Christopher Glen / ecologies building blog 4: modernity’s conceit and the IPCC

by Chris Glen

How does the lay person take up on a text like the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) report where expertise works to speak authoritatively on the “big subject” of climate, and its changeability? Gleaning from Mark Kingwell’s review of Stephen Kern’s A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels and Systems of Thought (Globe and Mail Nov 13, 2004), there are5 characteristics of modern systems of thought: complexity, multiplicity, specificity, probability, and uncertainty —all of which the IPCC report has in spades. It is an extraordinary interdisciplinary effort to understand, describe, monitor, and project the future implications of what we now call climate change. Most of us are reading, figuring, visualizing, somewhere in the “meta-text” that the IPCC report is located in and it really is one of those books/works we must feel free to develop opinions about. The more substantially informed and considered the better. It also should go to the core of what we intensively over about in thinking the kind of modernity we want to live. Our readings, visualizing, and conversational trafficking, let alone real changes will be someone’s future “reception studies” project. For me, the forced march into Earth Science and Natural History really has been, amongst other things, “revelation” every other page.

The IPCC report emerges from the very broadly conceived intellectual commons and speaks to unintended consequences that follow from the techno-systems that largely fuel Anthropogenic Impacts. Michael Adas' Dominance and Design: Technological Imperatives and America’s Civilizing Mission (2006) uses the construct “can-do” (the shadow of Candu cannot be avoided) to refer to the broad configuration of Capital and techno-systems that have successively shaped the modernities we live through. Can-do, restless, inventive, driven, pragmatic, is mostly interested in the separation of parts or processes from complexity (energy from rivers, minerals from geological formations), and rendering them in the form commodities and services (themselves often complex and patent or copyright protected). If the numbers are right, market-favorable immense rewards are possible.

The successive transformations that modernity has entailed have rarely been uncontested. The can-do history is littered with collateral damage, impacts, negative consequences of many different forms, but here the environmental ones are of interest. Toxicity, ecological loss, and degraded resets have tended to be serial “fires” to be put out, with redress techno-fixes positioned as the unfortunate but necessary “price of progress.” The in-house can-do science is not the best place to look for reassurance. It is the intellectual commons of science at large where one goes for independent auditing. A disturbance event of the scale of BP’s deepwater Horizon blow-out does not inspire confidence. The lack of adequate baseline studies, which would themselves be qualified by a history of Gulf of Mexico disturbances make the auditing difficult. The “what if” Hurricane Katrina had waltzed in while BP was operationally naked, is a matter of probabilities. The outcomes would have been very much more dystopian. As we know, tsunamis and nuclear power station events can get entangled. These events expose the risk assessments that pervade our techno-systems. The more fulsome evaluations cannot be the provenance of can-do science at the behest of capital as represented by a public relations industry. The climate change file has made State/Capital’s relation to unintended consequences very much more difficult to manage.

The IPCC report involves a scalar shift that we “get” and yet, I think, barely recognize. Their synthesis points to a relatively simple problematic, as unarguable as plate tectonics. There is a most widely used “smoking gun” (the Keeling curve) for all the further detail and complexity that needs to be further figured. The smoking gun of course is fossil fuel use and CO2 release. The problem goes to the heart of modernity’s productive capacities. It goes to the core of can-do productive prowess, the vested interest of capital therein, and to state policies deeply aligned with can-do capital. It is not as though other forms of widely used energy are unproblematic (nuclear, hydro), but the extent of foreseeable future commitment to fossil fuel is deeply entrenched. Currently we are seeing a generational upgrade and expansion of the infrastructure of fossil fuel use in its oil and gas forms. It is where much of the current story as told by the Globe and Mail, for example, is unfolding. Capital championed by the State in the face of public disquiet.

I’m with George the Lesser (Arundhati Roy’s ascription) here, on unknown unknowns. My own late, slow, take off on this precedes, but not by that much Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006) followed by Weart The Discovery of Global Warming (2003, 2008), Flannery We Are The Weather Makers (2006), and U Vic’s own Weaver Keeping Our Cool: Canada in a Warming World (2008) all of which pose the cascade of questions that need following. The scale of this predicament and its effect on the global commons is astounding. While many of us have learned very rapidly to shoot global warming bullets from the ideological hip it seems to me the implications require an immense amount of intellectual reworking. The firmness and clarity with which the IPCC has addressed this is salutary and will not be easily swayed. Facts on the ground, in the atmosphere, and increasingly in the oceans (the really big heat pump, where most biological productivity happens, vulnerable to acidification, already deeply compromised by pollution and degraded ecologies) will of necessity be central to modernity’s ongoing trajectory. The IPCC are not readily marginalizeable voices or authorities.

Modernity’s Conceit entailed a presumption that the commons at large was so capacious that it could endlessly absorb unintended consequences. Climate change is a shape shifter because there is simply no greater commons, no external to displace unintended consequences to. CO2 impact, climate change, and ocean acidification pervade the commons at planetary scale. It will be in the ubiquitous daily weather reports. It will permeate all our back yards and the elsewheres that we have become entangled with. Its unintended consequences are so systemic that, much as our infrastructure needs be reengineered to different eventualities, the extant unintended consequences (often reset, degraded ecologies) will be put through a further stress test.

Thus the disquiet that for all the files the PMO has made active, the file that is most firmly sat upon is the Climate Change file.

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