Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group Blog

400ppm: The number of the beast?

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It was interesting to read and discuss the 400ppm essay, including the essay format. I’m only going to pick out a few here, looking particularly for what we found hard to find in our discussion: Hope of equitable climate change mitigation. Nelson et al pointed to somecrucial directions for ongoing research’, which we didn’t discuss much:  1. Critical Political Economy of Climate Change; 2. Eco-Humanities (‘a conceptual and material messiness which demands (?) a more-than-human humanities’); 3. Geophilosophy, including, for me, a key question on value/values:how does the emergence of a “techno-planetary” form of capitalism present and value the world in new—and often highly limited—ways?’ 4. Critical Eco-politics where, interesting for work Sam and I hope to pursue,The role of catastrophe in imaging a political present and future’ was a constant refrain, as was ‘the potential of abrupt ecological crisis to obfuscate less spectacular forms of violent dispossession’. And I noted, ‘of particular concern was also the ease with which past forms of environmental critique have been so easily recuperated in the service the very political and economic logics they once sought to interrogate’ (Aber’s own Marc Welsh made a similar point when he wrote about resilience, I think).

Simon Dalby was the first academic who I heard dismiss the logics of peak oil (and every other fossil peak), bluntly stating that too much and not too little fossil fuel was the problem. So, what will the ‘social arrangements’ be for an age of  ‘Anthropocene Geopolitics’. I would guess much the same as they are now: avoidance (adaptation) for those who can afford it while those who can’t suffer.  I was slightly disappointed by the contributions of Bronislaw Szerszynski and Mike Hulme but that was probably because I expected too much from writers who have been so influential for me. Like Hulme, Mark Whitehead concentrated on the strange significances that we invest in arbitrary numbers.

 Nigel Clark raised the tantalising prospect of what a politics of strata might look like. I have only just begun to think about how such as question might be researched? Conceptually, it is stimulating to think of politics vertically, from fossil fuel deposit to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but in practice how could such thinking entangle and influence territorial politics. What does it mean to acknowledge that ‘there is no social formation which is not also a geo-social formation’? Is Clarke asking new questions or restating very familiar debates in different terms? And, could these terms move the debate along? What political philosophy meshes with a politics of strata? Cosmopolitanism? How would a politics of strata ‘do’ justice? Would it be substantively different from the thinking driving climate justice, e.g. Chatterton et al’s antagonism, commons and solidarity? (Chatterton et al, 2013). 

Clark’s essay is substantively resounded by Martin Mahony. Examining the relation between natural science’s experimental results and politics, Mahony questions whether numbers to anything to further our understanding of how to respond socially to climate change: How does 400ppm help us re-conceive justice and democracy? Mahony suggests that it should remind us that ‘the climate is a space of emergent associations; of a political complexity that we are only starting to ascertain in our own cosmologies’. Similarly, Angela Last’s essay, which was popular in group discussion, reinforcing our views that: (i) collective (political) rather individual (consumer) action is needed, and that (ii) those currently in charge are not going to make the necessary changes. Last holds out the Décroissance (degrowth) movement as a beacon of possible change, and so hope. Our group has discussed a reading on the degrowth movement, puzzling at degrowth’s lack of penetration into Britain.

 Jamie Lorimer tracks the journey a sing carbon dioxide molecule, the 400th part, illustrating our problem with balancing our need for carbon with our surplus of carbon dioxide. Richard Betts points out the short term benefit the a surplus of carbon dioxide brings to some climes. Lesley Head also looks at climate change as a matter of abundance. She notes that as recently as 2007, to talk of adaptation was defeatist, whereas now mitigation is impossible to conceive of. Head raises the question of how academia could extricate itself from the fossil-fuel economy – a debate that has been going on for years to no avail. She frames the question in terms of cultural hegemony, though, e.g, if Australian academics stopped flying, particularly internationally, it would ‘reinforce existing axes of academic power around the Anglo-American core’. I so disagree, if Australian academics took decision not to fly, or to reduce their flights by 80 or 90%, and demanded academia take technologies such as skype seriously, it could really challenge Anglo-American authority by undermining it morally.

Lövbrand and Linnér plough what is becoming familiar furrow for social scientists, linking climate politics to development, energy security, water access, environmental solidarity and justice. The idea is that addressing climate change demands facts that matter in everyday life and not just scientific matters of fact which are distant in time and space. (e.g. Jasanoff, 2010). Having taken this idea on, for example in researching the link between flooding in Wales and a politics of climate change mitigation, I am increasingly wary that linking will have any impact on political practice. For me, it appears as restatement of the maxim ‘system change not climate change’ without any clue about how to proceed.

So, as in our group discussion, I find little hope in these essays, intrigued as I might be by the prospect of a politics of strata and deterritorialisation. Social movements such as Décroissance are inspiring but I doubt they will constitute the collective political action needed to make a change. I wonder whether conceiving of the problem as one of abundance amounts to anythign more than semantics? Retaining the notion of facts that matter in everyday life, I find some hope in making those facts relational, e.g. making flooding in Bangladesh matter to people in Wales via the intimate linking of communities, in a political rather than Samaritan sense.

400ppm? It doesn’t seem that we’ve yet calculated the number of the carbon beast.

Author: masonk4

Academic, activist, clown, rebel, insurgent...

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