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.

My interest in "The Future" as a sales pitch comes from a series of conversations with a good friend, James Armstrong, who is currently teaching a course in science fiction film. One of the films he's showing is 2001: A Space Odyssey. He pointed out that before the film premiered, Look magazine was circulating a video to advertisers seeking commitments for an issue that would appear in conjunction with the film's release. It turns out that the issue would be about selling "The Future" to the public.

Has "The Future" always been a commodity available for sale? I don't think so. I think it is a product of the fossil fuel age which freed so many people from farm labor and made them available for other pursuits such as thinking up new products and new ways of doing things. Many of those new ways took advantage of the cheap and copious energy increasingly available from fossil fuels. In other words, many of those things were self-powered machines running on steam or later electricity.

The whole of society had to be reoriented to the constant change which new products and new approaches represented. Those who dragged their feet were "old-fashioned" or opponents of progress. The move from a society steeped in tradition to one which routinely overthrew tradition had to discover a location other than the past for people to find firm cultural footing. That place was "The Future."

And, that future had to be designed. Streamline Moderne architecture comes out of industrial design. Automobiles, trains and many consumer products were streamlined in their design in an attempt to make them look modern and futuristic. This movement in design was deeply committed to embedding the idea of scientific and technical progress in objects which people used and saw daily.

Later the International Style was a design movement which gave us the sleek glass and steel box building. These buildings are the backdrop for an unusual French science fiction film called Alphaville. The film never actually leaves Earth, but sends its protagonist across a long bridge to Alphaville, a city on another planet that is populated by humans and looks like an International Style architectural museum. In Alphaville the future is utterly rational and menacingly so. In fact, its rationality threatens to destroy it and the people of Earth as well, something the film's protagonist tries to prevent.

This dark tint to modernism is a frequent theme in literature and film. But in the marketing of products and services any hint of darkness is almost always absent for obvious reasons. Who wants to live in a future that will turn out badly?

Perhaps the most important thing about "The Future" as a sales pitch is that we don't have to wait to live there. We can live there now--right now--if only we purchase the right accessories.

Those who don't acquire them are "soooo yesterday." Ergo, living in "The Future" actually requires that there be a living past to compare, namely all those people who are not early adopters.

Now, I bring up the term "early adopters" because it was made popular by Everett Rogers' tome on social change called Diffusion of Innovations. This book popularized what is called the "S-curve" which graphically depicts how innovations spread through culture over time. My guess is that the S-curve was a lot flatter and longer along the time axis in, say, the Middle Ages. People then rarely imagined that they should be in the vanguard. Rather, it was their connection to cultural tradition that defined them. There was change; but it was far more leisurely.

Today, we have something right out of Dr. Seuss's story, The Sneetches. You'll recall that Sneetches are bird-like characters who happen to walk upright. Some have stars on their protruding bellies, marking them as upper caste.

A huckster visiting the land of the Sneetches realizes he can make money by installing a "star-on machine" to elevate the position of the lower-caste Sneetches. When the star-belly Sneetches realize what is happening, they quickly assent to use the huckster's "star-off machine" to again distinguish themselves from these lower-caste upstarts. As you might expect, the lower-caste Sneetches make their way to the star-off machine quite quickly, and the huckster rakes in the money as the cycling of Sneetches between machines becomes constant.

"The Future" is styled as an elitist location for a certain priesthood of early adopters who can afford it--the equivalent of star-belly Sneetches. Far from being a product of the inevitable progress of humankind, "The Future" is envisioned, planned, promoted, manufactured and sold--which is why successive versions of "The Future" eventually become dated. A recent trip to Seattle and a visit to the Space Needle reminded me of this. Not surprisingly, the Space Needle was built for Seattle's 1962 World's Fair.

It is crucial to understand that in our modern global culture, the contest for hearts and minds is not over tradition versus change. It is between competing versions of "The Future." We have several to choose from: the business-as-usual technological future which includes burning a lot more fossil fuel; the green technology future which involves burning a lot LESS fossil fuel; the transformation of modern industrial culture into a more localized, craft and agricultural existence (something like William Morris' utopian novel News from Nowhere); and the dystopian breakdown of modern society and its reversion to a more primitive state.

The interesting thing about all these futures--and the first two are by far the most popular--is that none of them is actually meant to be a return to a traditional past. Each must compete for terrain in the land of "The Future." In that regard it's easy to see why options three and four are not gaining much traction.

To deal with the enormous environmental, social and economic problems we face, I'm inclined to suggest that we come back and live in the present. In the present we can appreciate our traditions without being slaves to them, and we can evaluate possible futures without deciding ahead of time to live in a mere enactment of a possible future that locks us into a predetermined destination--one that may not turn out to be the destination we really want, nor one that will necessarily solve the problems we face.

