Archive for the ‘environmentalism’ Category

2005 MIT Press

Sterling is best known for his work as an author of fictional works within the cyberpunk sci-fi genre, but Shaping Things is a book which largely examines technology, design and sustainability. Sterling is interested in interrogating the types of technological futures we are likely to encounter (a theme which of is of course also central to his fictional works), allied with considering how technological evolution, and the design practices which evolve alongside technologies can provide a future for a civilisation which

‘Can’t go on in their present form. The status quo uses energy and materials which are finite and toxic. They wreck the climate, poison the population and resource wars. They have no future.’ P7
Sterling contends that these problematic technologies can be replaced and their deleterious impacts overcome through the implementation of a technoculture based on SPIMES:

‘Manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly rich and extensive that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. SPIMES begin and end as data… SPIMES are sustainable, enhanceable, uniquely identifiable and made of substances that can and will be folded back into the production stream of the future.’ P11

Sterling argues that dominant technocultures do not abolish previous technical ensembles, but compost them – perhaps composite may have been a more obvious descriptor, but Sterling’s authorial style is full of entertaining linguistic obscurantisms. Consequently a SPIME based technoculture will not replace the artifacts, machines, products and gizmos that we have today, but will alter the forms or flavours these devices take. As an example, Sterling explores a bottle of wine, and the way in which its barcode and link to a website denote that this bottle of wine is from the gizmo era: it’s still a bottle of wine, but one which contains particular informational affordances based on the dominant technoculture from which it emanates.

This leads onto a discussion of what I would consider to be issues around economies of attention, which Sterling describes as cognitive load in a gizmo society. His conclusions around the slogan ‘everyone can’t be a designer’ and the notion of representative design as an analogue of representative government (and frankly, that means not very representative anything) are politically naïve and really not thoroughly though through.

‘We interact differently in a world with representative design. In particular, with enough informational power, the “invisible hand of the market” becomes visible. The hand of the market was called “invisible” because Adam Smith had very few ways to measure it. Adam Smith lacked Metrics.’ P23

Such a perspective on the market and the information society would have drawn critique as a neoliberal fantasy in 2005 when Shaping Things was published. Coming after the global economic crash in 2008 and the current stagnation/double dip recession/Eurozone crisis the notion that information technology has given financial services industries the ability to predict and control the future is simply farcical, and demonstrates the ideology of neoliberal cyberutopianism which permeates Stirling’s text.

Where Sterling is somewhat more interesting is his thoughts around sustainability and temporality. Arguing that there is no way back to a (utopian) pre-industrial era in which humans lived in harmony with nature, Sterling contends that only through intelligent design practices can a pathway to a sustainable society be found. He contends that rapid prototyping will play a big role in this, casting the process as ‘the exhaustion of the phase space of the problem – it isn’t reasoned, thrifty or rational but it has the brutal efficiency of a chess-playing computer.’ (P48) By exploring different possible solutions, and retaining the data which allows other designers to note which avenues provide dead-ends, Stirling argues that rapid prototyping will allow a kind of distributed, swarm-like intelligence to permeate design practices, creating a synchronic society in which innovation occurs increasingly rapidly. This feeds into a general theme exploring relations between technology and temporality, with Sterling arguing that:

Genuinely radical changes in the human perception of time are not caused by philosophy, but instrumentation. The most radical changes in our temporal outlook come from technological devices, tools of temporal perception: clocks, telescopes, radio-carbon daters, spectrometers. P51

This leads Sterling to reflect that:

We’re in trouble as a culture because we lack firm ideas of where we are in time an what we might do to ensure ourselves a future. We’re also in trouble for technical and practical reasons: because we design build and use dysfunctional hardware… To understand hardware, we need to understand hardware’s engagement with TIME. P54/55

When explicating what he envisions as the origins of SPLIME’s in contemporary culture, Sterling points to RFID tags and the potential to create and Internet of Things based on this type of technology, or more likely future iterations of device which evolve from things like RFID tags or the other sensor/actuator relationships which have become far more common in the half dozen years since the book was released with the explosion of smartphones, tablets and other portable, always-on technologies which come with a range of built in sensors. Sterling also explores some of the potential for 3D printers to revolutionise fabrication processes. These subjects aren’t covered in much depth, but credit must go to Sterling to picking these technologies out as potential game changers very early on in their development.

