Climate, Globe, Capital:
The Science and Politics of the Abyss
by Iain Boal
“At least the war on the environment is going well”
-- North Berkeley bumper sticker
The brief interlude between 1750 and 1950 AD - the two hundred years between Diderot’s Encyclopédie and the Teller-Ulam thermonuclear weapon – when modernity’s clerisy declared that the future lay wide open under the sign of progress, is now over. Whatever the high functionaries of state or the managers of global trade say at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (COP 15), their speeches will be delivered over the corpse of Enlightenment optimism. Ironically, it is the scientists who, after waging a long war against Christian catastrophism in order to establish a deep secular past and by implication an open and contingent future, will be officiating in Denmark as priests of doom.
Not that for those two centuries all talk of apocalypse was confined to the pulpit. Far from it. Even in the rosy dawn of enlightened optimism, reflected in William Godwin’s anarchist utopia – he was of the generation born in the 1750s - a reactionary counter-narrative was being forged in the halls of official knowledge. Thomas Malthus, the world’s first paid economist (in the employ of the East India Company), launched a frontal attack on Godwin’s political science and his vision of an ample world adequate to human needs.
Economics, as defined by Malthus and taken as orthodoxy ever since, is the science of “choice under scarcity”. However, the primary cause of that scarcity - the brutal clearances and enclosures of land that dispossessed the commoners and cut them off from their means of subsistence - was not a topic for polite discussion either in 18th century drawing rooms or in today’s business schools.
Paradoxically, at the same time as it assumed scarcity, the science of economics also assumed infinitude, that is, the bottomlessness of nature as sink and sewer. And for most moderns and all capitalists, until very recently, a reservoir without limits, though patchy and uneven, wherein lay their opportunities and the signs reading “Development”. It is a striking fact that Thomas Huxley, a leading scientist, “Darwin’s bulldog” and no stranger to the role of scarcity, could make this statement, in a paper presented at The Great International Fishery Exhibition in London in 1884: “The cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great sea-fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say that nothing we do seriously affects the number of fish. And any attempt to regulate these fisheries seems consequently...to be useless.”
It is this fundamental contradiction that now threatens the equations of resource economists, not to mention life on earth. Endless growth may linger as an abstract ideal, but capitalism’s material waste – the ‘externalities’ dumped in land, ocean, and atmosphere – is a large turkey coming home. COP15 is the sound it makes.
What follows are some notes, composed on the eve of the climate talks in Denmark, intended as a kind of critical glossary to aid in navigating the shoals and reefs of post-Copenhagen environmental politics. It focuses first of all on the keywords “climate” and “globe” (and its congeners). “Globalization” once the chief buzzword of business schools, has passed its sell-by date, but the phenomenon itself rolls on.
This essay takes the form of a dispatch from California, not just because it was written there, but because the San Franciscso Bay Area has been, and remains, the site of key developments bearing on the current “crisis of nature” –for example, the design, development and construction of omnicidal weapons under the aegis of the University of California, the pioneering of markets in carbon and industrial pollutants, the dotcom and biotech bubbles, the headquarters of biofuels R&D, and the incubator of dreams of a new science of “synthetic biology” and its positive spin on the end of nature.
The Berkeley hills, to tighten the focus a little, was home to both J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller who was given the task in the 1940s, during the Manhattan Project, of estimating the likelihood of an atomic explosion igniting the earth’s atmosphere. The limit case of climate change, one could say.
Less than three chances in a million, said Teller. And so the Trinity ‘experiment’ went ahead. (His actual probability calculations, if they exist, remain a state secret.) He might have said, “More than a two in a million chance of igniting the earth’s atmosphere”, but didn’t. It would not have stopped Oppenheimer anyway.
