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

Sunday, November 04, 2012

omnia redit ad Nihilum

Ford River Rouge Car Plant 1960

 omnia redit ad Nihilum

Everything returns to nothing. 

This is what I started with- 

Last year  I made a determined effort to bash out enough words to become a book.  I got up to 38 000, getting on for 100 pages worth.  But it didn’t have a strong enough structure so I ended up repeating myself, or rather coming back to a few repetitive themes - the history of industrial capitalism and its relationship to climate change, written from a vaguely countercultural perspective.

This year… the ice is melting. Climate change scientists had predicted that by the end of this century, the Arctic ocean could be ice free in the summer. The greater than predicted loss of Arctic sea ice this summer  has fast-forwarded the prediction. The Arctic sea could be ice free in the summer of 2015. The implication is that climate change could be happening more rapidly than anticipated. 

-  and then wrote another 1000 words, adding yet more to the pile.

The problem I was wrestling with is  the relationship between knowledge and climate change. That climate change began when  an attempt was made to overcome the limits  of the Neolithic  (farming) revolution. The food surpluses created by farming are limited , thus limiting any human culture / society which depends upon them. A related problem in northern Europe is the  need for warmth. A specific example is the city of London in the seventeenth century. Keeping London fed required the use of land for farming. But this limited the availability of  land for growing trees to provide wood  to keep the city warm.  Coal from beneath the farm lands of Newcastle/ north-east England  was employed as a substitute. 

But as the limits of shallow mined coal were reached, the accumulated / surplus knowledge  built up over thousands of years had to be drawn on to solve the problem - resulting on the atmospheric steam engine
Which was used to drain mines so more coal could be produced.

The  resulting revolution  transformed  our knowledge of the world , e.g. through the new science of thermodynamics, and  to quantum information theory which suggests  that the universe we inhabit is a bubble of nothingness. Quantum information theory also suggests a relationship between information and knowledge and ‘entropy’. Knowledge is the solidification of information. But once solidified. Knowledge is subject to entropic decay. Certainty decaying into uncertainty. In time all our knowledge of the universe will be lost. Climate change is the process of erasure. The information  will remain, embedded in the world as reality. But it will be irrecoverable. 

What does that mean? Potentially it means the undoing of a revolution which happened 10 000 years ago, after the end of the last ice age. The revolution was the Neolithic farming revolution, which involved the domestication of a few plant and animal species. This revolution also began the domestication of the  human species as the first permanent  human settlements began then as well. From these permanent settlements ‘civilisation’ emerged, giving birth to - amongst other developments- writing. [Example- at Uruk in Sumeria/ Iraq as records of food surpluses stored in temples about 5000 years ago.]

For the previous 200 000 years of homo sapiens existence, we were gathers and hunters, leaving little physical traces of our lives and no written records. Look into a future of increasingly disruptive climate change and a return to a similar existence may be our species’ fate. The equation is that the relatively stable climate conditions which followed the end of the last ice age were necessary for farming to emerge and that farming in turn was necessary for the development of ‘civilisation’. If climate change undermines the ability to grow a surplus of crops, then the stability necessary for the reproduction/ continuity of  settled (‘civilised’) culture(s) will be lost.

This is a pretty horrific possibility, similar to a post-nuclear war future. This is a distinctly different future to the one I was thinking about last year. Last year my starting point was the ongoing (since 2008) economic crisis and my main focus was on the collapse of capitalism, with climate change as a secondary but related theme. What I was working towards involved a critique of the counterculture for its failure to engage with/ absorb Karl Marx’s analysis of political economy as an ideology. Then, I assumed that climate change was a more long term threat.

The analysis/ critique was that, as the title of Jeff Nuttall’s 1968 book ‘Bomb Culture’ illustrated, the counterculture emerged in the sixties as the more imaginative members of the post-world war 2 generation tried to come to terms with the possibility of their extinction in a thermo-nuclear conflagration.  The immediacy of this threat coupled with the consciousness-shattering impact of LSD/ acid structured the counterculture’s collective mindset. A complication -  the trajectories of the UK and USA countercultures only partially overlap due to differing historical, cultural/ social and economic influences. 

To jump forward to punk, since it was the counterculture I experienced directly,  part of the rightward political shift of the late seventies/ early eighties involved a revival and re-intensification of the cold war. The nuclear threat re-emerged and with the threat came a similar focus on its apocalyptic potential. The new cold war rhetoric of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’ planning to invade western Europe helped to confuse and obscure the simultaneous economic struggle. What would otherwise have been seen as a pure class war was reconfigured as the defence of freedom against (communist) totalitarianism, invoking the solidarity of the democracies in their struggle against fascism and Nazism in world war 2. 

