Posts Tagged ‘ecology’

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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Arts of the Political is the new release penned by cultural geographers Nigel Thrift and Ash Amin, and which explores various manifestations of left wing politics and political movements in order to consider why movements based around equity and community have seemingly achieved so little over the past thirty odd years in the face of neoliberalism. Indeed, this question is particularly pertinent given the financial crisis of 2008, and the inability of the left in places such as the UK (where both Thrift and Amin teach at Warwick and Cambridge respectively) to form a movement seemingly capable of enacting widespread positive changes, or even mounting a serious campaign to challenge the Conservative narrative of enforced austerity as a means for enacting further cuts to public services – a policy David Cameron has recently felt sufficiently emboldened to openly state is a reflection of ideology rather than a situation enforced by economic circumstances.

One might argue that the sweeping cuts made by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition are a prime exemplar of what Naomi Klein has termed the shock doctrine – the neoconservative leveraging of moments of critical instability to enact sweeping changes which increase inequality and benefit elites through privatisations which would likely be too unpopular to pass outside of these specific moments. The question then, is why has the right been so successful at exploiting these opportunities whilst the left has not.

For Thrift and Amin, the answer is primarily that the left has historically been successful when it has been able to articulate new visions, new desires and new organisations which expand the terrain of what is understood to be politics itself, and by doing so energises mass movements through articulating the possibility for a better collective future.

 Movements campaigning for the rights ofwomen, the working class, and other neglected and downtrodden subjects managed to turn engrained orthodoxies on their head in the quarter-century before the First World War by building mass support and accompanying socio-political reform. Although these movements applied particular principles and practices, the record shows that their acts of redefinition went far beyond what was originally intended. These movements freed up new imaginations, invented new political tools, pointed to elements of existence that had been neglected or concealed, and created a constituency that, once constructed, longed for another world. In other words, these movements produced a new sense of the political and of political potential. 1he emerging Left both opened the doors of perception and provided the tools with which to do something about these new perceptions. This is what was common, in our view, in the disparate examples we consider, from the American Progressive Movement and British feminism to German Marxism and Swedish social democracy. In their own way, each of these movements disclosed new desires.

The thesis that drives this book is that progressive movements should pay more attention to such world-making capacity, understood as the ability not just to produce a program in the future but also to open up new notions of what the future might consist of. The most important political movements, in our estimation, are those that are able to invent a world of possibility and hope that then results in multiple intertventions in the economic, social, and cultural, as well as the political sphere. They free thought and practice and make it clear what values are being adhered to, often in quite unexpected ways. p9

Thrift and Amin contend that three areas (or arts) of the political which it is crucial for the left to pay close attention towards are invention, the process of bringing forth tangible futures which hold the promise of a better life; organisation, the practices which are used to bind and articulate these movements; and the mobilisation of affect, considering the ways that political decision making goes beyond rational information processing:

In particular, we consider the whole phenomenon of what Walter Lippmann (1961) called the manufacture of consent: how it is being bent to the needs of the Right and how it could be mobilized more effectively by the Left. At the same time, we attend to how the consideration of affect brings space into the frame. A whole array of spatial technologies has become available that operate on, and with, feeling to produce new forms of activism, which literally map out politics and give actors the resources to kick up more and across more places.3 In other words, the practical mechanics of space must be part of the politics of the Left. p15

Thrift and Amin begin by exploring a range of historical examples whereby left wing politics was able to achieve the kind of redefinition of the political they seek, considering the German Socialism of the SPD before world war 1, Swedish Social Democracy, the British Suffragette movement, and progressive capitalists in the US circa 1900. Thrift and Amin contend that:

In all cases, progress depended on prizing open newpolitical ground and filling it with real hope and desire. Appeal and effectiveness-at a time heavily laden with the weight of tradition, vested power, restricted social force, and new capitalist imperative-had to come from an ability to imagine and build community around the yet to come or the yet to be revealed. This meant inventing new historical subjects, new technologies oforganization and resistance, newvisions of the good life and social possibility, new definitions ofhuman subjectivity and fulfillment, and new spaces of the political (such as “direct action,” “voting,” “public involvement,” “class struggle,” “welfare reform,” “government for the people,” “women’s rights”). A possible world had to be fashioned to render the old unacceptable and the new more desirable and possible. The Left today seems to have less desire or ability to stand outside the given to disclose and make way for a new world.

