Tuesday, July 22, 2008

thoughts on zizecology - 2

There are two primary axes of political conflict in Kim Stanley Robinson's incomparable Mars trilogy: first, the expected (almost generically required) question of independence vs. interdependence with regard to the mother planet, Earth, which is really a question about Utopia and enclavism that is concretized in the fierce battles over the space elevator; and second and more relevant for my purposes today is the fierce break between the Red Martians and the Green Martians. The Greens believe the planet should be terraformed so as to inhabitable by humans without mechanical assistance, a technical problem that clumps around issues of surface temperature, atmospheric composition and density, and unpredictable climactic feedback mechanisms; the Reds believe the planet should be left as pristine as possible, whether because this is the only way it can be properly studied or because the otherwise dead rock is seen by some Reds to have a kind of mystical vitality all its own.

Of course, Greenism and Redism both describe ideological spectra, not discrete sets of propositions: some moderate Greens propose to terraform only up to a level of 5 km, leaving Mars's huge mountains relatively untouched, while others believe the planet should be maximally terraformed and still others believe it should be terraformed only to the light-facemask level—while for their part the Reds are divided between those who would only act as a partial brake on unchecked development and radical terrorists who bomb critical life-support equipment in an effort to force humans off the planet.

And Redism is surely doomed, doomed from the moment of its first articulation on the Ares bringing the First Hundred colonists to the Mars—doomed by the decision to colonize the planet in the first place, if not by earlier manned missions, if not by bacteria carried over on the Viking landers. The originary, humanless Mars—the natural Mars—is in this sense a logical impossibility—in order to exist at all, in order to be a real place as opposed to some far-off speck of light in the sky, Mars must exist for us, which is to say Mars must enter into (human) history. It must be changed; it must be ruined.

The Reds have always, necessarily, lost, though their recognition of this fact that doesn't dim their fervor.

I bring this up as in attempt to return to Žižek's critique of ecology, specifically the radical reconsideration of finitude he ignites in the latter half of the essay. Žižek seeks to unmask liberal ecology as simply the latest ideological backing for the biopolitical structures of capitalism as a whole. “Today’s predominant mode of politics is post-political bio-politics,” Žižek writes, and accordingly ecology’s primary locus of action should be understood as an ecology of fear. Žižek does not deny the reality of the potential catastrophe we face but rather opposes the ends to which this potential disaster is rhetorically purposed:

The lesson this ecology is constantly hammering is our finitude… This is why, although ecologists are all the time demanding that we change radically our way of life, underlying this demand is its opposite, a deep distrust of change, of development, of progress: every radical change can have the unintended consequence of triggering a catastrophe.
What Žižek reveals, then, at the heart of liberal ecology is a deep-seated, unacknowledged conservatism that weakly opposes the status quo in appearance only to work to preserve it in reality.

The ecology of fear’s recognition of our precariousness, of our absolute contingency, Žižek says, in fact induces us to cling to the devil we know:
With regard to this inherent instability of nature, the most consequent was the proposal of a German ecological scientist back in 1970s: Since nature is changing constantly and the conditions on Earth will render the survival of humanity impossible in a couple of centuries, the collective goal of humanity should be not to adapt itself to nature, but to intervene into the Earth’s ecology even more forcefully with the aim to freeze the Earth’s change, so that its ecology will remain basically the same, thus enabling humanity’s survival. This extreme proposal renders visible the truth of ecology.
And the problem goes still deeper. Given the Malthusian proportions of the current population of the Earth and the extreme, highly energy-dependent requirements for industrial agriculture alone, if the industrial civilization that is currently wrecking the planet were to suddenly stop, this too would be a disaster out of proportion with any ever experienced in human memory. We find ourselves trapped no matter which way we turn. “Nature,” as such, has in this sense already been entirely lost—an observation Žižek draws in part from Timothy Morton, author of Ecology without Nature, who writes that “it is very hard to get used to the idea that the catastrophe, far from being imminent, has already taken place.”