World war 3 did not happen. Obviously or  most of us would be dead. But was the fear a distraction? Short -circuiting my own analysis, could the fear of climate change be acting as a distraction, directing attention away from the present day intensification of class warfare?  No, since climate change (since the collapse of ‘communism’)  is the product of capitalist growth. Another but…

[Marx and Engels] understood that the expansion of  the productive forces brought about by capitalism was  a necessary condition for the ultimate goal of human emancipation because without it  there will be neither  a working class to seize power from the capitalists nor a sufficient level of material resources to feed, clothe, house or educate the world’s population. It was also an insufficient  condition, because unless the working class was conscious and organized it would not success in achieving its revolutionary potential.  But the objective situation (the existence of capitalism) precedes the subjective (the conscious mobilization of the social classes that capitalism has brought into being ) and the former required the bourgeois revolution. [Neil Davidson ‘How Revolutionary Were  the Bourgeois Revolutions?’ Chicago, 2012 p.180]

It is a quote I have used before since it is a neat illustration of a deep problem. The origins of climate change lie in the industrial revolution, which in turn gave rise to modern capitalism. The Marxist position is that it is possible to separate the technological advances generated by industrialisation from the socially oppressive aspects of industrialisation. This may be correct. However, climate change throws a spanner in the works. So long as the means of production depend on fossil fuels as an energy source, the damage is still being done. 

What is required is a double revolution, overturning capitalism and dependence of fossil fuels as an energy source. Otherwise the conscious and organized working class will inherit only the smoking ruins of a world. It is a difficult prospect to imagine happening. It runs up against the messiness and complexity of human societies. It implies a rational ordering of the human world, a rational ordering which is ‘organic’ rather than technocratic. A conscious culture which is constrained  and contained by the limits of the natural world. Can actually existing human societies accept the end of growth? Not that there is much choice.  Either we do accept the limits to growth or  ‘we’, as in this particular human civilization (if it is one), have no future.

Digging deeper down, do religious assumptions remain beneath the consciousness of technocratic civilization? For example, in the idea of ‘progress’, the belief that knowledge is advancing  society, through science and technology, towards some ideal future? If progress is towards a catastrophe, what other idea/ideal/ myth can replace it? The break with cyclical time possible began with Zoroaster about 3500 years ago when he came up with an idea of time as having a limit after which the existing world would end-- from Mary Boyce’s interpretation. The idea was then adopted by various religions (Judaism, Christianism and Islam). 

Which is where I stopped a few days ago. What I was/ am working towards is an understanding of the historical origins of climate change. At the immediate level, the origins are straightforward - they lie in the eighteenth century industrial revolution and the substitution of coal (later oil) for human, animal and ’renewable’ (wind, water, wood) sources of power/energy. But this change did not just happen randomly. Two thousand plus years ago the Graeco-Roman civilisation had the technological/ engineering/ metallurgical skills  necessary to construct steam engines and complex mechanical devices. [Antikythera mechanism]. China and India possessed similar technical skills, likewise eighteenth century France.

So it was a cultural shift? Then what caused the culture to shift? The initial stimulus was the expansion of European interest and influence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This opened up the closed world of medieval Europe and offered the potential for immense wealth through conquest and trade. But before  England (Britain after 1707) could benefit from this new world, a resource conflict had to be resolved. Wood used for building the ships necessary to participate in overseas conquests and trade could not be used for fuel. Coal was available as a wood  substitute for heating and later iron smelting, but to keep expanding coal production, mines had to be dug deeper which led to flooding problems. This need stimulated technological developments, leading to the use of coke for iron smelting and Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric /steam engine.  

The cultural shift which drove the technological developments in the eighteenth century had its origins in the seventeenth century, in the struggle between a society ordered around the archaic notion of divine kingship and a society based on the pursuit of individual wealth. The struggle led to a civil war and the ultimate victory of a dynamic economy over the fixed  (by god) ordering of  society…there are a whole set of complexities here which I am skipping over…

What am I trying to get at? Without the  scientific knowledge which developed from/ out of the eighteenth century technological/ energy shift  we would not know that burning coal and other fossil fuels  is changing the climate. It was an outcome which could not have been predicted from the knowledge base of  the eighteenth century. It is also the case that since the level of engineering/ technical skill necessary to start the industrialisation process going was  minimal, the economic/practical need to substitute coal for wood (wind/ water etc)  was highly likely to occur.

A related problem is to do with the dynamics of human culture. ‘Steady-state’ cultures have existed , but so have dynamic/ expansionist ones. With climate change it looks as if we will be forced to create a steady state culture/ society. But this runs counter to 500 years of  (European and related) expansionism . It looks as if our ideas about what it means to be ’human’ will have to change. For example the  notion that human culture involves liberation from ’nature’ and the limits and constraints of  a hostile non-human/ natural world. The long process of differentiation from nature will have to be replaced by a process of re-integration. The idea of humanity as ‘different’ has religious roots in biblical creation myths, but is also supported by the belief  that we are the only rational animals. 
  Rational/ irrational. Real/unreal. If the real is the rational, than the irrational is unreal. But a large part of human culture is rooted in religious/ magical belief systems, or on irrational economic beliefs - e.g. infinite growth on a finite planet. Human culture is part of human consciousness (they create each other) so we  have false consciousness -which includes the non-ecological aspects of Marxism.  True, that is real and rational, consciousness has to be rooted in ecology. More than rooted it has to permeate all of human consciousness and culture. That is a challenge. A dissolution of our identity, of the boundary between self and other.

Fuck that is so vague…the difficulty is in trying to find something which is not part of the problem. Is it possible to find anything within history which is not part of the trajectory, the movement, which has brought us to this situation? Or, more usefully, offers some kind of way out of here? 


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