In seeking to formulate areas where there is the potential for opening up analogous new political spaces, Thrift and Amin incorporate theoretical material from Bruno Latour regarding the status of democracy and agency with regards to nonhumans, arguing that the traditional binaries between sovereign human subjects and inert and passive nonhuman objects is an area which can productively challenged by a revitalised left wing politics.

bow. We want to take up Bruno Latour’s (1999) call for a new parliament and constitution that can accommodate the myriad beings that populate the world, a call that entails acts of definition and redefinition of “actor” so that many humans and nonhumans can jostle for position, gradually expanding the scope and meaning of”collective”
politics. p41

This leads T&A to consider the human as a distributed being, whose processes of cognition stretch far beyond the boundaries of the skin, coming close to Deleuze and Guattari’s positions around ecological machinic flows of matter. Arguing from a position which begins to sound fairly close to some of Bernard Stiegler’s work, they contend that:

Human being is fundamentally prosthetic, what is often called “tool-being.” We are surrounded by a cloud ofall manner of objects that provide us with the wherewithal to think. Much ofwhat we regard as cognition is actually the result ofthe tools we have evolved that allow us to describe, record, and store experience. Take just the example of the craft of memory. 1his has extended its domain mightily since the time paintings were made on the walls of caves, and as a result, a whole new means of thought has come into being…

Memory is a compositional art depending on the cultivation of images for the mind to work with. This state of affairs has continued but has been boosted by modern media technology and its ability to produce communal rhetorics that would have been impossible before and that are inevitably heavily political, especially in their ability to keep inventing new variants of themselves that can be adapted to new situations. p50/51

This sense of distributed being and agency is used to reinforce the Latourian argument surrounding the agency of objects, and thus their importance in a new an enlarged sense of politics and democracy. Using Gilbert Simondon’s notion of transduction T&A explore:

The way in which tools and other symbiotes can produce environments that are lively in their own right, that prompt new actants to come into existence. To illustrate this point, we need to look no further than the types of digital technology that have become a perpetual overlay to so many practices and the way in which they are changing political practices. Here we find a domain that has gained a grip only over the past ten years but is now being used as part of an attempt to mass-produce “ontological strangeness” (Rodowick 2007) based on semiautomatic responses designed into everyday life through a combination of information technology based tools and the practices associated with them (from implants and molecular interventions to software-based perception and action). In particular, these automatisms are concerned with the design and prototyping of new kinds of space that can produce different affective vibrations. p64

T&A bring this discussion back in to realm of the more conventionally political by using distributed agency and co-evolutionary strategies as a way of opening up though surrounding ecological crises and how a coherent left political response to climate change requires precisely the type of expanded politics which they characterise as world making:

What is needed instead is a leftist politics that stresses interconnection as opposed to the “local,” however that is understood. What is needed is “not so much a sense of place as a sense ofplanet” (Heise 2008, ss) that is often (and sometimes rather suspectly) called “eco-cosmopolitanism.” Thus, to begin with, the experience of place needs to be re-engineered so that its interlocking ecological dimensions again become clear. This work of reconnection is already being done on many levels and forms a vital element in the contemporary repertoire of leftist politics: slow food, fair trade, consumer boycotts, and so on. Each of these activities connects different places, and it is this work of connection that is probably their most important outcome. Environmental justice then needs to be brought into the equation. The privileges of encounters with certain ecologies, as well as the risks associated with some branches of industry and agribusiness, are clearly unevenly distributed, and it may well be that certain environmentally unsound practices have been perpetuated because their effects go unnoticed by the middle class. Again, environmental justice movements have to refigure spaces, both practically and symbolically, so that interconnection becomes translucent. Finally, we need new ways to sense and envisage global crowds that are dynamic. The attempts to produce people’s mapping and geographic information systems, to engage in various forms of mash-up, and to initiate new forms of search are all part and parcel of a growing tendency to produce new lands of concerned and concernful “Where are we?” Politics starts from this question. p75

