Wednesday, November 14, 2012

review: lilley et al on catastrophism

Review: Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis, Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth (PM Press, 2012)

     This is the end. My only friend: the end. - JM

Capitalist governance is hardly thinkable today outside the shifting contours of the politics of fear. Terror pulses and surges within the global social process, and anxiety shapes the very forms of contemporary subjectivity. The logic of accumulation dominates through a flexible mix of enjoyment and enforcement. Under the pressures and miseries of social and ecological crises, fantasies of doom animate both the dream machines of the culture industry and the political imaginaries of divergent social movements. To experience collective self-destruction as a supreme aesthetic pleasure, Benjamin noted back at the opening of the new era of terror, is bad politics.

Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth offers a superb and needed critical overview of current tendencies toward an aestheticizing politics of doom. Evolving out of discussions catalyzed by Iain Boal and the Retort collective, these essays by Lilley, McNally, Yuen and Davis survey and analyze the traps and delusions involved when catastrophe scenarios are deployed as a mobilizing political figure. Clearly, we need to understand these pitfalls, for as Yuen observes, our moment ‘is saturated with instrumental, spurious, and sometimes maniacal versions of catastrophism – including right-wing racial paranoia, religious millenarianism, liberal panics over fascism, leftist fetishization of capitalist collapse, capitalist invocation of the “shock doctrine,” and pop culture cliché’(pp. 15-16).

Friday, November 2, 2012

science in the force field

Climate scientists have not yet reached consensus about whether global warming will tend to increase or decrease the total number of hurricane-strength storms. But there is strong agreement that warming creates the conditions for larger and more powerful hurricanes: warmer sea surface temperatures, higher sea levels and more moisture in the atmosphere. These general tendencies interact with other local and regional factors to produce the local weather.

Climatologist Kevin Trenberth parses the specific conjuncture that intensified Hurricane Sandy: ‘The sea surface temperatures along the Atlantic coast have been running at over 3C above normal for a region extending 800km off shore all the way from Florida to Canada. Global warming contributes 0.6C to this. With every degree Celsius [of warming], the water holding of the atmosphere goes up 7%, and the moisture provides fuel for the tropical storm, increases its intensity, and magnifies the rainfall by double that amount compared with normal conditions.’

In the week or so before Hurricane Sandy pummeled the northeast US, the warming denial industry was hard at work. The right-wing, Koch-funded Cato Institute (publishers of In Defense of Global Capitalism, among other dismal screeds) attempted to sabotage a US government assessment of climate change impacts by issuing what poses as an ‘addendum’ to the original. The 2009 report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, was prepared by the US Global Change Research Center and presented to Congress as a summary of the ‘best science’ on the subject. The authoring federal entity is itself a conglomeration of thirteen departments and agencies, including the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Smithsonian Institution,  but also others, like the Environmental Protection Agency, that are routinely contained by hostile political appointments, as well as a battery of agencies straightforwardly in the business of promoting or defending the status quo of accumulation (Departments of Commerce, Interior, Energy, Defense and State, and the Agency for International Development). One can only imagine the pressures and internal struggles that shaped the publication of this report.