A future much worse than the present

[‘Klaus Emmerich in Brown Coal Blues’ (2016) Photo: Vice]

Brown Coal Blues (2016) is a documentary produced by VICE INTL that concerns mining in the Rhineland region, in which reporter Filipa Von Stackelberg interviews employees of energy corporation RWE who operate the Garzweiler lignite mine, alongside locals and mining opponents. Early in the program Von Stackelberg interviews Klaus Emmerich, a RWE employee of 35 years, who states:

Only when we have the capacity to store energy, are we in a position where we can use renewable energies…We must ensure as a society that we start using less energy, so that less energy has to be produced.[03.38–03.50]

Later she speaks with Daniel, a young activist who participated in Ende Gelände 2015. When Von Stackelberg asks him what is an alternative to coal, he replies:

My first solution is that we use much, much less electricity. Once we use less electricity we won’t have to produce as much of it. [18.00]

Von Stackelberg points out that these two representatives of seemingly opposing forces oddly agree that here, in the ‘over-developed world’ (a phrase coined by the Situationist Internationale and recuperated by theorist McKenzie Wark), we should be using much less energy. Yet they seem to suggest different methods of achieving this; one based on technical innovation to more efficiently extract, store and distribute renewable energy, and another that calls for immediate restraint requiring an overhaul of social and structural institutions. Whilst the first may seem less disruptive to how we are now accustomed to living, it may cause more drastic changes to the planet we inhabit, especially as temperature rises exceed 2°C or even 4°C.

In 2015, Ende Gelände emerged out of the Degrowth Summer School and Climate Camp. Degrowth is a movement and a growing academic field that mounts a critique of capitalism’s ‘grow or die’ ethos and ultimately calls for the abolishment of economic growth as a social objective (D’Alisa, Demaria and Kallis (eds) 2014, p. 3). According to the Research & Degrowth website:

Degrowth does not only challenge the centrality of GDP as an overarching policy objective but proposes a framework for transformation to a lower and sustainable level of production and consumption, a shrinking of the economic system to leave more space for human cooperation and ecosystems. (Research & Degrowth n.d.)

In their introduction to the book Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era (2014), the editors explain that the word is derived from the French décroissance first used by André Gorz in 1972 when he posed the question:

Is the earth’s balance, for which no-growth — or even degrowth — of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system? (cited in D’Alisa, Demaria and Kallis (eds) 2014, p. 1).

Degrowth follows a limits of growth line of argument to reason that even with zero economic growth scarce resources will be exhausted so the best strategy would be to simply consume less (2014, p. 2). This may sound like a ‘neo-Luddite’ position, which brackets out the use of resources to develop efficient tools or technologies, however as stated on the Research & Degrowth website the movement is not anti-technology per sé, but against the pursuit of technology for technology’s sake. Rather advocates for degrowth argues for ‘new social and technical arrangements that will enable us to live convivially and frugally.’ (Research & Degrowth n.d.)

At the other end of the spectrum are the kinds of ‘techno-utopias’ that Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate (UK), argues are being put forth in the Paris Agreement signed at the conclusion of COP21. In an article published in Nature (2015) and in a more elaborate blog entry posted soon after COP21, Anderson claimed that rather than cut emissions in the short term the Agreement gambles on successful ‘negative emissions technologies’ being developed by the end of the century that will capture and store CO2. As he puts it:

Whilst a plethora of exotic Dr Strangelove options vie for supremacy to deliver on such a grand project, those with the ear of governments have plumped for BECCS (biomass energy carbon capture and storage) as the most promising ‘negative emission technology.’ However these government advisors (Integrated Assessment Modellers – clever folk developing ‘cost-optimised’ solutions to 2°C by combining physics with economic and behavioural modelling) no longer see negative emission technologies as a last ditch Plan B — but rather now promote it as central pivot of the one and only Plan. (Anderson 2016)

Anderson is also skeptical of ‘a decade of mathematically nebulous green-growth and win-win rhetoric,’ however he laments that no MP would be prepared to introduce the changes required to make the deep and early cuts to CO2 emissions now, during their electoral cycle—changes that would inevitably target specific industries, or rather the ‘10% of the global population are responsible for around 50% of total emissions.’ So with the Paris Agreement, we are left with effectively a prolonged emergency response that for some can be read as a reassuring ‘tweak to ‘business as usual,’ but is no less drastic in its assumptions. Take Anderson’s description of what a global BECCS undertaking might involve:

decades of ongoing planting and harvesting of energy crops over an area the size of one to three times that of India. At the same time the aviation industry anticipates fuelling its planes with bio-fuel, the shipping industry is seriously considering biomass to power its ships and the chemical sector sees biomass as a potential feedstock. And then there are 9 billion or so human mouths to feed. Surely this critical assumption deserved serious attention within the Agreement? (Anderson 2016)