This is followed by a a chapter which claims to look at contemporary leftist politics, surveying the landscape through the apertures of anti-capitalism, reformist capitalism, post-capitalism and human recognition. What is striking about the majority of these contemporary left wing political movements is that they aren’t actually political movements.  Anti-Capitalism is not approached through Occupy or Climate Camp, it is Zizek, and Badiou alongside Hardt and Negri – which conflates two very different theoretical perspectives on anti-capitalism – and is summarily dismissed as hopelessly over-optimistic and unable to visualise a future. Reformism is not Syriza/The Five Star Movment/Bolvarian Socialism, it is Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens’s reflexive modernity and third way. By post-capitalism T&A mean ‘A third leftist stance on the contemporary world can be described as “poststructuralist,” in that it draws on feminist, postcolonial, antiracist,and ecological thinking, much of which heavily influenced by poststructuralist ideas’ p91. Conceptually that would seem to fit Hardt and Negri quite well, but here T&A refer instead to GIbson-Graham’s work on small scale, local, co-operative ethical and sustainable, which could have been productively mapped onto the actions of groups and initiatives such as transition towns, permaculture groups, feminist networks, Greenpeace and other NGOs and the broad range of groups and movements who actually practice some of these ideas, but instead is again explored as a mere theoretical argument rather than political praxis. Human recognition is used to refer to a liberal left based around ethics derived from Wendy Brown’s writings – again rather than exploring groups who actually employ this mode of left politics, probably best embodied by online liberal campaign groups such as Avaaz or 38 Degrees. Finally T&A return to Latour and the notion of Dingpolitik and the role of bringing objects into democracy, a position which has been criticised within academia for being politically conservative as Latour’s works tend to entirely ignore issues surrounding inequalities and exploitation, content instead to simply map actor networks, in contrast with more politically engaged posthuman scholarship from the likes of Felix Guattari or Manuel DeLanda. Perhaps there could have been an interesting dialogue here between T&A’s Latourian positions and the actions and ideologies of animal rights groups or deep ecologists, but again for T&A the left today does not consist of movements of people actually campaigning, occupying, protesting and organising, it simply appears to be a disparate collection of academics.

Put simply, this was what was most frustrating about Arts of the Political, rather than engaging with the broad and varied range of social and ecological activisms which currently exist, the left is reduced to academic thought, whilst the authours proclaim themselves to be engaged in materialist analysis. Perhaps it is simply indicative of the fact that the book’s authors are ageing men living and working in universities who are so totally detached from the actual practices of the left wing groups they claim to represent that they are barely able to acknowledge their existence. Indeed, Thrift has seen protests and occupations from students at Warwick surrounding his astronomical pay increases as Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick over the past couple of years (from 2011 to 2013 Thrift’s salary has increased from £238,000 to £316,000 at a time when tuition fees have tripled for his institution’s students). That as a background perhaps helps explain why the actually existing left is almost entirely absent from T&A’s exploration of left wing politics.

In the following chapters where T&A discuss organisation, there is a mixture of some interesting thoughts surrounding ecology, using Stengers, Deleuze and Guattari, to consider the notion of ‘addressing the political as an ecology of spatial practices’ p133 alongside a consideration of the organisation of the EU as a potentially fruitful model for the left, as it involves multiple parties across different scales having to cooperate. Such a politics of pragmatic cooperation could of course be understood as a mainstay of anticapitalist politics since the 1990s – the alter-globalisation movement and its manifestations within the world social forum, the peoples global assembly and Indymedia all sought to embody a politics of the multiple, as theorised by Hardt and Negri, and similar claims could be made regarding the anti-war movement, climate change activism and Occupy. But in keeping with their refusal to actually engage with left wing movements, we instead get a lionisation of the EU at a time where elements of the actually existing left are campaigning against the EU’s proposed free trade deal with the US which would effectively allow corporations to sue governments using secret panels to bypass parliaments.

