Anthropocene

“Manufacturing the Future”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 11/11/2017 - 3:12am in

Last year, I was honored to deliver the 9th Annual Wheelright Memorial Lecture at the University of Sydney.

A couple of weeks ago, my longtime friend and collaborator Katherine Gibson presented the 2017 Wheelright Memorial Lecture, “Manufacturing the Future: Cultures of Production for the Anthropocene.”

her work has consistently challenged orthodox and heterodox economics’ primary focus upon the operation of ‘Big-C’ Capitalism. Instead, Gibson has crafted a unique methodological framework she terms ‘participatory action research’, which looks to the diversity of existing community economic arrangements by engaging directly with local subjects.

The method engages with local communities to shed light upon the idiosyncrasies and often non-commercial nature of local modes of provisioning. Rather than accepting the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – the notion of the inevitable degradation of commonly used land and resources – Gibson’s work has revealed the importance of the commons to many existing developmentally diverse communities. She thereby challenges the core tenet of orthodox economics, which prioritises the optimisation of the allocation of scarce resources through facilitating smoothly functioning markets.

Tagged: Anthropocene, Australia, commons, community, economics, inequality, mainstream, manufacturing, sustainability

Book Review: Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming by William E. Connolly

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 25/10/2017 - 9:35pm in

In Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming, William E. Connolly addresses deepening planetary crises by exploring the creative potential of a ‘politics of swarming’. In calling for an ‘entangled humanism’ to construct a radical, pluralist assemblage able to tackle our present ecological predicament, this invigorating and imaginative book merits attention, writes Nikhilendu Deb

Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming. William E. Connolly. Duke University Press. 2017.

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In Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming, William E. Connolly focuses on deepening planetary crises, including climate change, and the existing, inadequate responses to these by political, social and economic actors, before outlining a politics necessary to defuse this situation. To illustrate how official narratives lurch from one crisis to another in the absence of a reliable alternative, Connolly uses a metaphor from the Book of Job, where Job suffers without any misdeeds of his own, yet is pressed to continue and even intensify his belief in a ‘higher purpose’. Mythological stories have become revelatory in understanding how a prevailing system reacts to crises, which is, as Connolly writes, evident in neoliberalism’s response: intensification of support for its ideology.

Connolly provokes our social and ecological imagination vis-à-vis anthropogenic ecological change by attending to several ‘force fields’ such as climate patterns, drought regions, the ocean system, species evolution, glacier currents and catastrophic hurricanes. He concludes the book with a convincing argument in favour of ‘entangled humanism’, challenging sociocentrism, on the one hand, and forging relations of reverence with multiple traditions around the world on the other.

In the first chapter, Connolly critically engages with many leading works of ‘sociocentrism’, by which scholars display a penchant toward explaining social processes solely through reference to other social processes. Even the best sociocentric scholars do not attend to the ‘self-organizing amplifiers and internal volatilities of planetary processes’ (16). Sociocentrism is also associated with human exceptionalism, which deems humans as the only capable agents in the world. Although a sociocentric propensity is noticeable in the work of many Western scholars, Connolly tours four key figures in this tradition: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Isaiah Berlin, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Marx. To Connolly, all failed to underline how Western capitalist states and imperial orders created, and would continue creating, a world climate and ecological crisis that particularly affects poor and minority populations across the world.

Image Credit: (Ricardo Reis CC BY SA 2.0)

In Chapters Two and Three, Connolly extends his dialogues to recent theories of species evolution and cultural theorists, respectively. In Chapter Two, he underscores the need to exchange ideas between the work of contemporary earth scientists and those in the social sciences and humanities. He pursues this in the next chapter by inviting scholars to engender a ‘critical politics’ necessary for dealing with the problems that are staring the world in its face. In Chapter Four, Connolly presents a history of how rapid changes in planetary forces, i.e. to glaciers, the climate and oceans, proceeded in the past (91), and how unbridled capitalist growth has triggered off a series of planetary-level, environmental crises.

In Chapter Five on the politics of swarming, Connolly addresses the democratic process and capitalism as they coexist today, emphasising the dilemmas of electoral politics, especially in the United States. The unchecked power of corporations, the media’s focus on insignificant or scandalous issues, gerrymandering and filibustering of the state and actions to disenfranchise minority populations all make electoral politics dysfunctional. However, Connolly suggests that we partake in electoral politics as well as break its ‘grid of intelligibility’ (123). Otherwise, actors of the political Right will utilise yet another institution to consolidate its agenda in this era replete with extremist potential.