We need a serious discussion about our common human future. But in order to do that, we will have to dispense with the "sales pitch" versions, at least temporarily, and have an intellectually honest discussion. And, that seems to be the hardest thing of all to do these days.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

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.

These critics, particularly the American ones, would shrink in horror from the suggestion that they were engaging in anything remotely French in origin. Nor does this group extend the postmodern critique to other categories, such as the economic, social and religious views they promote.

The highly selective approach of focusing this critique on science, particularly the science of climate change, tells us something about its potency. No one wants to have the cannon (artillery) and canon (rules and principles) of the postmodernist critique aimed at their own vested interests. The metaphorical ramparts surrounding those interests might be blown to bits. It turns out that everything we do and think is shot through with social, political, financial and, yes, even religious content.

So, it is telling that part of the attack on the science of climate change has come in the form of religious rhetoric. An Illinois congressman vying for the chairmanship of the U.S. House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee in 2010 declared that God simply won't let climate change create floods and other effects that will undermine human civilization. His colleague, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, invoked similar ideas in his book The Greatest Hoax.

Such attacks have been potent because environmentalism does, in fact, share many characteristics with religion. And, it turns out that many of environmentalism's adherents work to address environmental challenges out of a conviction that it is their religious duty to do so as stewards of God's Earth. Environmentalism is not a branch of science then, but a movement based on values. And, the key value is that human culture should continue indefinitely into the future.

The main difference between environmentalism and those opposing it is that environmentalists believe human continuity can only be secured by respecting the limits and dictates of the natural world. Some environmentalists go further and assert the inherent right of other species, both animal and plant, to exist and thrive and not simply to be food and fiber for humans.

The idea that environmentalism is a religion is sometimes hurled at its adherents as a criticism for two reasons. First, environmentalism is presumed to compete with "genuine" religions in part because it appropriates religious terms and imagery. Second, asserting environmentalism's status as a religion is somehow thought to diminish the scientific findings behind the claims of environmentalists. Environmentalism, in this case, is styled as "just a religion."

While it might seem tempting to downplay the nexus between religion and environmentalism in order to bolster environmentalism's scientific underpinnings, I think this would be a mistake. The battle is now on for which worldview will prevail in the halls of government and in homes and businesses around the globe--a view that ignores environmental concerns and warnings or one that seeks to address them.

The effectiveness of religious rhetoric suggests that environmentalists ought not to discard it, but rather figure out how to harness it even more effectively. Environmentalism is, in fact, now emerging as a nonsectarian religious movement embraced by congregants as different in their religious beliefs as Pope Francis, the Creation Care movement of evangelical Christians, Jewish environmental activists, the Dalai Lama, and Islamic leaders and clerics.

The nonsectarian nature of environmentalism is the key to harnessing what religious rhetoric and imagery have to offer the environmental movement without attaching it to any specific religion. Religion speaks to the heart, to the life of feeling, and it speaks to it probably more deeply than any other cultural institution. The feeling life ultimately is the wellspring of action, and we need action more urgently than ever.

There is no moral imperative for the continuity of human culture in the sciences of biology, chemistry or physics. Yes, biology speaks to the human instinct for procreation and survival. But it does not conclude that humans ought to continue as a species. The basic sciences are meant by definition to be descriptive endeavors, not prescriptive ones.

Dare environmentalists venture beyond the seeming comfort of the secular scientific findings that have convinced them it is time to act? Many already have and to good effect. Dare environmentalists speak on behalf of "the facts" in ways that appeal to our deepest feelings? They have and they must if they are going to win over enough people to force sufficient change in both policy and daily practice.

Language, imagery and symbols are the main tools for coordinating human action. Political ecology as a field of study has created a scaffolding upon which the words, phrases, images and symbols needed to invite action can be displayed for all to see. We should not be afraid to add religious words, phrases and imagery so long as we carefully take notice of our audience and do not invite sectarian strife into our conversations.

All of the foregoing should be viewed as more of an investigation than a conclusion. I have much more thinking to do about how to make the rhetoric of political ecology more effective. This essay is meant to be as much an invitation to conversation as it is an argument--for a new rhetoric of political ecology will be created by all of us experimenting together.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

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.

As moderns we are taught that constant change is good and a sign of progress. It should not seem strange that all this change can undermine our personal stability. We frequently trade excitement for stability as individuals, as nations, even as part of complex systems such as international corporations in order, we hope, to gain more power over our lives, more convenience, or a higher level of stability.

What we don't bargain for is that stability itself can ultimately be the biggest disruptor in our lives and the life of our society. Holding on to stability when adjustments are necessary can be not only disruptive, but occasionally fatal.