This is a shame, as some of theoretical material around affect, space and that relating to the need to build positive visions of a left wing future articulated by T&A are in places very strong. The central argument that the left needs to find a way to escape what Mark Fisher has called Capitalist Realism, the notion that neoliberalism is the only possible game in town (with the alternative being an eco-apocalypse), is undoubtedly correct, and the politicisation of affect and the reorientation of politics towards an ecology of ethical practices are both concepts worth pursuing. However, they require consideration in relation to the actual practices of political movements, rather than simply as abstract theoretical constructs.

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During my several months of failing to blog I’ve had a paper published in a special edition of the journal Culture Machine, which is an open access journal, meaning that unlike much of academia it isn’t up behind a paywall.

The article is called Escaping Attention: Digital Media Hardware, Materiality and Ecological Cost, and it looks at ways that discourses around the attention economy and immateriality tend to obscure various material ecological impacts of digital technologies. It’s part of a special edition on the attention economy which was co-edited by Patrick Crogan and Sam Kinsley from the the Digital Cultures Research Centre at UWE. Material for the journal was drawn from the 2010 European Science Foundation funded conference entitled ‘Paying Attention: Digital Media Cultures and Generational Responsibility,’ which was convened by the Digital Cultures Research Centre.

Alongside my contribution, the special edition features a substantial introduction by the editors, which presents a critical examination of the workings of the ‘attention economy’ in the context of today’s rapidly emerging realtime, ubiquitous, online digital technoculture. It re-focusses work on this theme of attention in light of the current and emerging digital technocultural media sphere of smart devices, the pervasive mediation of experience, and the massive financial speculation in the attention capturing potential of social networking media. The special issue includes an interview by Kinsley with peer2peer co-founder, Michel Bauwens, essays by key theorists of attention Jonathan Beller, Bernard Stiegler, Tiziana Terranova, and several papers on topics from Facebook and Free and Open Software, to the problematic role of digital social networking in Istanbul’s recent (2010) European Capital of Culture project. Its really great to be published alongside such thought provoking and insightful pieces.


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Over the weekend of the 11th and 12th of June I was at BarnCamp, a fun filled weekend of tech activist related tomfoolery organised by the Hacktionlab network. On the Sunday I gave a talk about the Social and Ecological costs of Technology, which was recorded by the Catalyst radio collective, who launched a 24 hours a day seven days a week at BarnCamp. The talks are available for streaming here.

The first talk on the audio stream is on the Luddite movement and the contemporary relevance of their actions ahead of the bicentenary of the Luddite rebellion in 2012, the second is some thoughts on technology, the self and upgrade culture, and my talk is on third, about 35 minutes in.

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On Friday I was in London for an unconference hosted by Furtherfields.org at the University of Westminster, London which approached the subject of re-rooting digital culture from an ecological perspective. Here’s the brief for the event:

Over the last decade the awareness of anthropogenic climate change has emerged in parallel with global digital communication networks. In the context of environmental and economic collapse people around the world are seeking alternative visions of prosperity and sustainable ways of living.

While the legacy of the carbon fuelled Industrial Revolution plays itself out, we find ourselves grappling with questions about the future implications of fast-evolving global digital infrastructure. By their very nature the new tools, networks and behaviours of productivity, exchange and cooperation between humans and machines grow and develop at an accelerated rate.

The ideas for this transdisciplinary panel have grown out of Furtherfield’s Media Art Ecologies programme and will explore the impact of digital culture on climate change, developing themes adopted in grass-roots, emerging and established practices in art, design and science.