Additionally, electoral politics render invisible the extractionist mission of capitalism, which imposes sufferings on ‘those who cannot easily publicize widely what is happening to them as they suffer effects of corporate invasions in long slow time’ (123). The question is: do we just stand idle in an epoch when problems are multiplying and solutions seem ineffective? To answer this question, Connolly cites Thomas D. Seeley’s metaphor of ‘honeybee democracy’. Here, female scouts check out possible relocation sites in the search for a new hive site, and each returns and suggests the attractiveness and feasibility of a new location. Other bees scout the location, gradually building a quorum upon the negotiation of multiple sites identified by secondary and tertiary scouts before the decision to move is made (124). To Connolly, such types of assembly-based swarming movements, having a variety of loci and foci of choices, may provide a promising clue in our search for planetary solutions. Connolly suggests that humans can also take experimental roles in numerous locations with diverse foci to ‘swarm’ regular politics: therefore, the politics of swarming ‘is composed of multiple constituencies, regions, levels, and modes of action, each carrying some potential to augment and intensify the others with which it becomes associated’ (125).

Connolly next discusses the potentiality of a ‘general strike’, drawing on scholars and activists such as Georges Sorel and Mahatma Gandhi. Sorel, for instance, discussed two different types of strikes: Local and General. The former is specific to short-term objectives, such as better working conditions, and the latter aims to demand a fundamental reordering of the world. Connolly, however, raises the caveat that a slow-motion strike alone may be insufficient. Thus, to affect the trajectory of contemporary politics, we also need to mobilise a ‘militant pluralist assemblage’ drawing from different classes, religions, creeds, age cohorts and genders (131). Moreover, although Connolly suggests the need for militant action, it must be strategic enough to avoid violence, in the manner of Gandhi in colonised India.

Connolly begins the last chapter with Rob Nixon’s notion of ‘slow violence’, a notion that adequately captures capitalism’s violence against the environment which takes place gradually and happens out of our sight. The Bhopal disaster of 1984 would be an example of slow violence because it is remembered only by its spectacle: thousands of casualties, whereas other hundreds of thousands suffered many long-lasting consequences, and the soil and groundwater remain contaminated to date.

Here, instead of being a passive nihilist, Connolly extols the notion of an entangled humanism, which encourages us to: 1) see symbiotic relationships between human species and other beings and forces; 2) revise the doctrines of human exceptionalism and sociocentrism and become more aware of other modes of experiences; 3) forge relations of respect across societies such as towards the traditions of indigenous groups; and 4) form a critical pluralist politics exceeding creedal differences which ‘pursues ecological actions at multiple sites’ (172) and simultaneously seeks to weaken its opponent in this perilous period. Finally, Connolly invites us to engage in an energetic cross-regional pluralist assemblage consisting of numerous minorities as opposed to decisions being taken from the centre.

To conclude, it seems there is no good omen for the future of this planet. Although the world continues to face catastrophic weather events and climate change appears to be leading towards the world’s sixth great mass extinction, the dominant political and economic systems seem resistant to addressing these planetary crises adequately. Given this situation, Connolly’s analysis of planetary calamities and proposal for a politics of swarming merit attention. The book effectively integrates a variety of sources, including from political theory, social theory, philosophy, theology, economics, geology, biology and paleontology, and covers a wide range of topics, reinvigorating discussion regarding not only the current ecological problems, but also what can be done given the prospect of a seemingly apocalyptic future.

Nikhilendu Deb is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Bangladesh. He is currently on sabbatical and is pursuing his PhD at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, with a focus on political economy, environmental sociology and social theory. Read more by Nikhilendu Deb.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Anthropocene Reading Group 2017/18

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 26/09/2017 - 12:32am in

CUSP logo - without taglineCoordinated by Will Davies, Richard Douglas and Nick Taylor, the Anthropocene Reading Group is meeting regularly to discuss some of the latest literature in the field. The reading relates to the work within CUSP that they are currently engaged in, but is relevant to those interested in political economy generally, environmental politics and philosophy, and more. It is open to all – academics, non-academics, students – and no registration is required.

Meetings will take place on Wednesdays at 4pm in the basement seminar room at PERC, 41 Lewisham Way, opposite the main Goldsmiths building (how to find Goldsmiths).

Reading Schedule and Reviews 2017/18

Wed 15th Nov – Amitav Ghosh (2016) The Great Derangement 

Wed 17th Jan – Oliver Morton (2015) The Planet Remade 

Wed 14th Feb – Déborah Kanowski & Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2016) The Ends of the World

Wed 14th Mar –  Andreas Malm (2018) The Progress of This Storm

Wed 11th Apr – Bruno Latour (2017) Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climactic Regime

Wed 16th May – Naomi Klein (2014) This Changes Everything

Wed 13th June – Geoff Mann & Joel Wainwright (2018) Climate Leviathan

See 2016/17 readings and reviews here

The post Anthropocene Reading Group 2017/18 appeared first on Political Economy Research Centre.

Book Review: Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime by Bruno Latour

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 24/08/2017 - 8:38pm in

In Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, Bruno Latour offers an extended reworking of his 2013 Gifford lectures delivered at Edinburgh University, which explore Gaia as a secular figure through which to understand our current environmental predicament. With the book avoiding questions of global capitalism and political economy, Alexandre Leskanich questions whether this intellectual labour can help to avert ecological disaster. 

Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Bruno Latour (trans. by Catherine Porter). Polity Press. 2017.

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Hesiod’s Theogony recounts the genesis of Gaia as the Earth, a feminised primordial deity who simultaneously emerges with Eros and Tartarus out of the antecedent void of Chaos to become ‘the ever-sure foundations of the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus’. Gaia proceeds to create her equal, the ‘starry Heaven’, and from their consummation are descended numerous other deities. From thence is made possible the proliferation of mortal life on her surface.

As the progenitor of that which exists, Gaia is unmistakably active and dangerous. Indeed, James Lovelock resurrected the concept of Gaia to illustrate, contrary to the original myth, not a gigantic organism or compassionate deity, but rather a self-regulating system composed of a multiplicity of indivisible elements that evolve through mutual modification. Hardly a passive incubator for the technological fancies of the human intellect, the earth transformed by the human mind, as Paul Valéry once pointed out, is today ‘repaying us in kind’. It reciprocates with disaster.

Climatic catastrophe — along with the planetary depletion of resources to fuel it — shatters the dream of continual progress supposedly vouchsafed by liberal humanism. The anthropogenic world has already betrayed the ideational ineptitude of the human mind, its moral sightlessness. Some have even managed to turn climate change into a ‘debate’ that conveniently postulates the existence of two ‘sides’ whose voices must both, for the sake of fair-mindedness, be heard. The victory of the denialists is ensured as soon as they convince people that there is a scientific ‘debate’ still to be had, which suggests the inexistence of sufficient evidence either way. The realisation of our insecurity, our planetary precariousness, is clearly incongruous with our modern, narcissistic distemper. Only through denial can the mind discern a ‘rational’ design in what it has produced.

Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime constitutes an extended reworking of Bruno Latour’s 2013 Gifford lectures delivered at Edinburgh University. Latour’s intention is to take up this conception in pursuit of a new way of thinking about our critical moment. He expressly emphasises that Gaia is a secular figure for the earth: a ‘name proposed for all the intermingled and unpredictable consequences of the agents, each of which is pursuing its own interest’. It is, as he termed it in his original lectures, ‘an entity composed of multiple, reciprocally linked, but ungoverned self-advancing processes’. Not ‘a kindly figure of unification’, it does not denote the existence of a ‘higher system than the life forms it manipulates’ since it isn’t itself something unified. It doesn’t offer the possibility of a global view, but a partial, terrestrial one. As opposed to the ‘old nature’, Gaia ‘does not play either the role of inert object that could be appropriated or the role of higher arbiter’.

Image Credit: Transmission from Antarctica (Oregon State University CC BY SA 2.0)

Latour challenges the bifurcation of Nature/Culture and presents the earth as a place where geological history has dangerously accelerated due to the consequences of human action. For him, ‘the intrusion of Gaia’ is ‘an injunction to rematerialize our belonging to the world’: that is, ‘reterrestrializing’ our existence. This involves becoming what he calls the ‘Earthbound’ while rejecting the numinous proclivities of the ‘Humans’. So, ‘whereas the Humans had ‘Plus ultra’ [‘further beyond’] as their motto, the Earthbound have no motto but ‘Plus intra’ [‘further inward’]’. The boundless frontier of modernity, pushing ever further on into the sunlit uplands of the future, has been subsumed into a squelching quagmire, concealed by an asphyxiating fog of carbon dioxide. Or as Latour describes it: ‘an animated world, an Earth that vibrates underfoot, no recognisable landscape, no affirmed authority, frightful mixtures, a proliferation of hybrids, scattered members of sciences, industries, and technologies’. This world is dismembered, decomposed, yet here we must remain sequestered.

What’s missing in the book is any mention of ideology, of capitalism’s global hegemony or of political economy in general. But this is in accord with Latour’s commitment to actor-network theory, which posits a specious ontological flattening: it insists that there is no difference in the ability of ‘actors’— whether they be human or non-human — to act. There is a distribution of agency to everything and hence an agential privileging of nothing, since nothing can exert more power than anything else. It ignores the disparities in agency and hierarchies of power that actually exist. His ‘politics of things’ is combinatorial: emphasising their material basis, things are organised, composed and assembled through their various interactions. They merge into material hybrids. Therefore, we are told that the ‘Earthbound and the Earth’ are both ‘powers that cannot dominate and cannot be dominated’. Yet as Clive Hamilton has pointed out in his recent book Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, it’s no good trying to deflate or downplay human agency when the evidence from climate science starkly details its effects. Accepting the fact that human action is demonstrably powerful doesn’t preclude us from acknowledging our hubris and vulnerability.