When it comes to health, an obvious example is the smoker who does not wish to alter his or her routine, even in the face of a physician's warning. A stable ritual that involves a pack of cigarettes a day can easily end in disease and premature death, a rather pronounced discontinuity.

A long-held job can seem secure even as technology and competitors are undermining its viability. The longer one stays, the more safe it seems. Then comes the day of the unforeseen layoff and the disruption is enormous--from a regular paycheck to nothing.

A long marriage that dissolves can surprise outside observers who had assumed they were looking at a relationship that was rock-solid.

Stability over even longer periods can come to an unexpected end as well. The post-World War II era was characterized in general by cheap energy, a benign climate, and a remarkable geopolitical stability (meaning borders were generally stable).

The break-up of the Soviet Union was heralded as a great achievement of the NATO powers. But this break-up has led to almost continuous upheaval in and among the countries which previously made up the Soviet empire. The break-up seemed at least to make the neighboring countries of the former Soviet Union and more specifically, Russia, more secure because of the weakness of the new independent states--until now! Witness Ukraine.

We are finding increasing challenges to longtime geopolitical arrangements elsewhere as well. Perhaps the most topical development is the so-called Arab Spring which led to the overthrow of tyrannical regimes in many Arab countries. The result has been ongoing chaos in the Middle East and North Africa. Governance in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt remains unsettled as groups continually vie for ascendancy, sometimes through violent means.

War in Syria and Iraq underline how non-state forces such as ISIS can successfully vie for and control land in recognized nation-states.

Long periods of absolutist or one-party rule prevented many of these countries from adjusting gradually to emerging realities. Often under such circumstances, the adjustment comes all at once, and it is big.

But the upset does not stop there. The Spanish region of Catalonia now demands its independence. The Schengen Agreement which allows for free travel across borders among European Union members and other signatories such as Norway and Switzerland is now in danger of unraveling as the refugee problem created by the war in Syria has made the agreement seem like a dangerous luxury.

The reabsorption of Crimea into the Russian Federation and the ongoing conflict with Ukraine do not bode well for settled borders.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been in almost continual upheaval since 2000. Angola remains unsettled after a long civil war. Both had long periods of relative stability under colonial rule or dictatorship (in Congo). The inability to make more gradual changes needed for successful self-governance led to chaotic struggles for power that continue to this day.

Finally, in Asia a recently initiated contest over hegemony in the South China Sea between the United States and China seems nowhere near a conclusion.

As for the increasingly rapid changes in worldwide climate, they need little discussion as they have been much in the public mind recently as a result of the Paris climate talks. The benign climate which gave the world bountiful harvests to feed a rapidly growing world population is now history.

An obvious challenge to the food supply from a disturbed climate came in 2008 with spiking food prices and resulting food riots, particularly in Asia. We can only count on a temporary reprieve as climate change continues its inexorable march. We need to be particularly worried that the trajectory of climate change may soon leave its gradual upward course and experience a nonlinear spike that could bring rapid change.

The cheap energy--mostly fossil fuels--that brought us climate change also brought humans unprecedented (but very uneven) prosperity. Energy seems cheap now. But its low price reflects the pressure of previous record high oil prices on the world economy from 2011 through 2014. That pressure is in part responsible for the current economic slowdown (some say recession) that is evident worldwide which reduced demand growth for oil and led to its price slump.

All the oil producers are pumping oil as fast as they can. There is little spare capacity available. When combined with drastic cuts in investment in exploration and development which will reduce future supplies, the lack of spare capacity spells considerably higher oil prices when demand recovers. I am doubtful of those who predict a decade of low oil prices (which, in my view, could happen only if we have a depression that lasts that long).

Which brings us to the current excitement in the financial markets. Central banks and governments have not recognized that the end of cheap energy, the end of a benign climate and the end of geopolitical stability imply radical restructuring for the way in which we govern ourselves. Instead, we have been treated to extraordinary attempts to return us to business-as-usual.

Governments have propped up failing banks and engaged in huge deficit spending hoping to spur renewed, self-sustaining economic growth. Central banks have induced record-low interest rates in most places in order to encourage borrowing. Despite these extreme measures, worldwide economic growth has remained subdued, and now, even that subdued growth is waning.

In addition, the central banks have labored to push stocks and bonds higher in a misguided effort to increase economic activity. By preventing the needed adjustment in those markets so that they would be priced to our new realities, they have only made the ultimate adjustment more likely to be sudden and catastrophic.

Because most governments do not recognize the central role of energy in the economy--it's not just another commodity--they have failed to see how quickly we must proceed with a transition away from fossil fuels and toward a renewable energy economy. Future supplies of fossil fuels are endangered by low investment. Sufficient alternatives have not been put in place because of the false hope that we will soon return to business-as-usual as it was prior to 2008.