It was another Berkeley Nobel physicist, Luis Alvarez, whose final task in the Manhattan Project - measuring the atomic shock waves over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a B29, “The Great Artiste” which was shadowing “Enola Gay” – prepared him to imagine the possibility of a catastrophic asteroid impact as the cause of the great extinction event at the K/T boundary 65 million years ago, the calamity that doomed the dinosaurs. He was also aware of classified research at Berkeley going back to the 1950s into “nuclear winter” scenarios, long before Carl Sagan titillated the American public with the idea of photosynthesis shutting down all over an irradiated, dust-choked planet. Luis Alvarez and his geologist son Walter seriously proposed their neo-catastrophist hypothesis in 1980, to general amusement in professional circles.
A crisis of nature, indeed. Inextricable from the accompanying genocides. How much was Alvarez conscious of this geography of sacrifice, or of his own part in the atomic bombardment of the Zuni lands in New Mexico? There are good reasons for Californians to acknowledge catastrophe. And to deny it.
Thirty years ago earth scientists were still telling their students the old gradualist story, new and revolutionary in Darwin’s day, but by 1980 hanging on as the official orthodoxy.
The gradualist, “uniformitarian” acount of the earth’s past and present – which plate tectonics in a sense supported - took climate as variable of course but essentially a stable phenomenon, and in general saw nature as a take-me-for-granted backdrop, having no dramatic role in human history. Significant change (“evolution”), on this view, was so slow as to be virtually imperceptible. In fact, for the gradualist view of things to make sense, Christian geology – positing a four thousand year old earth, once God’s smooth creation, now ravaged by floods, earthquakes, tornados, plagues, and so on, with the end of the human drama in view if not actually imminent – had to be wildly wrong, a tremendous underestimate. Natural selection required millions of years to have the observed effect. The discovery of “deep time” is perhaps the central, abiding triumph of modern science. Darwin knew he needed it and courageously stuck to his theory, even though the best contemporary estimates of the age of the earth fell far short.
The Lyell-Darwin orthodoxy – that the world is the way it is in essence because of very slow changes brought about by the action of wind, ice, rain, erosion, etc – dominated the 20th century earth sciences. It took a big hit when evidence began to accumulate that Alvarez père et fils might be right. Their hypothesis was strongly confirmed by the discovery of a massive impact crater off the coast of Mexico. At COP15 it would be fair to say that versions of a secularized neo-catastrophism will be the dominant paradigm among climate scientists and laity alike.
This is not to say that you will find a scientist at the meeting who would deny gradual change on a geological scale of the Lyellian sort, let alone defend the recency of the earth and challenge deep time. But it does mean that they entertain something until lately unimaginable, the serious possibility that major geological change is possible on a human timescale. And that kind of science implies a planetary emergency, and a politics to go with it.
For some, therefore, it means that a war on global warming must be declared, quite as draconian as the global war on terror. Are we not faced with inhabiting - once again - the rubble of a ruined world? For others, typically of a social democratic cast of mind, it means pinning hopes on human adaptability and resilience in the face of melting glaciers, the end of irrigated agriculture and a return to dry farming. For the governments, green NGOs, and those others with seats at the table hoping for a leaner, low-fat capitalism, it means negotiating some version of the neo-liberal deal. That is, haggling over the further commodification of the earth and its productions – vegetable, mineral and animal – and legislating limits and rights to pollute, to trade toxins, to crank up derivatives markets recently vilified as a sure sign of the excesses of casino capitalism. (In reality, casinos are more conservative in their risk management than your grandmother.)
Some American environmentalists, observing COP15 from a distance, are hoping that the venue itself will help mitigate the sale of what is left of the globe and its atmosphere. They fail to grasp that whatever truth there may have been – never much, actually - in the original vision of the EU as ‘more than a market’, the European Commission has for two decades been utterly wedded to wholesale privatization; the EU has been the tunnel through which the neoliberal model has been railroaded into the continent. Of course, the realities are more obvious and dismal for the new member states than for ‘old Europe’. At best, these new Europeans are but branch-plant economies serving the old: low-wage, non-union, business-friendly, and marked by immense income inequalities.