‘Gaia’ seems a misty notion — a nominal non-entity, if you will — that verges not only towards the obvious, but also, in its vast generality, towards the erroneous. Its content is so variegated, so heterogeneous, so interconnected, so inextricable, that one wonders if it offers anything beyond the further ‘post-human’ redistribution of agency it entails. The desire for complete submersion — ‘to slip into, envelop ourselves within, a large number of loops’ — perhaps explains Latour’s meandering prose. Frequently suffering from word bloat, one often longs for him to get to the point; although, in a resolutely flat ontology, there cannot be any ‘point’, ‘whole’, or ‘centre’ that one could scale. Everything reduces to an endless loop. Hence, Latour’s philosophy of the pretzel offers only the conundrum of entanglement without exit, especially given that critique has apparently ‘run out of steam’. There is no way to escape the network in which one is forced to play a part.

Latour has perhaps belaboured Gaia more than it warrants, especially if it amounts only to a ‘signal telling us to come back to Earth’. On the other hand, we surely need such signals since the Kantian need for thinking to orient itself has rarely been more urgent. The difficulty of this task is today increased all the more since we occupy not an inert, unobtrusive backdrop in which or against which we may orient ourselves, as we thought we did with Nature, but instead partake in a shared life on a volatile earth that confounds our attempts to manage it. Hence the recent invention of mind-altering conceptions (the Anthropocene, Gaia, the Chthulucene, etc) of varying merit to which we now have recourse in order to understand this ‘new climatic regime’ without resorting to the usual dichotomies.

Whether this intellectual labour will help avert environmental cataclysm remains to be seen. For the ecological catastrophe is clearly contiguous with a human crisis: a profound perturbation of our politics, of our epistemology, of our ethics. This global technosphere powered by the fossil economy has proven perversely inimical to life. It may finally prove fatal, since the actions undertaken to ameliorate planetary exploitation are belated, and will now likely prove insufficient. It is only sensible to wonder whether Latour’s ‘Earthbound’ can ever prevail against the recalcitrant convictions of the ‘Moderns’, or the political connivance of their most devout apologists, the climate sceptics: those whose continued occupation of Nature leaves them all too dangerously Human.

Alexandre Leskanich read history, philosophy and political theory at the universities of Leicester, Edinburgh and the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is currently a PhD student in the department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Royal Holloway, University of London, researching the political and philosophical ramifications of the ‘Anthropocene’ as a contested categorisation in planetary history. He has previously written for The Hong Kong Review of Books. Read more by Alexandre Leskanich.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Book Review: The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 20/07/2017 - 8:31pm in

In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, acclaimed novelist Amitav Ghosh offers a new non-fiction work that aims to confront this urgent issue by reflecting on our ‘deranged’ modes of political and socio-economic organisation via three themes: literature, history and politics. This is an admirable book that both examines and manifests the limits of human thought when it comes to the spectre of environmental catastrophe, writes Alexandre Leskanich.

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Amitav Ghosh. University of Chicago Press. 2016.

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It is difficult to confront the spectre of climate change without a sense of incipient doom. At times this existential malady seems best personified in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos (No Exit), in which three condemned characters, incarcerated in hell, face an eternity in which to contemplate their sins. Ghastly looms an infinity without purpose. Loathsome indeed are the spiteful goads and self-righteous pontifications of their fellow inmates. But no less intolerable are their self-incriminating recollections of deeds forever done, of opportunities forever lost. Their penitentiary is a space plagued by the anomie of self-disgust and the inescapable evaporation of meaning. All that is left is the anticipation of an endless absence:

GARCIN: How about you? Aren’t you afraid?

INEZ: What would be the use? There was some point in being afraid before, while one still had hope.

GARCIN: There’s no more hope – but it’s still ‘before’. We haven’t yet begun to suffer.

INEZ: That’s so. Well? What’s going to happen?

GARCIN: I don’t know. I’m waiting.

Yet this waiting for something to happen is itself symptomatic of absurdity. Ejected out of temporal schemes that provide coordinates for human existence, they are left teleologically and epistemologically bankrupt. There remains only empty and identical ‘tomorrows’. Trapped in time’s abyss, they are reduced to waiting for nothing.

In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh addresses our similarly uncanny predicament under delinquent, ‘deranged’ modes of political and socio-economic organisation. Known as an acclaimed author whose fiction has addressed climatic rupture, Ghosh here takes up the role of analyst and storyteller. Climate change, as his title recognises, only too clearly demonstrates the systemic lunacy inherent in our present world arrangements. As in Huis Clos, we are compelled to become the wardens of our own prison, guardians of an empty future. Devoid of ethical purpose, the future is forfeited to the whims of the market, ceded to the nihilism of economic growth. Instead of exhibiting an unfolding sequence of delimited events that function in the service of a progressive ‘universal history’, the planet is the stage on which the spectacle of human incoherence is playing out.