One thing which left me somewhat confused was why the event was billed as an unconference, when in reality it was a fairly straightforward event with three speakers and a short Q+A after. Listening to three presentations (with accompanying powerpoints and prezis) and then having the chance to ask a few questions at the end is not a participant driven meeting, its the same format as you find at any conventional conference panel.

The first speaker was Michel Bauwens, founder of the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives. Bauwens began by prescribing the central problems of the contemporary socio-economic system with regards to sustainability and equity. The first problem he outlined was that of pseudo-abundance: the aim of achieving infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources and the externalisation of ecological costs from our limited understanding of economics. The second problem he delineated was that of artificial scarcity: the ways in which intellectual property is enforced via patents and copyrights which create scarcity around assets whose cost of reproduction often approaches zero with digital networked technology. This Bauwens argued, leads to the stifling of innovation, which prevents the types of solutions to ecological crises being developed as commonwealth, outside of a profit driven market framework. The final problem Bauwens diagnosed was that of social justice, as exemplified by the cavernous (and growing) divide between rich and poor on a global level.

Bauwens’ suggestions around potential solutions to these problems is primarily through commons based peer production. In commons based peer production, individuals are able to voluntarily self-aggregate into distributed networks based on coordination through networked telecommunications. While Bauwens presents this as an entirely new phenomena, afforded by the massive increase in computational power and networked connectivity associated with the information revolution, it is worth mentioning that voluntary self-aggregation and democratised and decentralised ownership of projects has long been a foundational concept of anarcho-syndicalist thought. What appears to be different about P2P networks in the contemporary context however are their ability to connect peers outside of a localised context through digital telecommunications networks, and also for the projects to be scaled up accordingly in terms of size and scope. These affordances have the potential to enable commons based peer production to out-compete market based initiatives in many circumstances, however what is potentially of greater significance than the efficiency gains P2P networks can provide is the alternative set of values they tend to embody.

Bauwens used examples of numerous forms of consumer electronics as instantiations of planned obsolescence, whereby the company making the product has a financial incentive to create a product which has a highly limited shelf life, and whose design is not modular, so that failure of individual components leads to users replacing the entire device. While the manufacturer profits each time this cycle continues and new items are bought, the ecological costs increase, however these are externalised from the market transaction. By contrast the open design methodology is based around values whereby the user/designer (the term prouser was suggested) wants their device to be as durable and long lasting as possible, and for a modular design to exist which eanables them to easily replace any parts which are damaged over time. Consequently the argument Bauwens promoted was that the values of the open design movement present an ethical alternative to market production whereby ecological sustainability and social justice can be built into the production process itself.

Bauwens argued that this argument was not merely utopianism but was based on a material analysis of the prescient features of contemporary capitalism, which he argued already needs commons based peer production in order to remain profitable.

The second speaker was Catherine Bottrill of Julie’s Bicycle, an organisation which works with arts ‘buisnesses’ to reduce their carbon footprint. While I’m sure the organisation does good work, the scheduling seemed somewhat odd. Following a talk about the problems of contemporary capitalism and the necessity to replace it with a system with alternative ethical values created via grassroots and decentralised P2P networks we had a talk which seemed to imply that if the major record labels reduced their carbon footprint slightly and their star acts planned their world tours slightly differently there would be no ecological crisis.

It was problematic that Bottrill didn’t address any of the concerns or solutions Bauwens had just raised, and one slide in particular caused (presumably) inadvertant entertainment with her diagnosis of contemporary challenges to society. First came recession, second came the Middle East Crisis, followed by cuts to Arts Council funding. I’m not sure what came next because I was laughing too hard. On a more serious note though, for a group of uniformly white middle class people at a posh London university to listen to someone raise arts funding cuts as a major social problem above the other aspects of the government’s austerity programme; cuts to disability benefits, cuts to welfare, cuts to education, the privatisation of the NHS etc was somewhat depressing.