The Commission’s form of rule is a caricature even of formal democracy, with vast distances between rulers and the ruled and an institutional structure that almost entirely insulates the Commission from the electoral demands of any of its member populations. Some acquaintances here on the Pacific coast fondly imagine that European social democracy will act as a buttress against the brute neo-liberal approach of taking fictitious commodities, as Polanyi called those parts of nature not produced by human labor, to new markets. But of course, with regard to the present and looming ecological crises, the EU and its capital clients have neatly appropriated dreams of techno-fix, production-side solutions, gladly obliging with a new suite of financial instruments (thank you, Copenhagen) and neo-colonial projects. Indeed the EU has become a brand leader in carbon trading mechanisms, outpacing California.
Within the spectacularized politics of an absolute ‘global emergency’, the EU thus stands ready to consider anything, as long as it remains within the frame of buying and selling, of tinkering with forms of consumption, and presents no serious challenge to the rule of the commodity.
Climate and globe, then, are discursively entwined. Although I earlier suggested that globalization talk is mostly over, nevertheless there are varieties of "globespeak" that are hardly in decline, and even in the ascendant. One should be no less wary of the adjective "global" than the noun "globalization".
The socio-ecologist Peter Taylor warns of the serious dangers of globalism as discourse and as political project when it comes to global environmental problems. He does so by way of a powerful thought experiment: "Consider two hypothetical countries. Country A has a relatively equal land distribution; Country B has a typical 1970s Central American land distribution: 2% of the people own 60% of the land; 70% own 2%. In other respects these countries are similar: they have the same amount of arable land, the same population, the same level of capital availability and scientific capacity, and the same population growth rate, say, 3%. If we follow through the calculations of rates of population growth, food production increase, levels of poverty, and the like, we find that five generations before anyone is malnourished in Country A, all of the poorest 70% in Country B already are." This parable highlights "the politics of inequality excluded by the science of SD [systems modeling]" and its moral and technocratic presuppositions. (P. Taylor et al., Changing Life: Genomes-Ecologies-Bodies-Commodities, U Minnesota Press, 1997, p.155.)
The figure of the globe links many of the actors in Copenhagen, both in their language and imagery. The 60s counterculture and the various environmental movements seized eagerly on the image of the globe. It would be well, therefore, to look at globalism as a set of practices and representations, as well as conceptual and 3-D models.
The history of globes as artifacts takes us back to their utility as navigational aids. Globes were also “emblems of sovereignty” (it comes into the language in this sense in 1614); they became the playthings of monarchs and navigators, familiar as props in Renaissance portraiture. It was the task of early modern cartography to project the globe into two dimensions; without the resulting maps and charts the business of empire would be literally unthinkable.
The essential work on globalism was done by the late Denis Cosgrove in Apollo's Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination. He revealed how globalism's force, with roots deep in Western imperial history, "derives from the arresting concept of the earth as a single space made up of interconnected life systems and a surface over which modern technological, communications, and financial systems increasingly overcome the frictions of distance and time to achieve coodinated simultaneity."
Cosgrove concludes his study with a meditation on appropriations of the famous NASA photograph AS17–22727, taken during the final Apollo mission in 1972. The NASA earthscape as image and icon was quickly staked out by both environmentalists (to promote Earth Day) and by capital (e.g., Mobil's well-known advertising campaign showing a miniature and vulnerable globe resting in the open hand of a white-coated scientist). Among the first to exploit this representation of globalism was – no surprise, perhaps – an environmentalist and a capitalist both. Stewart Brand used the NASA photograph as logo for his Whole Earth Catalog, which became the bible of rusticating hippies and back-to-the-landers, who imagined an alternative green world powered by appropriate technics, available for purchase by mail order. The Malthusian "discipline" always lurking in the rhetoric and imagery of "lifeboat Earth" is now explicit in Brand's new sado-calvinist tract, Whole Earth Discipline.
Versions of this “green” vision will be surely circulating at Copenhagen and beyond. Universalists of various stripes remain wedded to the imagery of the earthscape, which shows no borders, and for that matter no traces of humanity. Transnational corporations like it too. British Petroleum’s investment in UC Berkeley is part of their greenwashing efforts, e.g., by re-naming itself simply "BP" (standing for "Beyond Petroleum", together with a floral yellow-and-green "solar earth" logo, which matches their new interest in genetically modified organisms).