While peer production, commons and open-source to get a mention, it is only that: a fleeting mention in between other ideas, and one which fails to explore the potentials for redistributing wealth throughout societies based upon these models, but then social equity, and the effects of technological ensembles upon equality is a black hole in Sterling’s book, one which can largely be attributed to the neoliberal economic ideology it propounds. He does argue that:

‘It’s no use starting from the top by ideologically re-educating the Consumer to become some kind of rigid hairshirt Green. This means returning to the benighted status of farmers with artifacts.’ P131

As someone involved in education, I find Sterling’s claims that the process of trying to get people to think about the social and ecological implications of their actions leads to ignorance to be misguided at best. When combined with his notion of representative design and the magical powers of markets when combined with information technology I would consider them to be politically dangerous, suggesting that we forgo education and serious thought and instead simply sit back and allow an enlightened design elite and the market to simply lead us to a sustainable future.

Sterling’s insight into the potentials of emerging technologies is worthy of high praise, and some of his thoughts around time, technology and society is intriguing if somewhat underexplored, and these currently within his work are why he’s become a popular figure talking about discourses of futurity and postdigitality. The limitations of his cyberutopian neoliberalism however are clearly evidenced in Shaping Things. While his rhetoric around sustainability is interesting, his arguments about heritage and our descendants are undermined by his lack of concern for social justice – either now or in the speculative futures he presents.

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Annie Leonard, the creator of the story of stuff has a new short animation out called the story of electronics. It’s well worth watching for a brief overview of some of the ethical imperatives surrounding the material impacts of the electronic equipment whose materiality is often erased by the discourse of virtuality.

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So the other day I wrote about why I don’t think the 10:10 campaign in general works, and why Richard Curtis’s promotional film for it was destined to be a spectacular own goal which offended people and put them off environmentalism.

And today the Guardian has a piece describing what’s happened since…

The charities that backed a Richard Curtis film for the 10:10 environmental campaign said today that they were “absolutely appalled” when they saw the director’s four-minute short, which was withdrawn from circulation amid a storm of protest.

The charity ActionAid, which co-ordinates the 10:10 schools programme, today welcomed the move. “Our job is to encourage proactive decisions at class level to reduce carbon emissions. We did it because evidence shows children are deeply concerned about climate change and because we see the impacts of it in the developing world where a lot of our work is. So we think the 10:10 campaign is very important, but the moment this film was seen it was clear it was inappropriate.

The questions we ought to be asking now are how did the 10:10 team ever think that a promotional film featuring authority figures such as a teacher and an office manager blowing up children and workers who dont sign up to their campaign was a good idea and how much money and carbon were wasted by their celebrity packed own goal?

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The 10:10 campaign championed by the likes of the Guardian has got a lot of airtime recently, and today there’s a new article promoting their new campaign video on the Guardian website.

I’m not suggesting that the campaign wont have achieved anything good (after all any emissions reductions aren’t a bad thing) but the whole ethos of the campaign is something I find deeply problematic. The central idea of course is that individuals, businesses and governments cut their carbon emissions by 10% over the course of 2010. Which on the surface sounds like a good thing, surely cutting carbon emissions across the board is a good thing?

Well yes. Kind of. But what 10:10 doesn’t address is the massive inequality of emissions between different individuals and businesses. For someone who takes six flights a year, drives 15k miles in a 25mpg 4×4 and has a massive house with no insulation and incandescent light bulbs and who eats factory farmed imported meat twice a day and has an otherwise high level of consumption cutting 10% of their emissions is pretty straight forwards. Take a couple of flights less, drive 13.5k miles in their 4×4 and get some energy saving light bulbs or insulation. That individual still has a gargantuan carbon footprint, but it’s 10% smaller than it was before. Are they now sustainable, and have they ‘done their bit’ towards ‘saving the world’ (as the nauseating Guardian article describes the campaign). Of course not.

Now compare that to someone who has been eco-conscious for a number of years, who doesn’t fly, doesn’t drive, buys local produce, who pays extra for renewable-generated electricity and consequently is already has a carbon footprint way below the national average, and may well be living in a sustainable way. What are they meant to do to cut 10% of their emissions? Live without a fridge? Leave the heating off for the first half of winter? Shower only ever using cold water?