I am reminded here of Norbert Weiner’s memorable depiction of the human race as “shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet” in 1950’s The Human Use of Human Beings. In recognition of the essentially entropic nature of the universe, Weiner asserts, the proper response is not despair or catastrophic fatalism but rather resolve to meet our challenges head-on and keep the final catastrophe as far off as we may. Weiner, despite his scientistic and technocratic positivism, becomes revealed as a proto-ecologist in this Žižekian sense, an ecologist aiming not at preservation but at utilization and manipulation.

Felix Guattari, too, comes to make essentially the same claim in his “The Three Ecologies”:
There is a principle specific to environmental ecology: it states that anything is possible—the worst disasters or the most flexible evolutions. Natural equilibriums will be increasingly reliant upon human intervention, and a time will come when vast programmes will need to be set up in order to regulate the relationship between oxygen, ozone, and carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere.
We can add to this a whole host of possible geoengineering projects, including the new proposal to add lime to the oceans to combat climate change that I blogged about just this morning. Guattari’s vision of a “machinic ecology” is positively Weinerian in scope, if not utterly Promethean—he goes on to argue that the telos of humankind is in part “to dare to confront the vertiginous Cosmos so as to make it inhabitable,” not simply to keep equilibrium or stasis but indeed to bend all of nature to our will (if with the proper ecosophic respect for life at all levels).

If all this is true, why then does contemporary liberal ecology present itself in opposition to technological civilization and progress as such? How does ecology resist the recognition of its own central contradiction? Žižek attributes ecology’s conservative blindness to a kind of childish denial, a refusal to accept emotionally what one knows to be the case intellectually, a psychological inability endemic to the modern age to reconcile cold scientific appraisal with common sense. Žižek—perhaps not unexpectedly—relates this fundamental divide between scientific knowledge and the Wisdom (“the basic trust in the background coordinates of our world”) we need to “unlearn” to Lacan’s notion of the “big Other,” the Symbolic figure whom we believe will “guarantee the harmony between the levels, to guarantee that the overall interactions will be satisfactory.” There is, of course, no big Other—we are flying blind, with no co-pilot—and the first solution to our predicament is the old Lacanian one of recognizing this uncomfortable fact: “And the lesson of ecology is that we should go to the end here and accept the non-existence of the ultimate big Other, nature itself with its pattern of regular rhythms, the ultimate reference of order and stability.”

What Žižek rejects here is any notion of equilibrium (to use the Club of Rome’s preferred term) or sustainability (to use the one currently in vogue). But this, it would seem to me, is in the end a too-wide application of the category of denial that itself amounts to an act of denial in the end. In the end, the fact must be admitted: All this—technological civilization, even one that is ecological in the Žižekian/Guattarian sense—simply cannot go on forever. There is, in the end, a limit point, some point past which it is simply impossible either to grow and expand on the one hand or perfect and regulate on the other. The laws of physics—the laws of Weiner’s entropic universe—are in the end a kind of actually existing big Other, a big Other of a sort that cannot be dispelled through Promethean know-how, or through the infinite adaptability of the market, or through a position of Lacanian self-knowledge. In the end, they are final, including and especially the first and second laws of thermodynamics (You can’t get something for nothing, and Things fall apart.) There is, in the end, reality, such as it is.

Given this, it seems prudent to inculcate some capacity to recognize and respect the limits to growth. In this sense Guattari and especially Žižek seem to get their infinities tangled up—the flexible recombination of the market is of a very particular and limited kind, and should not be confused with the actual ability to do anything. Žižek is wrong, too, to argue that finitude necessarily leads to a hopeless conservatism, because the recognition of our finitude is also the prerequisite for effective ecological knowledge and environmental policy in the first place. There could be no ecology without finitude—what need would there be for it?—and in this sense finitude cannot ever be tossed out; it must rather be acknowledged, and assented to, even as we seek to do what we can for ourselves within that frame. It is only in first studying and understanding nature as “the ultimate reference of order and stability” that ecologists can come to know what they can and cannot do, what is and is not possible—and therefore it is only in first recognizing and respecting natural patterns and regular rhythms that the ecologist can begin to do anything at all.

Finitude, this is to say, is better understood as an immanent principle of existence rather than as some transcendent imposition from above. The finitude imposed by entropic nature is as much the playing field as it is a barrier or limit point.

