undergo industrial development due to the alleged environmental costs and leaving the already industrialised nations in a permanent state of technological and military hegemony?

The answer is no. Resource depletion is a very real problem which human civilisation must begin to address. While the earth has the potential to recover from the ecological damage industrialization has wrought – if humanity disappeared then more oil would form, rainforests would regrow, and the unsustainable monocultures of industrial agriculture and urban development would be enveloped by sustainable and varied ecosystems – such ecological renewal would take millenia, a timescale which is of no help to those who wish to reduce human suffering here and now.

At present, humanity is using the Earth’s resources faster than they can replenish themselves. This is the definition of an unsustainable society. The consequences of such a society will be increased poverty and immiseration for many of the world’s poorest people, alongside a decline in the quality of life for many who today enjoy affluent lifestyles, as vital resources become increasingly scarce and therefore expensive if left to the market, essentially pricing the world’s poor out of life.

The current average ecological footprint of a UK citizen is 5.4 hectares of productive land. This means that if everyone were to consume as many natural resources as a Brit, then we would need over three times the resources that the Earth provides, and that would be using all of the world’s resources for humans as a baseline level, which in itself is highly dubious.

Expecting to be able to maintain such an unsustainable level of consumption is insanity. Capitalist economics are predicated on unlimited year on year growth, however the reality of our collective situation is that growth is limited and dependent on the ecological situations within which our social context is embedded. While we should unquestionably allow the poorest nations and peoples on Earth to develop and increase their standard of living, this has to be offset by first world consumers taking a cut to their material consumption.

That 20% of the world’s population currently use 80% of its resources is a telling fact which highlights the massive inequalities which exist between people. A sustainable society requires these inequalities to be phased out, so that every human has access to clean water, food, shelter and health care, while no humans hoard wealth in such a manner that either others must go without, or that future generations suffer for their greed.

Yet in the world today, as the world’s largest conventional oil fields begin to run dry and the rainforests continue to be cut down to grow meat for first world consumers, as global temperatures and sea levels continue to rise and the world’s poorest humans cannot afford food or water, shelter, education, health care, the zombie like acolytes of globalised capitalism continue to consume at ever greater levels.

Can we count on the structures which continue to report record profits from the current system be entrusted to revolutionize our current way of living?

Or has the time come for a more democratic, more sustainable society. Another world is possible. Let’s start building that world today.

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This is a response to some heated debate currently occurring on Bristol Indymedia…

http://bristol.indymedia.org/article/688696

Some thoughts on the Proff’s

‘Climate change is happening. We, and the generations before us, have caused it. It should not matter whether we believe it or not.”‘

And Art’s reply

‘Just read that last sentence again – “It should not matter whether we believe it or not”.

AH YES IT S*DDING WELL DOES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’

I think both positions here can be understood as being right in very different ways. While you appear to have diametrically opposed positions, this is mainly because you are looking at the same question in different ways.

While the first part of the Proff’s sentence is very dubiously if painstakingly analyzed; while the climate on Earth is obviously changing as it’s a nonlinear dynamical system, it is not certain that ‘we’ have caused it. The best available evidence (IPCC) suggests that it is very likely (90-95% chance) that we are responsible for changes in the global climate. Very likely and certain are very different… However if it is very likely that we are doing something which is going to create an immense amount of suffering for humans and a huge number of extinctions among other life forms on Earth, then taking action on the issue seems the only logical outcome from a systemic perspective. While some individuals may benefit short term from continuing with our current systems (for example the oil industries who once again are reporting record profits), the social and environmental ecologies as a whole would benefit from changing structures so that operate in a ecologically sustainable way.

The proff is right however insofar as his statement sits within the philosophical tradition of realism – the commonsense contention that the world exists outside of our belief structures (as with many things in life, this is not a certainty – I could be a dream, a brain in a jar or innumerable other things which could not be empirically verified, however the probability of such scenarios seems incredibly small). If I decide not to believe the the moon exists few people would argue that my belief structure will mean the moon would no longer exist. If I decide not to believe in cancer, malaria and aids then those illnesses will not stop killing people. Similarly deciding to believe that ACC is not happening and that expecting that this belief means that my ecological footprint does not have material consequences is clearly ludicrous. Until advances in science which evolved during the last century people did not believe in quarks or quantum mechanics. This did not mean that they did not exist. Until recently people did not believe that their radiative forcing was likely to impact on the global climate in ways which are detrimental to other humans and animals. That people did not understand the ramifications of their actions did not mean that those consequences failed to occur, although the scale to which the human population and mechanized industrialization have grown has made these consequences at a global scale more apparent..