The final presentation was from Ruth Catlow of Furtherfields.org on ecological approaches to networks, tools and digital art. Catlow began with a delineation of network topography, referring to a 1964 RAND corporation diagram on various forms of structure

Catlow argued that while mass media networks resemble the centralised structure on the left, the Internet is a mixture of the decentralised (via the cables and gateways that make up the material apparatus of connectivity) and distributed (as each computer functions as a node in a distributed network). While this has been a traditional way that the Internet, and its potential for creating a democratic media system has been trumpeted for over two decades now, this analysis misses a crucial part of the picture. Recent research into the structure and connectivity of complex networks such as the World Wide Web (which is the most common encounter people have with the Intenet) reveals that far from a distributed system in which all nodes are equal or every blogger is a pamphleteer, the structure of these networks is that of a power law, with a few preferentially attached ‘superstars’ such as Google, Facebok, Twitter and Amazon, while the vast majority of content resides in the ‘long tail’ where it receives scant attention.

Systems as diverse as genetic networks or the World Wide Web are best
described as networks with complex topology. A common property of many
large networks is that the vertex connectivities follow a scale-free power-law
distribution. This feature was found to be a consequence of two generic mech-
anisms: (i) networks expand continuously by the addition of new vertices, and
(ii) new vertices attach preferentially to sites that are already well connected.
A model based on these two ingredients reproduces the observed stationary
scale-free distributions, which indicates that the development of large networks
is governed by robust self-organizing phenomena that go beyond the particulars
of the individual systems
Barabasi and Albert 1999

When we talk about network topology we need to engage with these findings, as while the power law functions as an attractor which partially determines the distribution of the network, there has been some research which suggests that this is not a fixed and finite determinism and that there may be methods or tactics which communities can use to make these networks more equitable. But for me, that discussion is the interesting one to be having about network topologies now, not merely a recapitulation of the earliest models.

Following this, Catlow went on to detail a number of projects which Furtherfields have been involved in, including the Zero Dollar Laptop Project; which is an innovative way of both mitigating the ecological cost of contemporary computing hardware while also providing social benefits to disadvantaged groups, We Wont Fly For Art, a project designed to mitigate the carbon emissions created by artists and the Feral Trade Cafe, a project by Kate Rich which establishes social networks to ethically trade goods.

Overall the event was worth attending, Bauwens’ talk in particular being a highlight.

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Yesterday I gave a guest lecture for to MA students at the University of Western England on Media Ecologies… Here’s a copy of the Prezi that went along with the lecture, and a selected bibliography for some key readings associated with the field. I’ll try and find some time to write my notes up into a blog post sometime soon

Link to Prezi: Media Ecologies on Prezi

Media Ecologies Bibliography


Bateson, Gregory, (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind; Collected essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology, Northvale New Jersey, Aronsen Inc.

Capra, Fritjof (1996) The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, New York, Anchor Books

DeLanda, Manuel, (1992) ‘Nonorganic Life’, in Jonathan Crary & Sanford Kwinter (eds), Zone 6: Incorporations, New York: Urzone, pp. 129-67

DeLanda, Manuel (2002) Intensive Sciences and Virtual Philosophies, London and New York, Continuum

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix (1972, trans 1977) ‘Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia,’ Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R Lane, London & New York, Continuum

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix (1980, trans 1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Translation by Brian Massumi, London & New York, University of Chicago Press

Guattari, Felix (2000) The Three Ecologies, trans Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton, London, Athelone Press

Maturana, Humberto and Varela Fransisco (1980) Autopoiesis and Cognition, Dordrecht, Holland, Reidel,

Prigogine, Ilya in collaboration with Stengers, Isabelle (1997) The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos and the New Laws of Nature, New York, The Free Press


Haraway, Donna (1982) ‘Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature New York; Routledge, 1991, pp.149-181.

