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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.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Climate Change and the Limits of Reason Part three

Climate Change and the Limits of Reason Part three

This first bit is just some 'notes to self' on culture and (false) consciousness.

Solidification. Or perhaps materialisation. That first cultures were pretty immaterial, a web of language and myth. Now we have materialised it – Marx's 'dead labour'? The materialisation of the spectacle. Commodities. But also echoes of Blake 'reason the bound or outer circumference of energy/ imagination'. Renewable energy criticised for being intermittent -relying on sun shining, winds blowing, tides flowing. Thus allowing gaps in the solidification of culture/consciousness.
Maybe also Hegel – difficult to understand, but his dialectic might mean more of an ebb and flow to reason. So the end point (end of history) not a solid state, but more a fluid one. “All that is solid melts to air”. (Carlyle original?) But is there a dynamic to history? Back to Scottish Enlightenment – stadial theory. Does this contain a religious (as in linear history from Zoroaster) myth?

Hell, this is going to be tricky. How am I going to organise all the material, all the possibilities? Before, I would spend a whole 12 hour day writing/ thinking/reading and end up with 500 words to add to the dissertation. Now, I spend a whole day as a carer and have maybe 2 hours to write while the reading /thinking is broken up into 15 minute chunks scattered randomly about. Maybe if Callum can go to the adult resource centre for a couple of days a week that will help.

But it is also the theory/practice problem. If I get more time, shouldn't that time be used to maximise the practice? For example to try and get the four mile section of derelict railway between CD and Dalbeattie turned into a cycle/foot path? Although given how difficult it was to get ¼ mile of old railway from CD to Threave turned into a foot path it could take ten years to do...

What is the point of the theory? For me, theory exists to inform practice. It is a stepping back from an immediate problem (problems) to analyse the bigger picture. From analysis comes understanding which allows identification of the critical areas. Once the critical areas have been identified, they can be targeted. If this is not done, time and energy can be wasted on attacking the wrong problems. The origin of this approach comes from training to be a project engineer supported by positive outcomes from applying the techniques.

But can this work for bigger problems? What if the method is itself part of the problem?

For example – first define the problem. If the problem is defined as 'human activity increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere', then the solution is 'change human activity so as to minimise the increase in greenhouse gases'. But there is a historic dimension to the 'human activity' which is adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. It is only over the past 200 years that certain forms of human activity have been adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere beyond the capacity of natural processes to remove them. It was a cultural/economic/technological shift – the industrial revolution- which set the process in motion. Therefore the industrial revolution must be understood.

The industrial revolution began in England in the second half of the eighteenth century. In particular, in Manchester, when steam power was applied to the cotton industry. [An arguable point, but one made by Engels/ Condition of the Working Class in England/1844 and which can be backed up by other sources]. The successful application of steam power to cotton spinning and weaving occurred circa 1790- so it overlapped with the French Revolution. The French Revolution simultaneously embodied and challenged the 'age of reason'/ the Enlightenment. Did the industrial revolution do likewise?

That is a complicated question, so I will have to follow it through later. It could be the key question, one tied into the notion of 'progress'. Rather than try to bash out a possible answer now, I will stop here for the present.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Climate Change and the Limits of Reason v.2

Climate Change and the Limits of Reason

I must have read through a few thousands comments on the Guardian's Comment is Free (...but facts are sacred) site about global warming/ climate change. They are very repetitive. One group of posters do their best to deny that its happening or claim it is natural rather than man-made. Another group rebut the denialist claims. Over and over again.

The argument isn't really about the science of climate change. It is about what we will have to do to slow it down (let alone halt it). For the past 200 years, economic growth has involved industrial development powered by fossil fuels. Starting back in the early seventies environmentalists suggested there might be limits to growth and a branch of the counterculture got interested in designing wind generators and the like. The word 'sustainable' wasn't used then, but the aim was to create a no/low growth self-sufficient 'steady state' society and economy

These attempts were dismissed from the right and the left. The right rejected any limits to the growth of the capitalist economy. The left saw the moves as regressive – as a return to the subsistence economy of feudalism rather than progress to socialism. These old limits to growth themes have returned again in the political aspect of the 'what do we do about climate change' debate.