By contrast Art is right in that for action to be taken on a variety of social and environmental issues it helps for people to believe in those causes. Only through such socially held belief and desire is beneficial action likely to be taken to remedy problems. During the 20th Century a sustained campaign by feminists saw the democratic right to vote extended to women, alongside other changes to patriarchal society such as (more) equal pay for different sexes and equal rights for women. These changes to the fabric of society occurred precisely because people believed in the justice of the feminist cause. Had no one believed that women deserved the right to vote, then they would have remained without it. This example highlights the importance of what people believe. While the beliefs themselves do not effect material reality, the actions of those people who hold the beliefs can and does effect change.

Consequently while I would argue that while the scientific reality of whether or not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and land usage change (particularly deforestation) is not dependent on whether or not people believe in them, the potential capacity we have to act on the scientific evidence available to us – which currently suggests that it is very likely that we are altering the global climate in a way that will cause suffering for billions of humans and extinction for many other species of life – does depend on whether people that science, and also on whether or not people exist in social systems whereby they believe that they have the capacity to collectively effect changes to minimise the suffering of other people and animals.

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Much of the rhetoric surrounding Anthropogenic Climate Change has thus far rested on the notion that human pollution is destroying the world, and that consequently we need to take action in order to save the world…

Put simply this isn’t true. The planet that we live on is far too big, and far too flexible a system for us to ‘destroy.’ Even if we tried really hard, say releasing all the world’s nuclear weapons simultaneously, we wouldn’t destroy the Earth. We would wipe out most currently existing life forms from the face of the planet, almost certainly including humanity, but life would go on, and slowly, over a number of millennia, life would evolve increasing complexity again. Of course a similar kind of scenario occurred about 250 million years ago, in what is known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event, in which 95% of marine life and 70% of land based vertebrates became extinct. The cause of the Permian-Triassic extinction is not definitively known, though many experts believe that the extinctions were the result of an asteroid hitting Earth.

Despite the enormous extent of the ecological damage caused by the Permian-Triassic extinction, life went on. It recovered and evolved over millions of years until we reach today’s state of affairs. The notion that ACC; whose most extreme scientific predictions would see it reach near permian extinction levels, but the vast majority of evidence suggests much lower levels of warming, would destroy life in a way that an asteroid hitting the planet could not is quite comical.

Equally the notion that carbon dioxide is ‘pollution’ that it is a substance which is inherently harmful and bad for the planet is just plain wrong. Without the heat trapped by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases the Earth would be too cold for human life to have evolved. What is happening with anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation is that the stable balance of gases which have allowed our species to flourish are being altered in such a way that the continuation of climatic conditions which permit us to maintain social stability; the ability to feed and shelter everyone are likely to change so that life becomes harder for humans.

So when ecological activists want to take action against ACC, what exactly is it they stand for if it isn’t saving the world? There can be many answers, but for me it is mainly a case of humanitarian action. Unlike the planet, the human species is fairly fragile. Small changes to the ecosystems which we depend upon for food, water, shelter and material prosperity have dramatic effects to the societies which we inhabit. In particular the growth of the global human population over the last hundred years means that hundreds of millions of humans around the globe are highly dependent on the stable ecosystems they reside within. ACC risks destabilizing many of these ecosystems.

For example the fertility of rice flowers falls from 100% at 35 degrees C to 0% at 40 degrees C. This means that even a modest warming of 2 degrees will see rice fertility drop by over 30% in warm climates. Similar trends in crop fertility have been found in wheat, maize, soybeans and peanuts – many staple foods in developing nations. Consequently recent research has suggested that global rice production will fall by 5-11% by 2020 and between 11 and 46% by 2050. Consider for a moment that rising population allied with land change use and the rising cost of oil have created widespread food shortages and food riots in many parts of the world and you quickly see why if these estimates are correct they will lead to human suffering on an enormous scale.

As with most effects of ACC the impacts will not be homogeneous; some areas of the globe where the climate is currently just too cold for crop production will become more fertile, however this will be more than offset by the amount of productive capacity lost. Furthermore many of the harshest impacts will occur in the least developed areas, which are also the least able to cope with crisis, as their lack of wealth means that many areas (particularly in Africa) will not be able to afford to import food from other regions. This impact has nothing to do with the world being destroyed, indeed the specter of millions of poor people starving to death is somewhat more mundane than the meta-narrative of saving the world, but nonetheless this is the path we are currently heading down.

