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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Climate Change Part Four

Climate Change and the Limits of Reason Part Four

Was the industrial revolution part of the age of reason? If the age of reason was an age of theories, then it was not. Although some aspects of industrial development -for example James Watt's improved steam engine – were stimulated by (scientific) theories, most came about as a result of trial and error, of tinkering in workshops. Furthermore, the success or failure of such developments depended more on the business/ economic skills of their developers than their scientific or technological excellence. If there were any theories behind the industrial revolution, they were the theories of 'political economy'. But even here, the theories of political economy developed during the age of enlightenment by James Steuart and Adam Smith had to be re-written once the industrial revolution really got going – for example by J.R. McCulloch.

[But then didn't the French Revolution lead to a similar revision of enlightenment theory – e.g. by Hegel?]

When Marx tried to study political economy, he realised it wasn't much of a theory at all – so he then set about trying to construct a rational theory of political economy. But as he found – with the 'fetishism of commodities' – there was no rational basis from which to construct such a theory. The industrial revolution simply multiplied and extended the irrationalism of capitalism.

If it had been a closed system, the internal contradictions of such an irrational system would have resulted in its collapse and (possibly) the emergence of a more stable rational system. But the system was not closed, it was global from its inception (e.g. the global origin and connections of Manchester cotton industry). If it had relied on a combination of human labour and renewable energy (water powered cotton mills) it would also have been limited and so subject to its contradictions. But first coal, then oil and gas (and nuclear) plus electricity as means of transmission provided enough energy to overcome the limits of irrationality.

It is only now, 250 years after the beginnings of the industrial revolution, that a 'rational' (as in science) limit to an irrational system is being reached. The limit is that imposed by global climate change. This is the 'antithesis' – but will it provoke a rational (i.e. synthesis) response?

So far it would seem not. Rather than provoking a rational response, it seems to be intensifying the existing irrationality of the system. The response is a combination of outright denial by some and indifference/ evasion/ business as usual by most. To put it in vaguely Hegelian language, the enlightenment project has failed. The 'rational state' has been hijacked by the irrational 'civil society' and thus is incapable of responding to the unfolding crisis.

Was the Roman Empire a rational state? Was it a more ordered entity than the barbarous kingdoms which replaced it? (At least in the west – the eastern Roman Empire survived for another 1000 years.) And what will survive? Assume for the moment that common sense prevails and low carbon paths are pursued sufficient to check utter chaos.

The out come must be some form of steady-state society, one where consuming less becomes the good and consuming more the bad... so how will social status be symbolised? Perhaps through something like potlach ceremonies, were status is gained by giving away/ distributing wealth rather than hoarding/ displaying it...[Potlach was also the title of an early situationist journal].

It is difficult not to start thinking along science fiction lines, to start recalling all the sf stories about post-apocalypse futures, of the future as regress not progress. If the question was once 'socialism or barbarism' (another situationist reference point), is the answer now 'barbarism'? The future is bleak, the future is feudal? Which links back to the decline and fall of the Roman empire, where feudalism emerged out of late Roman attempts to stabilise the collapse of the empire. For example, that along Hadrian's Wall -after all the mobile Roman troops were withdrawn – the commanders of the 'fixed' troops, who were locally recruited by then, morphed into the chiefs of petty kingdoms in which local agricultural surplus was used to support/feed troops to defend the locality against raiders...

Hmm, that example more of a return to pre-Roman tribal practice than of origins of feudalism. Feudalism proper developed in Gaul/France over 300 or so years to emerge with Charlemagne. I think.... Perhaps Transition Towns are a better, more fruitful, example. These are towns which are attempting make the transition to post-carbon economy. In Britain only a few towns survived beyond the end of Roman rule, but (fact check required) town life did survive in far more cases.


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