In Part One, ‘Stories’, Ghosh critiques the limitations of the ‘literary novel’, which aims to exhibit the vagaries of ‘individual moral adventure’. The turn inwards in modern fiction mirrored the turn towards commodity fetishism. As realist literary fiction has explored the complex inflections of human experience, it has assumed the existence of a stable climate and an unlimited flow of resources to fuel the bourgeois regularities inscribed in its narratives. Ghosh contends that the contemporary novel, using narrow scales of time and space that rarely exceed more than a human lifespan, is not only neglectful of climate change but is partly complicit in the dissociation of the mind from the vulnerability of its corporeal situation, since it rarely allows the climate to violently intrude upon the habitual routines and ordinary concerns it prefers to portray. He therefore calls for a heightened imaginary response to climate change, although one can question whether fiction can do much to remedy political and economic intransigence – perhaps if enough people read it?

Image Credit: Sawyer Glacier, Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska, USA (Ian D. Keating CC BY 2.0)

Part Two, ‘History’, unintentionally exemplifies the historicised mind caught in a world that keeps historicising itself: a situation in which history is constantly made obsolete but remains the faulty technology on which human beings depend to make things make sense. The historicised mind automatically concedes priority to history and stipulates the pre-eminence of historical knowledge and periodisation. Hence, Ghosh’s ample use of terms such as ‘arc’, ‘trajectory’, ‘pattern’ and ‘process’. His attempt to comprehend climate change by necessity aligns with every other effort to do so: one must outline a historical narrative of how we came to be where we are – without history’s categories, remember, the historicised mind couldn’t make sense of anything. Certainly, Ghosh tweaks the emphasis of his narrative, attributing more weight to imperialism than is usual, but the result is much the same – yet another incarcerating historicisation.

Caught in this historicised mentality, Ghosh uncritically employs the term ‘Anthropocene’ (the ‘age of man’) as a colloquialism for climatic crisis and terrestrial destruction. More precisely, this name signifies a new geo-historical epoch pending disciplinary ratification. Using it commits Ghosh to a narrative of incremental human expropriation of the planet. Unfortunately, it also means that he absurdly renders ‘every human being who has ever lived’ culpable in producing climate change, with an undifferentiated ‘humanity’ made universally responsible. More importantly, the Anthropocene is the latest historicisation that makes human existence itself a thing of the past. By definition inescapable, it is a managerial contrivance that both confirms and facilitates planetary incarceration. The horror of the gaol, of being trapped by history, pervades it. Illustrating the condition by which human agency is denied any real potency even while at the centre of planetary affairs, he claims that:

the events of today’s changing climate, in that they represent the totality of human actions over time, represent also the terminus of history. For if the entirety of our past is contained within the present, then temporality itself is drained of significance…

History is terminal, ultimately, because it renders us incapable of exceeding it.

Unsurprisingly, Ghosh is waylaid by history at every turn, ‘entrapped’ by it. His ruminations on ‘the chronology of global warming’ not only evince the redundancy of historical knowledge, but induce paralysis. For, after noting the ‘complexity of the history of the carbon economy’, he leads us to a conclusion in complete conformity with his historicising strategy: ‘our lives and our choices are enframed in a pattern of history that seems to leave us no-where to turn but toward our self-annihilation’. This is precisely the dilemma of the historicised mind ensnared in a self-incriminating historical situation: history always does, in the end, leave one stranded exactly where one already is. Always it comes too late to make any difference. History now cements the antiquation of homo sapiens itself.

In Part Three, ‘Politics’, Ghosh condemns the narrow bandwidth of political concern. Riven by quarrels over identity, squabbling over the sincerity of individual moral performance, holding personal liberty in the highest regard, contemporary politics has little to no capacity to properly address ‘the commonweal’: to engage in collective action for the sake of survival. Bluster, denial and grandstanding obstruct the wrenching political and moral transformations required, and which continue to be delayed. Lurking behind phantasies of untrammelled individual agency, climate change is eroding conceptions of unassailable human dominion over the earth and forcing us to dispense with the possibility of universally achieving the accoutrements of bourgeois life. This conception of human flourishing into which we have been beguiled is consuming itself. Yet the ‘masters of mankind’ (as Adam Smith called them), following their ‘vile maxim’ of self-enrichment, have long abrogated their responsibility to enact real change. Human existence is set up to contribute to the fossil economy, hence to perpetuate ecological malfunction. The horizon of future possibility recedes.

In proffering a vague hope in the ‘sacred’, that ‘religious worldviews’ might inspire mass movements that transcend individualism and the nation-state, one feels that Ghosh is left beseeching a deus absconditus (a hidden God) to bail us out of gaol. Well perhaps, but religious theology frequently considers catastrophe a product of divine will or a sign of impending apocalypse – the latter is itself the means through which the loyalty of the faithful is vindicated. Nor do the religious appear to be much less enveloped in the consumer economy or nationalistic thinking than anyone else: these can complement doctrinal injunctions, as the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ demonstrates. To his credit, however, Ghosh doesn’t simply advocate a technocratic ‘fix’: a rebooting of the technosphere (e.g. through geoengineering) that would avoid the need for unpleasant ideological and material sacrifice.

