Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Accelerating into the Dark I

Levi Bryant has an excellent post here (and follow ups here and here) developing his black ecological position and what it may have to say about the ongoing socio-economic and ecological crises confronting us. His conclusions, he notes, are pessimistic ones, and he pushes forwards with a proposal that he thinks will attract little if any agreement from most of his readers. The posts warrant a close reading themselves, so go to it. Suffice it to say, though, I am in agreement with most of what he says. For example, most of the crises confronting us may be intractable because of the structure of the governmental, corporate and industrial systems – or hyperobjects, to appropriate Morton – within which we are embedded and enmeshed. A couple of quotes below are representative of some of Levi's thinking and they point towards what I want to offer some comment on:

Given the way in which government and corporations are today intertwined, I don’t think there’s much we can do to avert the coming catastrophe. As Morton says, referring to logical time, “the catastrophe has already happened”. So what would it mean, I wonder, to take Morton’s thesis seriously?
I just don’t see how there’s any feasible way we can get governments and industry to respond to these problems given the current governmental and economic ecologies. This seems to suggest that the only possible solution is to push ourselves over the ledge where fossil fuels are no longer available and where governments and industry are thereby forced to change. That’s my pessimistic thought for the evening.
To summarise Levi, his argument is an accelerationist one. The crises unfolding around us are largely inescapable because of the systemic features of the governmental and economic objects and ideologies surrounding us, so, the best that we can do is accelerate some of the processes that comprise them to the point at which these unresponsive systems must respond to their dramatically changed circumstances. Interestingly, this example is sufficiently close to a number of popular analogies in the  collapse and peak oil communities to warrant some consideration.

Consider, a frequent account of civilization’s current situation via an analogy with a car or train that is travelling at high speed, albeit with remarkably poor visibility (e.g. through darkness or thick fog). The driver proceeds with the knowledge that there are probably some hazards out there, that is, there are limits, such as the road or track ending, or else objects suddenly appearing in the path. However, so far the journey has been uneventful. The road or track continues ahead, indeed the journey has been so untroubled that the driver is drifting off at the wheel. All is well, business as usual, full throttle, full steam ahead. Civilization, it is claimed, is like this. Many are aware that the road or track must end or encounter some other limit. So far we have been lucky. But for how long? Increasing numbers of people are starting to shout for someone, anyone, to hit the brakes before civilization crashes and burns, probably taking unimaginable numbers of other beings with it. Indeed, there are already some signs that we have left the road or tracks ('it's getting bumpy'), or else that something can be dimly perceived ahead of us ('is that a hyperobject emerging from the fog?'). But can we be sure? What can be done?

The most common response here is that we should slam on the brakes. Don’t hesitate, calculate or debate, just brake! Even if it is too late to avoid a crash (i.e. "it’s inevitable, already happened”), braking is better than not braking; one hits with less velocity, has a greater chance of survival, and will do less harm to whatever is in one's path (never mind the unnoticed roadkill in your wake).

It is at this point, though, that Levi’s argument enters the picture. To what degree can we apply the brakes? Are we travelling in a vehicle where there is little provision for stopping built into the system? Is there some structural resistance that is difficult to overcome? I am with Levi entirely here, as with most of his points: stopping is hard and, as he notes, there’s not ‘much we can do to avert the coming catastrophe.’

Where I differ from Levi, however, is with regard to an assessment of the limits and obstacles that may produce this catastrophe. Many of the favoured analogies select the image of civilization impacting with a wall or other object (global warming), transmitting severe damage to both and usually resulting in social collapse as one outcome of this collision. In this analogy, braking is advantageous because it lessens the severity of the impact.  It is recognised that the crash cannot be averted, but its severity can be mitigated and lessened.  Some other analogies, however, point toward the limit being rather more like those imposed by a cliff, one leading to an incredibly deep abyss/ravine.  In this circumstance, reducing one's velocity doesn’t matter one iota because, whether 10mph or 60mph, we are still going to reach terminal velocity once we plunge over the cliff.  The point here may be linked with the crossing of various non-linear tipping points and encountering such phenomena as runaway climate change.  Once a certain horizon is passed, there is simply no turning back.

Another form of accelerationist argument can be located in the writings of some anarcho-primitivists and radical eco-activists. Here, though, it runs along the following lines: if the collapse of civilization is inevitable - which it is argued that it is – and if this collapse will have many negative outcomes (e.g. loss of human and nonhuman life, ecological degradation etc), then it is desirable that civilization collapses sooner rather than later. This is because more beings will be left alive, fewer species will go extinct, more resources will remain for future generations than if civilization’s crash is long and protracted. Therefore: end civilization sooner rather than letting is collapse catastrophically later.

I'll continue with some of these thoughts and my own evaluation later, for the moment some teaching, tutorials and admin needs to be attended to.

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