As we begin to envision what the near future might look like and how the planet might be geo-engineered to accommodate current economic interests, it seems apt to raise the issues put forth by McKenzie Wark (2016). In theorising the Anthropocene, Wark understands Earth systems as a totality, with a limit on the resources we are able to extract and the particular biospheric conditions in which we can live. With reference to the history of modern agriculture Wark argues that planet is already geo-engineered and rather than arguing for a romantic notion of pre-industrial ecological homeostasis, we should be alert to how geo-engineering will occur in the coming years. In This Changes Everything (2014) Naomi Klein urges readers to seize the climate crisis as an opportunity to ‘swerve’ away from what Mark Fisher (2009) famously labeled as ‘capitalist realism,’ encouraging communities to literally reclaim power—that is the means of producing and distributing energy. Wark asks if the ‘current consensus’ (to borrow George Monbiot’s phrase) is no longer capitalism but something worse?

Wark’s thought experiment queries the rise of what he identifies as the ‘vectoralist class,’ an elite who control information flows, such as the kinds of information derived from data mining populations. For me, this brings to mind mega-corporations such as Google or Facebook or state security operations such as the NSA. Is it possible to detect the rise of the vectorial class amongst those who control the information that has alerted us to climate change? Are these the ‘Integrated Assessment Modellers,’ as described by Anderson, whose instructions decide the future of the planet? A text Wark (2016) produced for the forthcoming Berlin Biennale also articulates some skepticism about whose interests underpin policies and protocols such as the Paris Agreement:

The whole idea of geo-engineering makes many people nervous, and rightly so. The very entities that are destroying a habitable planet are proposing the same mode of production to engineer its salvation. Of course, they want huge state subsidies to even deign to think about this. We are all supposed to pay, so that someone else can extract yet more profits from some technology that scrubs carbon dioxide from the air, for example.

In one segment of Brown Coal Blues, Von Stackelberg visits Hambacher Forest Camp where activists live in tree houses to prevent the expansion of the mine. A rail line passes by the forest which is used to transport lignite and a small group of activists regularly lock-on to the rails to disrupt the flow of coal. These blockades happen every three weeks or so according to one of the train drivers, and cause delays for around a day. Daniel’s position is that even these relatively minor disruptions prevent a little bit of coal from being burnt and bit by bit obstruct the clearing of the forest. The train driver, however, thinks of their actions quite differently—even cynically:

I don’t see the point in it. The forest is dead already (laughs). They’ve been pumping out the groundwater for two years now. There is no hope for it. [15.35]

There is no hope for it. Perhaps then, a more ‘realist’ position to adopt around climate change is to accept that the kinds of inequalities that neoliberal capitalism has produced are set to intensify further, and perhaps even more so as people and communities are not only abstracted as populations and statistics, but can be themselves mined and manipulated as data. By erecting more walls, eroding democratic rights and enforcing policies that restrict safety, privacy and preserve the interests of the relative few, global elites are able to affirm that in an era of crisis there is no alternative. Of course, life soon becomes intolerable if one were to accept such pessimism, which is arguably why radical alternatives, civil disobedience and the imperative to ‘be the change we want to see’ seem to have gained such prominence and visibility. If we are indeed preparing for a future that is much worse than the present, then what must we do?

Anderson, Kevin, 2016. ‘The hidden agenda: how veiled techno-utopias shore up the Paris Agreement’, kevinanderson.info.

Anderson, Kevin, 2015. ‘Talks in the city of light generate more heat,’ Nature, vol. 528, 24/31 December, p. 437. [PDF]

D’Alisa, Giacomo, Demaria, Federico and Kallis, Giorgos (eds), 2014. Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, Routledge .

Fisher, Mark, 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books, Winchester, UK and Washington, USA.

Goldsmith, Leo, 2013. ‘Here in the over-developed world,’ LA review of books, 26 June.

Klein, Naomi, 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Alfred A. Knopf, Canada.

Monbiot, George, 2016. ‘Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems,’ The Guardian, 15 April.

Research & Degrowth (n.d)

VICE INTL, 2016. ‘Inside Germany’s most harmful energy source.’

Wark, McKenzie, 2016. ‘Geopolitics of Hibernation,’ Fear of Content: 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, 25 April.

Wark, McKenzie, 2016b. ‘Erik Olin Wright & Class Today,’ Public Seminar [blog], 9 February 2016.

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