The remarkable stability that many of us have experienced in our lifetimes is coming to an end. Change can challenge us and can actually make us more resilient human beings: more creative and more capable. But that can only happen if we embrace the challenges that come along with that change.

So far, the vast majority of elected officials, corporate and nongovernmental organization managers, and community leaders have focused on trying to re-establish a stability out of the past. That effort can only lead to greater discontinuities in the future making the process of adaptation to new realities all the more difficult.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

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.

This is not about being a "nature lover" who only cares about animals and plants, but not about humans. On the contrary, it is about observing and interrogating a nature which we had previously assumed could not be questioned, but which just "was." Instead, we must grapple with what Latour calls the "parliament of things," no longer separating the world into distinct social and natural compartments to be governed separately. We must bring the human and the nonhuman together for careful consultation in order to govern them jointly.

But how to do this? Doesn't nature stand mute? How can we make it speak? Well, it is already speaking in the language of heat waves and hurricanes, floods and droughts, fisheries collapse, soil erosion, water depletion and thousands of other ways available to our senses and our intellects. In this regard nature is not a god, but rather an active participant and agent in our world. We need to understand what it is saying in order to govern ourselves appropriately.

Nor should we think of the natural world as monolithic. Our perceptions of that world are mediated by poetry as much as biology. And even in the sciences, the red-blooded world of field biology reveals a much different universe to us than does the manufactured environment of the physicist's particle accelerator.

Science with a big "S," as Latour likes to call it, wants to throw out the poetry at the beginning as merely irrational and fanciful before any deliberations begin. But Latour would like to keep the poetry in the discussion, and the sociology and history and philosophy and even religion so that we might consider for a time what disciplines help us see the world better and help us to govern ourselves better in our households, our communities and our countries.

The word "Science" in Latour's outline is a misnomer. We have sciences--plural--which reveal a world with astonishing variety that is seemingly impossible for us to unify under one coherent heading. We move in his schema from what he calls "mononaturalism" mixed with multiculturalism to "multinaturalism" mixed with multiculturalism.

If nature as we've imagined it is not just one gray mass of primary qualities--height, width, depth and mass--but also a riotous display of color from the rainbow, then we will encounter it with more attention and fewer preconceptions--or at least with ones that we now regard as merely provisional.

Much of the new politics which Latour outlines is devoted to what he calls "taking into account." This step must not be rushed, and those things which beg to be considered must not be dismissed too quickly. We must, however, finally sort through the things and people we encounter in our deliberations to determine which we will listen to and which we will screen out. (The screening process, however, only temporarily dismisses people and objects until we are obliged to reconsider them in another round of consultation in another context.)

Latour's politics does not embrace relativism, so much as it embraces deliberation. It does not dismiss the sciences or any other endeavor as merely a social construct with nothing to tell us about the world outside ourselves.

But what he insists on is that we not draw any dogmatic conclusions from our investigations. There are always new objects, people, animals, chemicals, machines, buildings, roadways and unfamiliar phenomena jostling for our attention. We must with all due deliberation take these into account, consulting with the relevant parties who have something at stake, before we decide how to move forward.

To govern is to choose, and choose we must. But our current way of choosing starts out with choosing to exclude so much from our consideration that we as an entire species could not see the colossal dangers of climate change until we reached a point very late in the game. We moderns had understood wrongly that the world is something humans act upon--not something that acts upon us as well. It is the endowment of agency in others--especially nonhuman others--that opens us up to a world very much alive with consequences which we don't control, a world with a mind of its own that is often inscrutable to us.

The sciences have indeed been bringing the natural world to us, just not in the way we thought. We thought they were bringing us Science, a unified, coherent, utterly rational world that essentially determined our destiny and yet also strangely left us entirely free in the social and political realm. Instead, we find the world to be broadly variegated and full of more questions than answers--so much so that we may now have to talk about going for a walk in natures (plural) as well as visiting other cultures.

Just because the world we now live in is all mixed up with cows and lions and trees and rocks in the midst of human endeavors, all acting as colleagues or enemies--just because we find ourselves in such a world does not mean our lives or our societies are ungovernable. They are governable, but by different more deliberative processes. We must now make the invisible, visible; the implicit, explicit; the excluded, included.

For we can no longer afford to imagine that we live in an empty world in which we can safely ignore or abuse the nonhuman beings and objects in it with minimal consequences. Rather we live in a full world, cheek by jowl with all its inhabitants crowding into our lives with real, tangible consequences--inhabitants that now ask to be considered before the voting begins.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at