Monday, October 15, 2012

time, risk, climate change

 I came to Brown planning to concentrate in Environmental Studies. Eventually something deterred me, and I’m not sure what it was. I kept thinking about this as I read this week--something about the a priori nature (ha) of environmental science is... terrifying, ultimate. And yet: why is it that scientists still, in 2012, write methodology sections in papers on global warming that harken back to the basic issue of whether climate change exists or not…?

The potential explanations towards which the articles gestured that I’d thought of before include: that the change is imperceptible over short periods and the multitude of influences statistically self-nullifying… that the problem is so massive and culpability so divided that organization of action becomes impossible (because in a risk-based calculus no one expects the brunt of the invisible danger to fall on them, and when it does it’s too late)... that science itself is so contentious and manipulable that affect overtakes rationality in influencing “general opinion” (did you ever see the documentary about the “engineers of opinion” who coined ‘climate change’ in lieu of ‘global warming’?)… that you end up paralyzed by chaos.

But I hadn’t thought about the uselessness of the past, of history, of science and information in the face of a risk-based global warming calculus—that is, I’d never thought that its timeliness was what set it apart... and yet the majority of the shorter article focuses on selecting a timeframe, and the second talks about the “past los[ing] the power to determine the present.” Perhaps this is what makes global warming different from other precursor examples of potential self-annihilation (WWII, Cold War). Those situations were predicated on agency—somebody could press the button that dropped the bomb, that is, they could act rather than react. Agency existed, however concentrated. But not so for catastrophe—we created it, and now we react to it, modernity reacts to and consumes itself, and things can only be coped with rather than predicted or prevented. I am thinking about the move away from a gridded algebraic mapping model in Terranova and the –scapes that Appadurai(?) talked about, which are shaped only in their creation…

But now I am thinking about Berlant: how does global warming complicate cruel optimism? We continue to exist in the world because we have to, because existing is a priori to optimism—or perhaps the base form of optimism is life… but continued existence leads to the extinguishment of itself? The pleasure (and progress) of living in industrial and Western modernity leads to the inenvitable, ball-rolling destruction (maybe) of that modernity? Or at least, that’s what we think—but didn’t the uselessness of prediction I talked about above mean anything? Can unknowable risk be called cruel optimism, when consequences exist only in their manifestation?

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