In the near term globalism is likely to be omnipresent, in the form of climate crisis talk and its associated politics of the abyss. Here is Gore again – "What we are facing is a planetary emergency. So some things you would never consider otherwise, it makes sense to consider." He is far from alone. In Britain and Germany nuclear electricity is back on the agenda. Horst Teltschik, former security adviser to Chancellor Kohl recently said: "It is a tragedy of every democracy that everyone can publicly represent their opinion.... In a dictatorship, this type of thing wouldn't happen."
The BP deal with UC Berkeley would have delighted Teltschik and was itself a double enclosure – privatization of a public institution and the patenting of lifeforms for profitable sale. In this case, the favored target happens to be a modified elephant grass that will rot more quickly for the production of alcohol for car fuel.
At the rhetorical level, declaring a global climate emergency, like communism and terrorism, is a very useful bogeyman that brooks no dissent. It facilitates backroom deals, and in the BP case - an agreement put together, in the revealing phrase of the UC vice chancellor for research, "at warp speed" - it obscures the risks that university administrators and scientists are prepared to take not only with our local environment in Strawberry Canyon, but with the ecosystems of the planet and the lives of small farmers everywhere who face further dispossession for the purpose of biofuel monoculture. But risk, of course, is something neoliberalism is adept at "externalizing"; after all, its other face is profit. Malthusian cataclysm now competes with the happy solicitations of the image world as the new/old spectre inviting us not to look past the screen to the common ground below.
It is not by accident that the parties to the BP-Berkeley deal borrowed their rhetorical strategies from their counterparts in the military and nuclear fields. The UC scientists and administrators opened their bid to become the posterchild of the new green and clean energy by invoking, in the most effusive terms…the Manhattan Project. In fact, the whole initiative is modeled on the success of the Manhattan Project's "team science" approach.
More to the point, the Manhattan Project should properly be remembered for its secret, reckless decision-making. With its very first experiment, Arthur Compton, the head of the Chicago scientists involved, risked building a secret reactor in the middle of the city. Compton explained: "We did not see how a true nuclear explosion, such as that of an atomic bomb, could possibly occur"; still, as Richard Rhodes the historian of the Manhattan Project put it, he was risking "a small Chernobyl in the midst of a crowded city."
Here, then, are some questions: What is modern science that its shining hour was the Manhattan Project, a secret project to build a weapon of mass murder? What is modern science that it flourishes in secrecy? What is it that the biofuel boosters here at UC Berkeley like so much about Lawrence and the atomic bomb project?
Well, here's one possible explanation: science - and by this I mean 'actually existing' science - is capital's way of knowing the world. Ballistics and the development of weapons of mass murder are at the heart of modern physics. Now the cult of the atom is mirrored by the cult of the gene. The stakes are high in Copenhagen because global warming and oil depletion loom.
But it is also worth asking this question, on the eve of COP15: what does it mean, that the language of crisis is on so many lips? Perhaps it suggests that the financial and ecological crises are indeed closely linked? Certainly there was an air of desperation around the unseemly speed of the UC/BP affair, and the cohabitation of the Governor, the University Chancellor, and the Mayor as they sat under the yellow-green livery and logo of British Petroleum.
For a few months, remember, everyone was on board with biofuels as the answer both to global warming and the woes of the economy - scientists, environmentalists, pundits, celebrities, politicians of all stripes - the Gores and Bransons, the Blairs and the Bushes with their ethanol deal with Brazil. What does it mean that Obama chose as his Secretary of Energy the head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Steve Chu, a nuclear physicist and close colleague of the Berkeley chemical engineer, Jay Keasling, who was recently the subject of a breathless and hagiographic profile in the New Yorker?