This admirable book is the latest testament to the limits of contemporary thought and language, to the frustration of human cognitive power over a world we thought we knew. Deranged indeed, but also incrementally dispossessed, we have become the disinherited of Rainer Maria Rilke’s remark, finding that ‘each blind lurch of the world leaves its disinherited, to whom no longer the past nor yet the future belong’. Yet is this contingency of meaning not our mortal fate? Is not mortality – of ideas, of people, of worlds – itself our only means of renewal? Those who seek a permanent, unchanging ‘end’ should remember that as it is in hell, so it is in heaven. Both outcomes are equally meaningless: not least because you can never leave.

Alexandre Leskanich read history, philosophy and political theory at the universities of Leicester, Edinburgh and the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is currently a PhD student in the department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Royal Holloway, University of London, researching the political and philosophical ramifications of the ‘Anthropocene’ as a contested categorisation in planetary history.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Book Review: Water: Abundance, Scarcity and Security in the Age of Humanity by Jeremy J. Schmidt

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 06/07/2017 - 8:42pm in

In Water: Abundance, Scarcity and Security in the Age of Humanity, Jeremy J. Schmidt details the intellectual history of US water management philosophy, tracing the shift towards considering water a resource to be brought under the watch of the state as well as the transformation from a discourse of abundance to scarcity. In showing how water resources are far from a neutral category, this well researched and enlightening book is an important read for understanding how we perceive water today, writes Kathleen Chiappetta

Water: Abundance, Scarcity and Security in the Age of Humanity. Jeremy J. Schmidt. NYU Press. 2017.

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Water was once abundant. Now it is scarce. As a result of this shift, water is connected to security issues. For many, this global narrative has spouted questions as to whether we have a water management philosophy or even whether water can be managed at all. Jeremy J. Schmidt takes the position that not only do we have a philosophy, but also that it has proved to be exceptionally resilient. In Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity, Schmidt traces the development of this interdisciplinary approach to water from its nascent years in the early twentieth century in the United States to its global reach today.

The book is divided into four parts –Abundance, Scarcity, Security and Rethinking the Anthropocene – and in each, Schmidt introduces experts and their key theories. He builds this global narrative by showing the progression of thought and reflecting on how it was influenced by a number of disciplines, particularly anthropology and geology. How water is managed today is the culmination of a century of US ideas on natural resources and US resource management and conservation techniques. Seeing water as a resource replaced alternative ways of managing water and this narrative has framed our understanding and conceptualisation of it.

Overall, Schmidt contends that ‘normal water’– defined as ‘the program of bringing water’s social and evolutionary possibilities into service of liberal forms of life’ (6) – is key to understanding how water was managed throughout the twentieth century. In this book he shows, in great detail, how this belief developed. In Part One, Schmidt recounts how water became a resource and was hereby brought under the watch of the state. Like the move from nature to natural resources and society to population, water became governed, calculated and controlled. In doing so, this replaced metaphysical understandings of water with ‘geological, social, and technopolitical arguments’ (88).

Image Credit: (kiler129 CC BY SA 2.0)

In the early twentieth century, there was a focus on land and Otis Tufton Mason (the second curator of the Smithsonian Museum) thought this ‘orientation […] failed to see how human actions modified an ever-evolving environment’ (45-6): what he called the ‘Land Problem’. Building on the concepts of earlier experts, Mason also suggested that human evolution and the Earth were mutually produced (45), which he termed ‘Earth-making’. In fact, this nature/society dualism, and the failure to reject it, is something that Schmidt details throughout the book. ‘Earth-making’ helped solve the ‘land problem’ by essentially ‘allowing for the creation of geologically grounded social institutions’ (66), which WJ McGee (another key expert referenced throughout the book) thought enabled Americans to enter into a ‘new evolutionary stage’ (66).

In a significant third chapter, Schmidt describes how water has been tied to liberalism in the United States, which set the coupling on its way to becoming an international premise for how water is managed. In the early twentieth century, McGee declared water a resource and advocated that water belonged to the public. In fact, conservation for McGee was based on principles of equal rights. To accomplish this realignment in how water was conceptualised, it became essential that water was consolidated ‘within institutions of collective and public ownership [which] was a safeguard against economic exploitation’ (85).