Food production is just one areas where the detrimental effects of ACC to humans are obvious. The increased temperature is a consequence of an increase in energy in the Eath’s atmosphere which will mean an increase of droughts, of floods, forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme climactic events, all of which tend to be detrimental to human life. Equally, the anticipated rise in sea levels will mean the displacement of millions of humans from their homes. Already this has begun on the low lying islands of Tuvalu where evacuation plans have been prepared, and areas of Bangladesh, where villagers are losing their homes to rising waters. The refugee crisis threatened by one impact of ACC and exasperated by the food crisis which is expected to be another suggests that ACC will begin to dramatically increase human suffering and misery in many of the world’s poorest areas.

Whereas the notion that ecologists seek to save the world is laughable, people are trying to effect changes that will greatly reduce human suffering in years to come. I have no interest in ‘saving the world’… It simply isn’t necessary. I am however interested in trying to make the world a less adverse environment for people to live in. That this adversity will mainly be felt by many of the world’s poorest people, whose labour is most likely directly tied to their physical ecosystem through subsistence agriculture, and that it is primarily caused by the world’s richest people – those with jet set lifestyles, private yachts and air conditioned mansions – only heightens the sense of social injustice.

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Today the purposes of consciousness are implemented by more and more effective machinery, transportation systems, airplanes, weaponry, medicine, pesticides and so forth. Conscious purpose is now empowered to upset the balances of the body, of society, and of the biological world around us. A pathology – a loss of balance – is threatened.

On the one hand we have the systemic nature of the individual human being, the systemic nature of the culture in which he lives, and the systemic nature of the biological ecological system around him; and on the other hand, the curious twist in the systemic nature of the individual man whereby consciousness is almost by necessity, blinded to the systemic nature of the man himself. Purposive consciousness, pulls out from the total mind, sequences which do not have the loop structure which is characteristic of the whole systemic structure. If you follow the common-sense dictates of consciousness you become, effectively, greedy and unwise.

Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished… Systems are punishing of any species unwise enough to quarrel with its ecology. Call the systemic forces God if you will.

Bateson, 1972:440

Gregory Bateson serves as a wonderful introduction to some of the central concepts of ecology. The son of William Bateson, the scientist who popularised Mendelian inheritance and introduced the term genetics into scientific discourse, Gregory was a disciplinary wanderer, with a career in academia which saw him drift through departments as diverse as anthropology, biology, psychology and cybernetics.

Bateson understood that the academic system he inhabited excelled at the process of analysis (meaning to take apart), which had yielded many of the advances of industrial capitalism. However it lacked a similar system of synthesis, or putting knowledge together. Students gained detailed understanding of subjects which remained isolated from each other, a problem still rife within academic education today. How are students expected to understand the ways in which economics, science, politics, history and cultural geography intersect when they are always partitioned into separate areas?

Bateson excelled at making connections between these areas, in seeing the patterns that connected seemingly disparate areas, a theme which underlay much of the work conducted by cyberneticists who were interested in understanding the processes of feedback which allowed control of systems, but also allowed insight into the way that learning occurs.

Bateson’s gift for connectivity made him one of the godfathers of modern ecology – etymologically meaning the science of (connections between) the household. A key concept introduced by Bateson is that of three ecologies; mind, society and environment. Each of these interconnected complex systems can be understood as a dynamic ecology of subsystems, which together display emergent qualities which cannot be reduced to the activity of the parts.

Forgoing the dualistic ontology which has in many ways dominated western culture Bateson instead preached an understanding of being based on immanence. Whereas Descartes saw the body and mind/soul as two distinct entities, for Bateson consciousness is an emergent phenomena which occurs due to the complex interplay of the human brain, body and external physical environment. Consequently, Bateson is one of the founders of the concept of distributed consciousness. When answering the question as to whether or not a computer could think, Bateson claimed that the thinking system is always the man and the technology and the environment in which they are situated. The knowledge cannot reside in any single component if somehow abstracted from the larger system.

Bateson also campaigned politically, arguing that the competitive ethos of capitalism which saw man try to control nature rather than understand the ways in which society is always dependent on ecological circuity, was leading to a loss of balance within the environmental systems on which humans are ultimately dependent.

The unit of survival is organism plus environment. We are learning by bitter experience that the organism which destroys its environment destroys itself.

Formerly we thought of a hierarchy of taxa – individual, family line, subspecies, species etc – as the unit of survival. We now see a different hierarchy of units – gene-in-organism, organism-in-environment, ecosystem, etc. Ecology in the widest sense turns out to be the study of the interaction and survival of ideas and programs (ie differences, complexes of differences) in circuits.

Bateson 1972:491

With the current global understandings of climate change and resource depletion, Bateson’s predictions from over 35 years ago appear ominously accurate. In understanding his ecological methods to approaching these systemic problems, perhaps we can begin to find solutions beyond the technological quick fixes which have thus far failed, searching instead for genuine sustainability allied to social action which will address the material inequalities which plague our global village.

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