The complications can be traced back to the Enlightenment, to the Age of Reason. This eighteenth century advance preceded the industrial revolution, but it was the advantage industrialisation gave Europe which globalised the Enlightenment. Reason became embedded in science and technology not just philosophy and so created a continuing cycle of industrial progress which overcame all obstacles to growth. Harnessed to the boom and bust dynamic of capitalism, there seemed no limits to endless growth – even to many Marxists...

In this model, science became just one more source for further growth. Science was the leading edge of Reason, discovering fresh knowledge which technology could then convert into further growth, new products to sell. But now it seems that Reason (through science) has hit a real limit, has found the edge of the world as we know it. This has created a challenge.

For the Age of Reason, for the Enlightenment project to survive, expansion must end -otherwise there will be a collapse into chaos. There has to be a recognition, a realisation that we have not been living in an Age of Reason but in an Age of Unreason, in a spectacularly unenlightened society.

Living in a world of illusions, of false consciousness.

Part two

False consciousness is a bit of a tricky subject. Does it mean that there is a 'truthful' consciousness kicking around somewhere waiting to be discovered? If there is, how do you know it is truthful and not just a different type of falseness? Maybe it is best just to say that all forms of consciousness are approximations of a consciousness which is indistinguishable from reality.

But... that could imply an un- (or pre) conscious existence in state of nature, where 'nature' is physical reality as it was before human culture emerged. There is a paradox here. Myth is assumed to be the first form of human culture. The first humans lived within a 'dreamtime', yet that dreamtime was contained within an entirely natural world within which our ancestors had to survive with minimal tools, with a minimal physical culture. If their mythical version of the world was entirely fantastic, how could they have survived? There must have been evolutionary survival pressure to ensure that their myths and dreams could be mapped onto reality.

Fast forward many thousands of years to eighteenth century Scotland. Here the age of reason /Scottish Enlightenment overlapped and was intimately entwined with an agricultural revolution. The agricultural improvers were scathing about the ignorance and superstitions embedded in existing farming practice. But the existing ways of farming were not entirely irrational. They had evolved through trial and error to cope with local conditions and constraints.

Until the technology had been developed to produce small cast iron ploughs which could be drawn by one or two horses, the big medieval, mainly wooden, plough was used. This required a team of several oxen to pull it, which in turn required several ploughmen rather than one ploughman to manage it. Thus its use was more labour intensive, so each arable farm had to support several families. Until tile drainage was developed, the only way to grow crops in wet and boggy Scotland was to plant them on long, self-draining mounds of earth called rigs.

These (and related constraints, e.g. lack of decent roads and bridges) created a circular subsistence/ self-sufficient economy. Most people lived on the land, producing only slightly more food than they required to live on so they could grow their crops. Thus there was not enough surplus to support a large non-agricultural population. But since there wasn't a large non-agricultural population there was no ready market for any increase in agricultural production. The early (pre-1760ies) improvers were able to increase production, but since there was not (yet) enough demand for more oats etc, the cost of making the improvements which increased production bankrupted them.

So although the improvers approach to farming may have been (marginally) more scientifically rational, it was not economically rational. Even after 1760, when the main wave of improvement began, it was not driven by economic rationality. Rather, the next wave of improvers were often merchants who had made their fortunes through the first wave of Britain's colonial/imperial expansion in India and north America. By spending their fortunes on their newly bought estates, they were trying to 'improve' or civilise themselves by becoming gentlemen farmers. It was only after 1790, when the Napoleonic wars pushed food prices up, that agricultural improvement made economic sense. By this time the industrial revolution was well under way. This had the effect of stimulating the technological development of agriculture and economic demand for food to support a large non-agricultural population.

Writers at this time (the 1790ies), for example in the Old Statistical Account of Scotland, were scathing about the primitive state of agriculture and manufacturing in early eighteenth century Scotland. Yet when the New Statistical Account of Scotland was compiled 50 years later, the level of improvement achieved before 1800 was often dismissed as minimal...