Monday, November 02, 2015

As #ClimateWelcome gears up, what might it mean to "keep it in the ground"?

It seems increasingly clear that keeping our planet habitable over the medium to long term requires that certain things that are currently in the ground must be allowed to remain there. But we have few examples to help us imagine the ways in which our social world would have to be different if fossil fuel extraction and other kinds of mining were scaled back to levels consistent with long-term ecosystem and human health, and I think the failure of movements to popularize realistic, grounded, imaginative models for how things might look and feel is a barrier to getting there.

The need to "keep it in the ground" is especially pronounced, and increasingly talked about, when it comes to fossil fuels -- in the lead-up to the latest UN climate summit that is happening in Paris in December, climate justice activists in Canada and writers and thinkers the world over are very clear that the majority of large carbon pools like the Alberta tar sands must not be extracted and burned if we want to keep global warming from making the leap from "bad" to "horrendously bad." However, while it is less immediately urgent, it also seems like it may be true in a more limited way of other kinds of mineral extraction as well, which often depend for their profitability on an intensification of colonialism, and on externalizing potential costs as pollution and other sorts of damage to ecosystems, communities, and health.

There are many barriers to making "keep it in the ground" a real possibility. Not least among these is that the globe is currently in the grip of a way of organizing our lives, work, communities, and nations that has never allowed us adequate scope in collectively saying "NO!" to profit-making activities of any sort, even when they are demonstrably connected to violence and harm. That has become even more true in recent decades. This is, of course, a state of affairs that is aggressively defended by those who benefit most from it, including but hardly limited to the increasing mobilization of national security discourse (and the state violence that underlies such discourse) against Indigenous and environmental activists in Canada.

In light of such material obstacles, it may seem peculiar to be focusing on our collective ability to imagine a different future, but it seems to me to be entirely relevant: I, personally, have a great deal of difficulty imagining how our social world would need to be different if we scaled back our extraction of fossil fuels and minerals to sustainable levels, and it seems to me that a key element to motivating increasing number of people to engage in the kind of struggle necessary to make this change happen -- which the world direly needs us to do -- depends on our ability to make the post-transformation reality imaginable. If you don't have any idea how it's going to re-shape your everyday life, you're less likely to fight to make it happen, even if on some level you know it's necessary.

There are, of course, a number of existing narratives of how our lives might have to change to make sure our grandchildren's grandchildren have a planet to live on. One narrative, which often comes along with arguments for "green capitalism", is that they won't need to change at all in any substantive way, just in surface ways related to which products we choose to consume. We will, according to these stories, just need to make a few technical and lateral shifts and we won't notice any difference. This seems to me to be absurd on its face, given how dependent our lives in North America are on a certain kind of cheap energy and on the easy availability of other sorts of mineral resources. On the other extreme, you'll find folks who identify with one strand or another of primitivism, who argue that only a complete end to technological society will save the planet. Without getting into a detailed debate on primitivist thought -- to which I have some very serious and fundamental objections -- it seems to me that if it is true, we'll end up knowing sooner or later anyway, so why not organize our struggles around a vision that would allow for a broader possibility of justice and thriving, just in case we really can win that.

What interests me most is the flavour of most of the options we have for talking about it that lie between those two extremes. This is, admittedly, impressionistic, but it seems to me that most often when we hear about the kinds of changes that might be needed, the conversation is framed in terms that boil down to the quantitative: We will have to make do with less of X, and perhaps more of Y. There will be less disposable packaging, and more reusable containers. We will drive less, and walk more; own fewer cars, more bikes. We will eat fewer tropical fruits, and more local food; less meat, more veggies. We will have fewer technological gadgets, and more...well, who knows. Or sometimes it is more vague than any of these, and the message is simply that we will, we must, consume less -- a sound prediction, given the wastefulness inherent in late capitalism, but one that inevitably carries an austere and unpleasant tone that shapes and limits how people will relate to it.

Each of these things may, indeed, be true. But it's their presentation as quantitative changes -- as less pleasure, less leisure, more work, more virtue -- in the context of what are often puritanical narratives, whether they endorse the changes or oppose them, that I think is noteworthy. Why do we get such stories, rather than nuanced, lively, three-dimensional narratives that focus on the how of the change? That portray possible futures as complexly different from the present in ways that allow them to be sites of joy and pleasure and thriving, as well as certain specific kinds of lessening and restraint?

I suppose the predominance of narratives that are puritanical and at heart quantitative over those which are rich, dynamic, and complex shouldn't be surprising. There is often something moralistic about many forms of green and lefty discourse, and a blanket tendency towards puritanism perhaps inherited from the discursive legacies of Christianity that are only slightly below the surface even in supposedly secular spaces today in the West. We also don't talk much in general today about how things work socially, and so from that basis of course it's hard to have narratives that imaginatively project complexly different futures of how things might work. And all of this is in the discursive context of neoliberal capitalism, where it's a constant struggle to talk about the social world as anything more than a projective enlargement of a morally or psychologically framed individual, whether that takes the form of green goals framed largely in terms of individual consumption rather than social re-organization of production, or whether its the more general tendency to see complex political problems as somehow relating only to individual characteristics projected onto monolithically envisioned populations. I also wonder if flinching from more in-depth exploration of possible futures might also be a sort of tactical choice, conscious or not, among certain green folk, so as not to have to talk about, or even internally confront, the too-the-root radical character of the social transformation that will ultimately be required to bring about a sustainable future.

Whatever the source of this reluctance, we need to push through and talk more about it...and not just in specialized or obscure places, but everywhere. What impact would it actually have on our everyday lives to sharply reduce extraction of fossil fuels? Rare earth metals? Other sorts of minerals? How would our cities look different? How would we get about differently? How would our information technology change? Food systems? What about cultural production -- would that be affected? And what about the change in dominant social logics necessary to stop a potentially immense source of profit from being exploited? How would that ripple through other kinds of institutions, and into our lives? How would it be difficult for us? How would it open up new possibilities to create, to connect, to enjoy?

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