The political class in the US was first alerted to the looming crisis of nature – if we overlook Man and Nature, the polymath George Perkins Marsh’s Victorian ode to our ecological destructiveness - by two classics of environmental literature, Silent Spring and The Closing Circle, published in the early and mid 1960s by two working scientists, Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner. Both were first serialized in the pages of the New Yorker, and have justifiably become historical landmarks in the struggles against the poisoning of the planet. It is symptomatic of this moment that on the eve of COP 15 the New Yorker offers its readers, not the considered reflections of an observant naturalist or ecologist, a latter-day Carson or Commoner, but a gullible account, by a court stenographer, of the next big thing, “synthetic biology”.
Leading the way towards this brave new science is none other than Professor Keasling, the hero of the New Yorker piece, where genetically modified organisms and biotechnology are apparently nowhere to be seen. The brief era of "biotech" is over; a new age of "synthetic biology" is dawning.
Oddly, we find ourselves back in a world of electricians, chemists and masons. Instead of living GMOs we are dealing with "DNA circuits"; instead of genes we find "biobricks". Plants no longer decompose; they undergo "depolymerization" or “deconstruction”. These linguistic constructs cannot hide the fact that the core of the project – for which BP has invested half a billion dollars in the University of California – is growing fuel instead of food and will involve the global proliferation of new, reproducing, lifeforms that contain genes transfected from distant species, with very poorly understood results.
The outcomes of Biotech 2.0 – a utopia dreamed up by chemical engineers to whom the natural world is foreign territory - are set to repeat the disasters of the green revolution, since it is based on the same naïve and unidirectional reductionism that, in the words of the Harvard biologists Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, led to the expectation that:
“since grasses need nitrogen, a genotype that takes up more nitrogen would be more productive; since pesticides kill pests, their widespread use would protect crops; and since people eat food, increased yields would alleviate hunger... [Whereas what actually happened was that] the increase in wheat yield was partly achieved by breeding for dwarf plants that are more vulnerable to weeds and to flooding; the killing of pests was accompanied by the killing of their natural enemies, their replacement by other pests, and the evolution of pesticide resistance. The successful yield increases encouraged the diversion of land from legumes. The technical packages of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and mechanization promoted class differentiation in the countryside and displacement of peasants.” (in Biology under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health, Monthly Review Press, 2007, p.84).
On a global scale, the consequences of the biofuels bubble were soon dramatically visible in the South – seizure of common pasture in kwaZulu turned over for biofuel crop production, accelerated deforestation in Asia, new monoculture deserts in the Mato Grosso.
The story of Cannery Row—its birth, its mythification by Steinbeck, its death by intensive overfishing within a couple of years of the novella’s publication, and later its rebirth as a theme park—is a sad epitome of Californian environmental history, and gives the lie to Thomas Huxley’s fatal complacency. We are only now beginning to comprehend the full dimensions of the ecological and human catastrophe that followed 1849 and the invasion of the goldfields. Its effects were felt—are yet being felt—not just in the immediate hinterland of the Bay Area, but all along the Pacific littoral, home to many peoples, and as far away as Hawaii, where the sugar industry, headquartered in San Francisco, shattered the island ecosystems. In the light of such a history, and of an earth clearly struggling, what’s not to be apocalyptic about?
Yet out of the shambles of ecological disasters, failed states, IMF shock therapies, and neoliberalism's new round of global enclosures, a non-vanguardist, non-apocalyptic, movement of movements is slowly coming into being. The sites and modes of resistance are - have to be - as motley and protean as the sites and modes of the new enclosures. The time of nostalgia for the factory gate, for fetishizing the point of production, is long gone. The urgent and necessary task is to connect the struggles at all points, north and south, in the circuits of capital - at the points of expropriation, production, reproduction, and consumption. That means, for example, perceiving and then articulating the interests linking the landless commoners of the Movimento Sem Terra in South America, the Norwegian biologists trying to insert genes not into other lifeforms but into their ecological context at different scales, and the small but growing movement here in the Bay Area that sees the Creative Commons license as conceding too much to capital and state, and is challenging the very category of "intellectual property" as a form of enclosure, the kind that is driving GM agribusiness and the biofuels fiasco.