In each part of the book, there is one expert of particular note. In Part Two, that expert is David Lilienthal, the second director of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Building on McGee’s declaration that water is a resource tied to liberalism, Schmidt subsequently focuses on the TVA and how water abundance was replaced with water scarcity. Lilienthal believed that how water was managed by the TVA was something that could be exported internationally. TVA-style development was the blueprint for the International Hydrological Decade, which saw the growth of international cooperative research programmes that aimed to determine the total amount of water and its distribution on Earth. It was also the model that buried abundance, both in the geological sense of the word – ‘possible avenues for evolutionary abundance’ (95) – and in the cultural sense of the word – ‘competing forms of life’ (95) that did not conceptualise water as a resource tied to liberal democracy. This added to the water philosophical narrative by marking a transition from a discourse of abundance to scarcity.

In Part Three, the narrative centres on security and uses two important frameworks for water management: Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and the water-energy-food-climate nexus. In both paradigms, water continued to be part of the ‘public trust’ (152); however, there was a need for new institutional arrangements to deal with the fact that water was increasingly becoming an economic good (150) and part of security issues at all levels of society, from the global to local. IWRM ‘linked the human-water relationship to the security of both democratic forms of participatory management and ecosystem vitality’ (159). IWRM connected human activity with changes in the environment; yet, given how complex and interconnected systems are today, there were calls for a new paradigm for managing water and improving resilience to conflicts. The term ‘nexus’ was used to describe the links between water, energy, food and climate, and their connections to security. As was the case in previous decades, there was the need to tie US interests with US expertise in resource management (172). With the ‘nexus’ came a focus on the necessity of developing resilience so as to mitigate security issues. For instance, US interests in regions like the Nile and Indus became twinned with calls to improve infrastructure.

In Part Four, Schmidt looks at ways we can change the narrative to tackle today’s water problems. The Anthropocene is ‘a period meant to mark the epoch in which humans also significantly alter geological processes […] a time in which humans have come to rival the great forces of nature’ (8). In this era, there is a desire to make things public and challenge the dominant narrative that water is a resource. As an example of how human relationships to the environment may change, Schmidt focuses on how Aldo Leopold, a compatriot of McGee, saw ecological systems. Leopold viewed conservation and human relationships to the environment differently. For Leopold, the ‘land’ included ‘waters, plants and animals’ and the ecological community as ‘everything assembled within the category of ‘‘land’” (216). It was permissible to manage such systems; however, it was necessary to ensure that every part of the ecological system was conserved, including weeds. Essentially Leopold’s ecological thinking of the system as a whole was at odds with judgments on land in which, for example, weeds, watery brooks or the number of hawks became the primary reasons for the management/conservation of natural resources. Instead, he essentially believed that species and fauna were ‘entitled to share the land with us’ (218)

Many books today comment on what is wrong with how water is managed or ways to improve our water management systems. In this book, Schmidt narrates the trajectory of our water management philosophy. He advocates that ‘social scientists should refuse the notion that water resources are a neutral category’ (229), given that this is supported by judgments which in turn ‘foster unequal practices that favour one cultural understanding of water over others’ (229). In doing so, Schmidt shows how this philosophy continues to frame our relationship to water even if other possible views, such as those of indigenous peoples, also exist.

Overall, this book is well researched, and Schmidt is thorough in explaining this global narrative. There is just so much detailed information that readers will surely find it enlightening. Given the breadth of the argument spanning almost a century, the book is an important read for understanding how we see and manage water today.

Kathleen Chiappetta has a Bachelor of Journalism Degree from Ryerson University in Toronto and a Master of Science Degree in Global Politics from the LSE. Over the years she has written and produced pieces on national and international issues such as agricultural and maritime trade, engineering education and Irish migration. She has worked for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Geneva, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris and the High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom. She is currently working as a Trade Policy Officer in Canada. Read more by Kathleen Chiappetta.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Critters, Critics, and Californian Theory – review of Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 27/06/2017 - 7:12pm in

Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene(Duke University Press, 2016)

From the opening, Donna Haraway’s recent book reads like a nice hybrid of theoretical conversation and science fiction. Crescendoing in the closing Camille Stories, the outcome of a writing experiment of imagining five future generations, “Staying with the trouble” weaves together – like the cat’s cradle, one of the recurrent metaphors in the book – staple Harawayian themes of the fluidity of boundaries between human and variously defined ‘Others’, metamorphoses of gender, the role of technology in modifying biology, and the related transformation of the biosphere – ‘Gaia’ – in interaction with human species. Eschewing the term ‘Anthropocene’, which she (somewhat predictably) associates with Enlightenment-centric, tool-obsessed rationality, Haraway births ‘Chthulucene’ – which, to be specific, has nothing to do with the famous monster of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination, instead being named after a species of spider, Pimoa Cthulhu, native to Haraway’s corner of Western California.