So you see the problem, 10:10 is trivial to achieve for the heaviest polluters and extremely hard to achieve for people who actually made an effort to live sustainably because it expects both groups of people to make the same percentage change. It’s the same trick that bourgeois environmentalists like Richard Heinberg have persuasively argued in favour of: a universal percentage reduction, which means that those who have done the most damage make a trivial gesture towards sustainability while those who aren’t really part of the problem have to make the same percentage cut. This has nothing to do with bringing emissions down to a sustainable level. The way to do that is to agree upon what that level should be and then to get people to work towards it, with a cap and dividend system so those who live unsustainably compensate those who are. 10% of totally unsustainable is still totally unsustainable. Accusing people who are already living sustainably of destroying the world because they aren’t going to make further cuts while most of those around them have emissions 3-5 times higher than them is just stupid.

And of course that focusses purely at the level of the individual. While governments are still happy to support costly fossil fuel extraction schemes such as deepwater oil field exploration and tar sands development while failing to adequately support renewable energy generation (Vestas being a case in point) allied with their failure to come to any kind of international agreement to supplant the soon to expire Kyoto Protocol, the actions of individuals are rendered entirely insignificant. How unsurprising then that free marketeers love the idea of 10:10, not only does it mean that the heaviest individual polluters have to take trivial action, but it also means that middle class liberals can feel good about having ‘saved the world’ without the need for any kind of national or international regulation.

And so now the campaign has a new promotional film, in which people who don’t pledge support to the campaign are blown up by figures of authority such as a schoolteacher or boss. Given that many denialist arguments centre on the alleged coercive centralised authority of the warmist movement this video is not very likely to win anyone over. On the Guardian page commentators have remarked that it’s humorous to suggest executing anyone who doesn’t agree with your position. I’m not really seeing the joke.

The video comes across as patronising and highly un-funny. It will undoubtedly offend and alienate people. The campaign itself has achieved something in terms of emissions reductions, but an optional 10% carbon emission decrease has nothing to do with the ridiculous notion of ‘saving the planet’ or even the more sensible notion of avoiding some of the worst of the predicted effects of anthropogenic climate change. Really it’s little more than a way of avoiding middle class guilt at the lack of meaningful action over climate change.

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So the second part of the Penn State University (PSU) inquiry into the conduct of Dr Michael Mann has now concluded… The inquiry, which was set up after the university received a large volume of angry correspondence from members of the public who believed that emails contained in the CRU email hack showed that Dr Mann had committed serious misconduct while based at PSU.

The four charges leveled at Dr Mann by the inquiry were

  • Did [Mann] engage in, or participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions with the intent to suppress or falsify data?
  • Did [Mann] engage in, or participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions with the intent to delete, conceal or otherwise destroy emails, information and/or data, related to AR4, as suggested by Phil Jones?
  • Did [Mann] engage in, or participate in, directly or indirectly, any misuse of privileged or confidential information available to [him] in [his] capacity as an academic scholar?
  • Did [Mann] engage in, or participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research or other scholarly activities?

Back in February PSU administrators ruled that there existed ‘no credible evidence’ that there was any merit to the first three allegations, however they decided that the fourth allegation required further investigation by academic staff. The results of that investigation have now been published, and they state that

A panel of leading scholars has cleared a well-known Penn State climate scientist of research misconduct, following a four-month internal investigation by the University.

Penn State Professor Michael Mann has been cleared of any wrongdoing, according to a report of the investigation that was released today (July 1). Mann was under investigation for allegations of research impropriety that surfaced last year after thousands of stolen e-mails were published online. The e-mails were obtained from computer servers at the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in England, one of the main repositories of information about climate change.

The panel of leading scholars from various research fields, all tenured professors at Penn State, began its work on March 4 to look at whether Mann had “engaged in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting or reporting research or other scholarly activities.” Mann is one of the leading researchers studying climate change.

A full report on the findings of the committee can be viewed at “Final Investigation Report Involving Dr. Michael E. Mann.”

So how widely published will it be that one of the scientists who had to withstand a vast volume of entirely false accusations with regards to his honesty and academic integrity has been completely and utterly vindicated by an investigation? My guess is barely. Yes places like Realclimate and Deltoid will cover it, but the mainstream media outlets which published a huge amount of critical material when ‘Climategate’ was considered a scandal are completely silent. The BBC Science and  Environment section has nothing on this story, likewise the Guardian Environment section has no mention of the latest findings. Sadly it just goes to show once again that while the possibility of a scandal based on hearsay and blog based rumour can be a major story, the far more mundane truth that actually Mann is a diligent, honest and well respected scientist isn’t considered newsworthy. Consequently the millions of people who rely on mainstream media for their news will be left with the impression that Mann and other honest scientists may well be in the process of attempting to manufacture a perceived crisis called global warming.