Quite apart from the practical problems facing horizontalist, transnational networks like the G8 resistance or the World Social Forum, there is hard theoretical work to be done. At the conceptual level, if the commodity form has its metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties, what I have called "common form" also has its philosophical conundrums, which urgently demand our attention. We need to enlist the help of anthropologists and historians of commoning, usufruct and coincident use-rights.
One shining example, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported in the New Scientist of 7th October 2009), should be placed in the plastic folders of all who are gathering in Copenhagen and still bent on commodifying the world’s woods, airs and waters. It turns out that the commoners of the earth do a better job of managing the earth’s forests than either state control or privatization. In the first study of its kind, which “tracked the fate of 80 forests worldwide in 10 countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, over 15 years and under differing models of ownership and management”, Chhatre and Agrawal of the University of Michigan conclude that “locals would also make a better job of managing common pastures, coastal fisheries and water supplies.” They further suggest that ”carbon storage potential is especially improved when community organisations and their institutions ‘incorporate local knowledge and decentralized decision making’ to ‘restrict their consumption of forest products’.” This finding is a direct rebuttal of Hardin’s notorious 1968 “Tragedy of the Commons” credo that became the fact-free, ideological cornerstone of IMF and World Bank neoliberal policies.
Tropical forest under local management stores more carbon than government-owned forest because the local commoners have a long-term interest in ensuring the forests' survival. This may be surprising only to those who have drunk Hardin’s Kool Aid, but it crucially contradicts some key assumptions informing COP 15.
We should certainly expect the organs of capital to attempt to expropriate also the language of the commons. They already have, in fact. Capitalism requires its own perverse variety of commons, to be its sink and sewer. What else was Larry Summers talking about in his infamous leaked World Bank memo, when he – honestly – asked whether, under standard cost-benefit assumptions, the Third World wasn’t seriously underpolluted? That is, given the logic assigning inferior value to black and brown bodies under capitalist accounting. Moreover, it is a fair bet that soon enough President Obama will declare strategic minerals (inconveniently under the feet of, say, Peruvians and Congolese) “global commons”, to be administered of course by the United Nations under terms to be finalized at the sixteenth meeting.
Yet suspicion of “the global” and its dissimulation of class and gender oppression, not to say its finessing of centuries of reparations now owed the South by northern plunder and industrialism, should not throw us uncritically into the embrace of “the local”, whatever the beauties of farmers’ markets and foodsheds. Who better than the transnational corporation at thinking globally, acting locally? More importantly, the very notion of “local”, when it comes to the atmosphere, may be just as problematic as the abstraction of the “global”. The airborne particulates in my town now include measurably higher levels of coaldust from the new plants coming online in China. Is the level of production in China not therefore a “local” concern, especially for the lungs of young children in the Bay Area, many of whom are already victims of the race/class nexus that dictates a cascade of inequities.
All the more extraordinary, then, is the horrific and inspiring news coming out of communities like Du Noon, Diepsloot, Dinokana, Khayelitsha, KwaZakhele, Masiphumelele, Lindelani, Piet Retief and Samora Machel in South Africa, places far from the suits and the suites of Copenhagen, and the courage of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers movement, insisting on becoming the authors of their own lives in an environment where they certainly have some some dirty air to trade for dignity.
No question, it is one of the really difficult challenges facing the enemies of capital, how to frame a conception of ampleness-within-finitude and an idiom in which to express it. And ultimately to live it. The first imperative, after Copenhagen, is to refuse the politics of the abyss on offer from the green capitalists barking of global catastrophe and then peddling us the kitsch science of a warmed-over biotech. It is time for commoners everywhere to hold the terrain that is yet in our hands, for pushing back against the new enclosures, and for re-making the world as we go. All without any illusions of carbon-trading our way back from the abyss, let alone engineering a biobrick road across it.
October 21, 2009
This restores integrity to an essay published in edited form in SUM Magazine, Copenhagen, December 2009, to coincide with the COP 15 climate summit. Needless to say, COP 15 in the event merely confirms the incisive critique that Iain Boal here advances.