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Archive for the ‘environmentalism’ Category

We’re into the third and final week of The Lives and Afterlives of Plastic, it’s been wonderful so far, and I’m looking forwards to working through the last set of presentations.

This week we have a keynote from professor Ian Shaw that looks at plastics and endocrine disrupting chemicals, as well as panels on public awareness of marine plastics, plastics and microfibres/fabrics, waste management, and last of all materiality.

In that final panel is the paper that Trisia Farelly and I co-authored, which is a fairly accessible and informal discussion of a range of issues around plastic, accumulation, toxicity and regulation. It’s called Technofossils and Toxicity, but the Anthropocene/Technofossils bit didn’t make it to the final cut as out original discussion went for way over the 20 minutes

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Plastic rubbish garbage pollution in ocean causes environmental problem

We’re now into the second week of The Lives and Afterlives of Plastic, an onlinbe conference that I’m helping run as part of the Political Ecology research Centre at Massey University.

This week, we have a Keynote from Professor Gay Hawkins entitled Governed By Plastic, as well as having four panels. These look at 1) Packaging Life Cycle Analysis and Design, 2) Representations and Aesthetics, 3) Materiality and 4) Marine Microplastics.

It’s been wonderful watching the diverse and brilliant ways that people have responded to and challenged the idea of what an online version of a conference paper might look like, and it’s been fascinating to watch and hear about such a broad range of projects relating to plastic.

It’s also been really interesting to see how the diverse forms of scholarship form the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities speak to one another.

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plastic polymer granules

This week sees the launch of an online, interdisciplinary conference that I’ve been involved in organizing as part of the Massey University Political Ecology Research Centre. It’s called The Lives and Afterlives of Plastic, and it focuses on the broad range of issues that pertain to plastics, waste, toxicity and pollution.

We’re pleased to say that we’ve got presenters from fields ranging from marine biology and toxicology through to media studies, fine art and anthropology, so there’s a real mix of fields and areas, and will be fascinating to see how that mix of voices works together in the discussions.

The first week of the conference has a keynote from Richard Thompson, who’s one of the world’s top experts on marine plastics, which is titled Marine Debris: Are There Solutions to this Growing Problem?, along with panels the look at the amazing an inspirational Civic Laboratory of Environmental Action Research, a feminist science lab in Newfoundland, Canada, Marine Plastics, and Representation and Aesthetics.

I’m really looking forwards to seeing these presentations, and taking part in the online discussions around them. Being in New Zealand can be quite geographically isolating (especially compared to the UK, where so many researchers and institutions are so close), and online conferences might be a really useful way of allowing us to stay connected to our overseas colleagues without having the ecological (or for that matter economic) cost associated with getting on a plane and flying halfway across the world. Indeed, when the University of California Santa Barbara Environmental Humanities centre ran a similar online conference last year, they estimated that this only involved around 1% of the carbon footprint associated with a traditional conference.

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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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