Equally, those who frequent climate sceptic blogs may be left with the impression that although this later round of investigation chose to interview Richard Lindzen, a well known sceptical scientist (with obligatory links to the oil industry and right wing think tanks, and who has been proved wrong on numerous occasions), it was simply a whitewash, a case of the university acting to protect its own reputation in the face of public criticism. Indeed this was the claim made after the initial three charges were rejected by sources such as Fox News and well know climate sceptic blog site Climate Audit. As Scholars and Rogues aptly demonstrated though, these claims of further wrongdoing by a university inquiry in order to cover up research misconduct are extremely unlikely. It was alleged that this whitewash was done in order to preserve the funding which Mann’s work brought in, however S&R’s research into the matter shows that

According to a list of grants at The Free Republic, Mann has brought in a total of $4.2 million since he joined PSU in 2006, with a significant portion of that money to be spent over the next several years. From 2006 to 2009, Mann’s grants totaled about $1.8 million. In that same period, PSU’s total research income was $2.8 billion ($2,804 million). As a percentage, Mann’s grants represented 0.06% of the total research money that PSU was granted between 2006 and 2009.

The chances of a University risking its reputation as a centre of international excellence by whitewashing an inquiry into one researcher’s conduct is highly unlikely. As of course were the claims that Mann and many other scientists were colluding and conspiring to invent climate change in order to frighten the world into taxing people or bring about a UN based world government, however that didn’t stop these allegations becoming a major news story conveniently timed to coincide with the COP15 conference where world leaders came together attempting to negotiate a follow up to the Kyoto treaty.

With COP15 having been and failed, allied with increased public perception that climate change is not an important issue (and may even be a fraudulent invention of Dr Mann and other scientists) it should be vital that the news outlets who provided so much coverage when they saw a scandal now present a similar amount of coverage that it turns out that their claims turn out to be entirely baseless. However sadly that isn’t how the media works; scandal and allegations sells, carefully researched science and academic inquiries which find no wrongdoing don’t.

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Earlier this year the Sunday Times published a piece by Jonathan Leake claiming that a claim in the 2007 IPCC report about the sensitivity of the Amazon rainforest to changes in precipitation had been invented by environmental activists at the WWF who sought to alarm the public about non-existent dangers which they sought to attribute to anthropogenic climate change.

At the time the piece, based on research by Richard North, was widely criticised on places like Deltoid for failing to report that the WWF report was in fact based on peer reviewed scientific research, and for misrepresenting Dr Simon Lewis’s comments that the IPCC should have referenced the original works rather than the WWF report, claiming that Lewis disputed the scientific basis of both the IPCC and WWF reports.

At the time Lewis tried to comment on the Times website to clarify that his position on the issue had been misrepresented by Leake, so the Times duly deleted his comment. He wrote to the newspaper, and heard nothing back. So he took his complaint to the Press Complaints Commission. In response the Sunday Times has issued the following retraction.

The article “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim” (News, Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had included an “unsubstantiated claim” that up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall. The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) by Andrew Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as “green campaigners” with “little scientific expertise.” The article also stated that the authors’ research had been based on a scientific paper that dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change.

In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure had, in error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that Mr Rowell is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary.

The article also quoted criticism of the IPCC’s use of the WWF report by Dr Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds and leading specialist in tropical forest ecology. We accept that, in his quoted remarks, Dr Lewis was making the general point that both the IPCC and WWF should have cited the appropriate peer-reviewed scientific research literature. As he made clear to us at the time, including by sending us some of the research literature, Dr Lewis does not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports’ statements on the potential vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to droughts caused by climate change.

In addition, the article stated that Dr Lewis’ concern at the IPCC’s use of reports by environmental campaign groups related to the prospect of those reports being biased in their conclusions. We accept that Dr Lewis holds no such view – rather, he was concerned that the use of non-peer-reviewed sources risks creating the perception of bias and unnecessary controversy, which is unhelpful in advancing the public’s understanding of the science of climate change. A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.

