Sunday, February 28, 2016

"The Future" as a sales pitch

No one can know the future. But it turns out we can invent a place called "The Future" and invite people to inhabit it.

In order to inhabit "The Future"--which is really just an enactment of our ideas about the future--you need the right accessories. For starters you'll need the basics: the latest iPhone with the latest social networking app, a fully electric car (if you can afford it), and a FitBit watch. To that you can add your own personal drone, personal robot, and a farm cube for growing your own lettuce indoors.

In fact, before the pageants we call trade shows (such as the Consumer Electronics Show, coverage of which is linked above), we had world fairs that allowed us to "see the future." Perhaps the most important thing to note about such events is that they began by focusing mostly on scientific and technical progress and its resulting consumer products. At these events our future political and economic system apparently remains unchanged. This is, in part, because political and economic reform cannot be packaged and sold like consumer products.

Of course, I could fill up this entire piece just listing all the other futuristic devices and even places that are available to us today and not scratch the surface. We are a society that venerates progress and that always has its eyes on the future. We think of ourselves as innovative and regard innovation as almost invariably good.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Toward a new rhetoric of political ecology: Can religion teach us something?

Aristotle tells us that humans are political animals. For Aristotle this characteristic seems to distinguish humans from other animals enough to provide a unique area of study that applies only to humans--hence Aristotle's The Politics, a work which informs our political thinking to this day.

Political ecology, on the other hand, posits that while humans are political, the political process, of necessity, includes the natural world as a political actor. The human and the nonhuman are not distinct categories, but rather part of a seamless order that is (currently) best described by political ecology.

If the rhetoric of political ecology is to remain merely descriptive, we can stop here. But if we want that rhetoric to become a tool of change, we must go beyond the notion that “facts speak for themselves.” (We will get to the question of religion further on.)

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." We find ourselves now in an age where people believe that they are indeed entitled to their own facts. Many politicians and their supporters have come to believe that the facts provided by scientists are tainted by social, political and financial factors. In short, the politically-motivated critics of science have discovered the postmodern French critique of science.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Stability begets instability: The challenges of the post-2008 world

Most people value stability in their lives. And, this makes perfect sense. Stability usually means an adequate, secure income; an established group of friends and family members with whom we are close; an identity in our communities based on our jobs, community involvement, and personal networks; physical safety in our daily lives, that is, no war or extreme violence where we live; and relative psychological calm that reflects that stability.

But humans value other things such as variety and novelty. In short, we can get bored. And, in order to address our boredom, we must actually seek out instability in our lives. We proceed to upset the very stability which we believe makes us comfortable and safe by engaging in activities that subject us to physical, financial and emotional risk such as sports, gambling or new relationships.

There is, of course, the disruption of our routine that comes from external events, from things that we do not necessarily choose: the loss of a job, a divorce, the death of a loved one, or injury due to accident. External events can also be positive: an unsolicited job offer, an unexpected romance, or the miraculous recovery of a loved one.

As it is with individuals, so it is with nations and complex social systems such as corporations and markets which reflect these same seemingly contradictory desires for stability, but also variety and novelty. It seems the social mood cannot go long without experiencing some interesting disruption: a war, an economic boom or a bust, a change of political parties, a change in fashion, a disruptive technology.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Politics in a full world

When Scientific American published Herman Daly's "Economics in a Full World" in September 2005, few people knew what lay ahead: oil climbing to $147 a barrel, the relentless rise in global temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions, the food riots of 2008 sparked by rising food prices, the economic crash that followed, and the development of an increasingly yawning gap between the rich and everyone else in subsequent years. For the vast majority of people on the planet, growth effectively stopped in 2008. Their incomes have essentially flatlined or declined.

Daly's thesis seems more relevant than ever as government policymakers puzzle over lackluster global economic growth despite unprecedented government spending (and debt) and ground-hugging interest rates in the seven years since the crash. Maybe we have reached the point, as Daly would argue, when economic growth is uneconomic, when the costs outweigh the benefits (except, of course, for a very narrow stratum of people at the top who get to put the costs on everyone else).

If we are moving toward a low-growth or even no-growth world because growth is becoming much more difficult and problematic, then Daly's outline of a new economics will need a companion outline: politics in a full world. I have a preliminary candidate for that outline: Bruno Latour's Politics of Nature. Daly's steady-state economics always implied a revolution in governance without being explicit about it.

Latour never mentions Daly and may never have read him. But Latour clearly understands that politics--which has always held nature at arm's length while nevertheless dealing daily with its demands--must now explicitly invite the natural world to the bargaining table.