Hayles, N Katherine (1999) How We Became Posthuman Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Hayles N Katherine (2007) Deep and Hyper Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Models, http://www.mlajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1632/prof.2007.2007.1.187

Latour, Bruno (1991) We have never Been Modern, Translated by Catherine Porter
Cambridge, Massachusettes, Harvard University Press,

Stiegler, Bernard (2009) For a New Critique of Political Economy, translated by Daniel Ross, Polity Books, UK

Media Ecologies

Fuller, Matthew (2005) Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Technoculture, Cambridge MA, MIT Press

Matthew Fuller (ed) (2008) Software Studies: A Lexicon, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press

Jussi Parikka (2007) Digital Contagions: A Media Archeology of Computer Viruses, Peter Lang Books

Jussi Parikka (2011) Insect Media: An Archeology of Animals and Technology, University of Minnesota Press

Jussi Parrika (ongoing) Machinology http://jussiparikka.net/

Rawlings, Tomas (ongoing) A Great Becoming http://agreatbecoming.wordpress.com/

Taffel, Sy (ongoing) Media Ecologies and Digital Activism https://mediaecologies.wordpress.com/

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While being ill over the last week or so, I’ve spent some time playing the beta version of Fate of the World, a forthcoming PC game based around climate change which has generated quite a lot of interest in the mainstream media ( see here and here)

The game essentially puts you in command of a global organisation whose mission is to prevent catastrophic climate change (defined in the beta mission as 3 degrees of warmth), maintain a human development index above 0.5 and keep people happy enough to stop more than a certain number of geographical regions from kicking you out by the year 2020.

To achieve these goals you have a variety of tools at your disposal; projects which include boosting renewable energy, deploying CCS technology and subsidising electric cars, environmental and social adaptation/mitigation measures such as drought prevention measures, healthcare programmes and advancing regional water infrastructure, policy measures such as banning oil from tar sands or deploying algae based biofuels, and political measures such as deploying peacekeepers to troubles regions and black ops (including covert steralisation programmes?!).

From a game studies perspective the game is interesting as it provides users with a complex simulation whereby numerous interdependent factors are required to be dynamically balanced in a way that goes far beyond the usual kill or be killed binary prevalent inb most computer games. While there are of course alternatives, particularly in the realm of sandbox simulation games from SimEarth to Civilisation 5, Fate of the World is interesting insofar as it uses data taken from climate models to simulate not a fictional alternative world, but possible futures of this planet, presuming that the current data from climate models are broadly accurate. As such by experimenting with different variables users can glean a different kind of insight pertaining to the challenges posed by Anthropogenic Climate Change to engaging with traditional forms of media, such as watching a documentary or reading the scientific literature. By being able to manipulate how regions react through play, users get a different kind of experience, one driven by feedback, configuration and systemic thinking rather than narrative, affect or rhetoric. While such models will always be highly reductive simplifications of real world complexity, they could provide a useful way of approaching some of the complex social and environmental issues currently facing us, and indeed this kind of argument has been powerfully advanced by game studies scholars such as Stuart Moulthrop, who have advanced the argument that when dealing with complexity, configurational thinking is likely to present users with a better understanding of the area than linear narrative based approaches.

One criticism I have of the game in its current state is that the processes of feedback which reveal how a user’s interventions are effecting the relevant systems are often relatively obscured by their placement two menus deep, and I suspect that many players will struggle to find the data which actually spells out what the the consequences of their actions have been, and without this crucial information actions can appear opaque and indeed this criticism has been made on gaming forums discussing the beta. Hopefully this will something that is addressed before the game is released, as if players don’t understand what effects their decisions have entailed, then the game isn’t achieving its goals.

One aspect of the game which I found highly intriguing is the disparity between the aims and activities the game sets for users and the claims and actions of really existing nation states and supranational institutions. The beta mission in the game sets success as avoiding a rise of 3 or more degrees over pre-industrial temperatures by 2120, which is  below the midpoint of the IPCC projections of 1.5-6 degrees of warming this century (dependent on a range of factors, but primarily human measures), but which is considerably higher than the figure of a 2 degree rise which nation states couldn’t agree upon at the COP15 conference at Copenhagen last year. The reason states couldn’t agree upon that figure wasn’t the complete lack of concrete measures designed to practically bring about that change, but because a large number of nations, primarily the 131 countries represented by the G77 group, declared that a 2 degree temperature rise was too high. Earlier this year those nations convened in Bolivia at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, where they drafted a people’s agreement which stated