This attempt to avoid dealing with human(-made) Others – like Lovecraft’s “misogynist racial-nightmare monster” – is the key unresolved issue in the book. While the tone is rightfully respectful – even celebratory – of nonhuman critters, it remains curiously underdefined in relation to human ones. This is evident in the treatment of Eichmann and the problem of evil. Following Arendt, Haraway sees Eichmann’s refusal to think about the consequences of his actions as the epitome of the banality of evil – the same kind of unthinking that leads to the existing ecological crisis. That more thinking seems like a natural antidote and a solution to the long-term destruction of the biosphere seems only logical (if slightly self-serving) from the standpoint of developing a critical theory whose aim is to save the world from its ultimate extinction. The question, however, is what to do if thoughts and stories are not enough?

The problem with a political philosophy founded on belief in the power of discourse is that it remains dogmatically committed to the idea that only if one can change the story, one can change the world. The power of stories as “worlding” practices fundamentally rests on the assumption that joint stories can be developed with Others, or, alternatively, that the Earth is big enough to accommodate those with which no such thing is possible. This leads Haraway to present a vision of a post-apocalyptic future Earth, in which population has been decimated to levels that allow human groups to exist at sufficient distance from each other. What this doesn’t take into account is that differently defined Others may have different stories, some of which may be fundamentally incompatible with ours – as recently reflected in debates over ‘alternative facts’ or ‘post-truth’, but present in different versions of science and culture wars, not to mention actual violent conflicts. In this sense, there is no suggestion of sympoiesis with the Eichmanns of this world; the question of how to go about dealing with human Others – especially if they are, in Kristeva’s terms, profoundly abject – is the kind of trouble “Staying with the trouble” is quite content to stay out of.

Sympoiesis seems reserved for non-humans, which seem to happily go along with the human attempts to ‘become-with’ them. But it seems easier when ‘Others’ do not, technically speaking, have a voice: whether we like it or not, few of the non-human critters have efficient means to communicate their preferences in terms of political organisation, speaking order at seminars, or participation in elections. The critical practice of com-menting, to which Haraway attributes much of the writing in the book, is only possible to the extent to which the Other has equal means and capacities to contribute to the discussion. As in the figure of the Speaker for the Dead, the Other is always spoken-for, the tragedy of its extinction obscuring the potential conflict or irreconcilability between species.

The idea of a com-pliant Other can, of course, be seen as an integral element of the mythopoetic scaffolding of West Coast academia, where the idea of fluidity of lifestyle choices probably has near-orthodox status. It’s difficult not to read parts of the book, such as the following passage, as not-too-fictional accounts of lived experiences of the Californian intellectual elite (including Haraway herself):

“In the infectious new settlements, every new child must have at least three parents, who may or may not practice new or old genders. Corporeal differences, along with their fraught histories, are cherished. Throughout life, the human person may adopt further bodily modifications for pleasure and aesthetics or for work, as long as the modifications tend to both symbionts’ well-being in the humus of sympoiesis” (p. 133-5)

The problem with this type of theorizing is not so much that it universalises a concept of humanity that resembles an extended Comic-Con with militant recycling; reducing ideas to their political-cultural-economic background is not a particularly innovative critical move. It is that it fails to account for the challenges and dangers posed by the friction of multiple human lives in constrained spaces, and the ways in which personal histories and trajectories interact with the configurations of place, class, and ownership, in ways that can lead to tragedies like the Grenfell tower fire in London.

In other words, what “Staying with the trouble” lacks is a more profound sense of political economy, and the ways in which social relations influence how different organisms interact with their environment – including compete for its scarce resources, often to the point of mutual extinction. Even if the absolution of human woes by merging one’s DNA with those of fellow creatures works well as an SF metaphor, as a tool for critical analysis it tends to avoid the (often literally) rough edges of their bodies. It is not uncommon even for human bodies to reject human organs; more importantly, the political history of humankind is, to a great degree, the story of various groups of humans excluding other humans from the category of humans (colonized ‘Others’, slaves), citizens (women, foreigners), or persons with full economic and political rights (immigrants, and again women). This theme is evident in the contemporary treatment of refugees, but it is also preserved in the apparently more stable boundaries between human groups in the Camille Stories. In this context, the transplantation of insect parts to acquire consciousness of what it means to inhabit the body of another species has more of a whiff of transhumanist enhancement than of an attempt to confront head-on (antennae-first?) multifold problems related to human coexistence on a rapidly warming planet.

At the end of the day, solutions to climate change may be less glamorous than the fantasy of escaping global warming by taking a dip in the primordial soup. In other words, they may require some good ol’ politics, which fundamentally means learning to deal with Others even if they are not as friendly as those in Haraway’s story; even if, as the Eichmanns and Trumps of this world seem to suggest, their stories may have nothing to do with ours. In this sense, it is the old question of living with human Others, including abject ones, that we may have to engage with in the AnthropoCapitaloCthulucene: the monsters that we created, and the monsters that are us.

Jana Bacevic is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, and has a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Belgrade. Her interests lie at the intersection of social theory, sociology of knowledge, and political sociology; her current work deals with the theory and practice of critique in the transformation of higher education and research in the UK.

 

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