As Tim Lambert points out however, Leake’s bogus story soon was doing the rounds on both the climate change denialist blogosphere , and also in other right wing newspapers such as Rupert Murdoch’s Australian and the Daily Mail. It seems highly unlikely that these secondary authors who relied on Leake’s falsified story will all be publishing similar retractions, and consequently much of the impact that the story had as being a widely publicised example of the IPCC allegedly using alarmist predictions from non-scientific sources will likely remain despite the factual basis of the story turning out to be untrue.

This seems a good example of how making entirely baseless accusations can essentially tarnish the work of honest researchers; it is far easier to make unfounded accusations, and then to get these accusations widely reprinted and disseminated by people whose ideological preconceptions the claims resonate with, than it is for those on the wrong end of bogus reporting to clear their names and set the record straight. The affective impact of headlines proclaiming that ACC is a myth invented by environmental activists to create redistributive taxes is somewhat stronger than a retraction of the article  some four and half months after the event.  And as the retraction only covers the place it originated from, The Times, and excludes the plethora of places the untrue assertions were republished, it’s doubtful whether many of those who read those claims will end up reading the retraction. While climate change blogs such as Deltoid, RealClimate and DeSmogBlog have covered the story, as have eco-activists in the (mainly left-wing sections of the) mainstream media such as George Monbiot and Roy Greenslade, it is highly doubtful that these commentators will have the same audience that was reached by the original Times article, and its spin offs in places such as the Mail, the Australian and climate change denial blogs.

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I’ve just been reading a piece by John Vidal on the Guardian Website about the new draft text prepared by the UN Secretariat at the end of their discussions in Bonn over the past couple of weeks

In the piece Vidal states

The new draft text is also guaranteed to infuriate the US, which has so far only pledged to cut its emissions 17% by 2020 on 2005 emission levels – far less than European Union countries who have committed themselves to 20% cuts by 2020 and a 30% cut if other countries show similar ambition. “If this text were to be adopted, then the US would find it particularly difficult. It means they would have to do very much more,” said one European diplomat.

Are pledged cuts of 17% of emissions really ‘far less’ than pledged cuts of 20%? Well if you were getting your information solely from this article you might think perhaps not. What Vidal fails to explain however, is that whereas the US has pledged cuts of 17% of 2005 emissions, the EU figure relates to 1990 levels. As the unlike the EU the US didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol, its emissions grew by about 15% between 1990 and 2005, meaning that if they were measured from the same baseline as everyone else in the world – that is their 1990 levels – the cuts the US has pledged amount to a rather pathetic 4% And this will of course include emissions savings from carbon trading and other schemes which are designed to allow developed countries to avoid actually cutting emissions.

Vidal is comparing apples (cuts based on 1990 levels) to oranges (cuts based on 2005 levels) to paint an entirely confusing picture of what is going on and who has pledged what.

Rather ridiculously though, the actual UN text they are referring to is not much clearer on what exactly it proposes

Developed country Parties shall undertake, individually or jointly, legally binding nationally appropriate mitigation commitments or actions, [including][expressed as] quantified economy-wide emission reduction objectives [while ensuring comparability of efforts and on the basis of cumulative historical responsibility, as part of their emission debt] with a view to reducing the collective greenhouse gas emissions of developed country Parties by [at least] [25–40] [in the order of 30] [40] [45] [49] [X*] per cent from [1990] [or 2005] levels by [2017][2020] [and by [at least] [YY] per cent by 2050 from the[1990] [ZZ] level].

Developed country Parties’ quantified economy-wide emission reduction objectives shall be formulated as a percentage reduction in greenhouse gas emissions [for the period] [from 2013 to 2020]
compared to 1990 or another base year [adopted under the Convention] [, and shall be inscribed in a legally binding agreement].

So the actual UN text seems to suggest that the UN thinks it’s okay for the US to invent a new baseline date for any emission cuts which means that its cuts will be minute compared to those of other developed nations, despite the US per capita emissions figure being far higher than that in Europe and elsewhere. Quite why Vidal and others think that this will infuriate the US is fairly odd, the provision for dates other than 1990 to act as a baseline appears to have been inserted purely to appease the US.

No wonder developing nations are calling this another stitch up along the lines of the Copenhagen Accord. Expecting details such as this to be picked up by the mainstream media when they can’t even give their readers figures based on the same start date seems like wishful thinking though.

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