If global warming increases by more than 2 degrees Celsius, a situation that the “Copenhagen Accord” could lead to, there is a 50% probability that the damages caused to our Mother Earth will be completely irreversible. Between 20% and 30% of species would be in danger of disappearing. Large extensions of forest would be affected, droughts and floods would affect different regions of the planet, deserts would expand, and the melting of the polar ice caps and the glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas would worsen. Many island states would disappear, and Africa would suffer an increase in temperature of more than 3 degrees Celsius. Likewise, the production of food would diminish in the world, causing catastrophic impact on the survival of inhabitants from vast regions in the planet, and the number of people in the world suffering from hunger would increase dramatically, a figure that already exceeds 1.02 billion people. The corporations and governments of the so-called “developed” countries, in complicity with a segment of the scientific community, have led us to discuss climate change as a problem limited to the rise in temperature without questioning the cause, which is the capitalist system…

Our vision is based on the principle of historical common but differentiated responsibilities, to demand the developed countries to commit with quantifiable goals of emission reduction that will allow to return the concentrations of greenhouse gases to 300 ppm, therefore the increase in the average world temperature to a maximum of one degree Celsius.

With atmospheric CO2 concentrations currently at 387ppm, and even the most ambitious campaigners in the developed world calling for a reduction to 350ppm, the aims set out at the World People’s Conference appear laudable, but completely unrealistic. Indeed, the goal loosely set out at COP15 of reducing warming to no more than 2 degrees, but with no mechanisms to try to achieve this have been widely criticised by groups such as the International Institute for Environment and Development;

The Accord is weak. It is not binding and has no targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (countries that signed it have until 31 January to list their voluntary actions in its appendix). The low level of ambition will make preventing dangerous climate change increasingly difficult. What countries have so far proposed will commit us to a 3 to 3.5-degree temperature increase, and that is just the global average.

In some ways this may be the most useful role the game plays; highlighting the distance between the rhetoric of political and business leaders who are currently seeking to greenwash the issue, and present their inaction beyond rhetoric as somehow being constitutive of a viable solution to the problems posed by ACC. Despite taking concerted action throughout the game it is hard to maintain warming of under 3 degrees without society collapsing due to a lack of mitigation and adaptation measures, widespread war and civil unrest or widespread poverty and famine in the face of increasingly severe climate related disasters as the next 110 years unfold. In some ways this isn’t that much fun; being told that your actions are resulting in millions starving and armed conflict doesn’t spread warmth and joy, but it does give some indication of how hard things are likely to get as time passes.

One thing that becomes abundantly clear from the game is that the sooner action is taken to dramatically curb CO2 emissions (particularly in wealthy nations where emissions per capita are far higher), the less severe the consequences will be further down the line. This is a lesson we would do well to heed.

World People’s Conference on Climate Change

and the Rights of Mother Earth

April 22nd, Cochabamba, Bolivia


Today, our Mother Earth is wounded and the future of humanity is in danger.

If global warming increases by more than 2 degrees Celsius, a situation that the “Copenhagen Accord” could lead to, there is a 50% probability that the damages caused to our Mother Earth will be completely irreversible. Between 20% and 30% of species would be in danger of disappearing. Large extensions of forest would be affected, droughts and floods would affect different regions of the planet, deserts would expand, and the melting of the polar ice caps and the glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas would worsen. Many island states would disappear, and Africa would suffer an increase in temperature of more than 3 degrees Celsius. Likewise, the production of food would diminish in the world, causing catastrophic impact on the survival of inhabitants from vast regions in the planet, and the number of people in the world suffering from hunger would increase dramatically, a figure that already exceeds 1.02 billion people. The corporations and governments of the so-called “developed” countries, in complicity with a segment of the scientific community, have led us to discuss climate change as a problem limited to the rise in temperature without questioning the cause, which is the capitalist system.

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