There is, of course, every reason to think that capitalism is uniquely unprepared to recognize either version of finitude, or to approach its production capacity with anything resembling rational growth—if, that is, we have not in fact already and unknowingly flown past it. Rather, as Foster continually reminds us through his invocations of Marx, capitalism itself is the primary accelerant towards our own immolation. The problem is not merely the ceaseless, unchecked drive towards accumulation—though this of course is crucial—but also the ways in which there is no ability under capitalism to regulate the desires of consumers except by sudden (and in this case likely irreversible) scarcity: a crisis. John Bellamy Foster writes in Ecology Against Capital:
For Marx, the very nature of capitalist society from the very beginning had been built on a metabolic rift between city and country, human beings and the earth—a rift that has now been heightened beyond anything he could have imagined…. There is an irreversible environmental crisis within global capitalist society. But setting aside capitalism, a sustainable relation to the earth is not beyond reach. To get there, we have to change our social relations.
Evoking John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous dependence effect, which reverses the classic economic relationship between commodity and need to understand capitalism as first producing needs for consumers which its products then step in to fulfill, Foster concludes that the relations of production within capitalism will simply never be capable of generating “a society governed not by the search for profit but by people’s genuine needs, and the requirements of socio-ecological sustainability.” In line with his understanding of Marx as a proto-ecological thinker, as elaborated at length in his 2000 book Marx’s Ecology, Foster calls this state of affairs socialism.

First and foremost among the things such a socialism will require, in part, is a ideology—really, an ethos—that would allow us to imagine a future for humanity that is neither radically Utopian or radically dystopian/apocalyptic, but rather in continuity with the present. The language of sustainability that Foster uses is one such paradigm—but I find myself attracted instead to what Kim Stanley Robinson has called permaculture. In a recent interview with the Web site BLDGBLOG, Robinson defined permaculture in this way:
But if you think of yourself as terraforming Earth, and if you think about sustainability, then you can start thinking about permaculture and what permaculture really means. It’s not just sustainable agriculture, but a name for a certain type of history. Because the word sustainability is now code for: let’s make capitalism work over the long haul, without ever getting rid of the hierarchy between rich and poor and without establishing social justice.

Sustainable development, as well: that’s a term that’s been contaminated. It doesn’t even mean sustainable anymore. It means: let us continue to do what we’re doing, but somehow get away with it. By some magic waving of the hands, or some techno silver bullet, suddenly we can make it all right to continue in all our current habits. And yet it’s not just that our habits are destructive, they’re not even satisfying to the people who get to play in them. So there’s a stupidity involved, at the cultural level.

We should take the political and aesthetic baggage out of the term utopia. I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms – in more dynamic terms. People tend to think of utopia as a perfect end-stage, which is, by definition, impossible and maybe even bad for us. And so maybe it’s better to use a word like permaculture, which not only includes permanent but also permutation. Permaculture suggests a certain kind of obvious human goal, which is that future generations will have at least as good a place to live as what we have now.
Permaculture, in this way, weds the techno-optimism of Žižek and Guattari with the eco-pessimism of Foster in a way that accounts for the rightness of both. It rejects the paradigm of sustainable growth in favor of what it is essentially raw futurity, the ethical imperative not only that there should be a future but that the people in it deserve a decent world in which to live. This, Robinson says, is closely tied to his career as a science fiction writer, which he imagines speaking both from and for the future:
And you try to speak for them by envisioning scenarios that show them either doing things better or doing things worse – but you’re also alerting the generations alive right now that these people have a voice in history.

The future needs to be taken into account by the current system, which regularly steals from it in order to pad our ridiculous current lifestyle.
For there is a third, unspoken suggestion in permaculture, too, beyond permanence and permutation, and that of course is permafrost, that permanently frozen tundra of the Arctic and sub-Arctic that is now for the first time in human history beginning to melt as a result of anthropogenic climate change. The future is indeed under genuine threat; the crises are indeed real, and perhaps the catastrophes as well. And as these things happen, and we continue to do nothing, our chances at permaculture, and a livable, better future, slowly melt away.