Andrew Stirling – Does the delusion of ‘climate control’ do more harm than good to climate disruption?

This is the second in a series of four blog posts on the climate by STEPS co-director Andy Stirling, under the heading: ‘Controlling a stable planetary climate – or caring for a complex changing Earth?’ We shall be posting one each weekend for the next two weeks.

You can read Part One Here

Andrew Stirling is Professor of Science & Technology Policy (SPRU – Science Policy Research Unit), at the University of Sussex

Originally published on the website of STEPS Centre

Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung / cc-by 3.0

In the first post of this series of four, I asked why it should be – in a world spoilt for choice among grave environmental challenges – that arguably the Earth’s worst problem should be so misleadingly named? The cataclysmic threat of climate disruption lies not in ‘change’ itself. The Earth itself, after all, has always been in a continuous natural state of – sometimes radical and rapid – change.

What makes the scale of threatened human misery and natural devastation so truly unprecedented, is that presently globalising industrial modernity is already exerting such devastating impacts on the planet of other kinds – and holds such a ready propensity under pressure to (nowadays holocaustic) war. So this is not just a matter of names, but of fundamental kinds of action that need to be taken.

Before going on to look at some practical implications for effective responses to these threats, this second essay will try to understand why it is that climate disruption has been so seriously misdiagnosed as primarily being about ‘stabilising the climate’. This can leave it seeming like a technical challenge to stop the climate changing, with deeper politics carrying on as normal.

Why is this? I will argue that a key part of the answer becomes clear when you pay direct attention to underlying causes of the problem (disrupting forces), rather than to the consequences (a disrupted climate).  As I have tried to analyse elsewhere in ways that are highlighted by the presently unfolding pandemic, this puts at centre stage arguably the deepest, most pervasive and longest-lived social and political phenomenon of the contemporary world: globalising industrial modernity.

Bigger than (and subsuming) capitalism, socialism, industrialism and European colonialism, this large-scale, long-run underlying political formation is distinguished by highly persistent – but essentially false – imaginations of control. Across different perspectives in history, philosophy, the humanities and social and political science, control fantasies are recognised to form a remarkable common denominator spanning diverse manifestations of industrial modernity.

These variously-identified defining characteristics of modernity all rest on ideas of control: by individuals of their lives; by governments of nations; by ‘the people’ of politics; by bureaucracy of organisations; by reason of thought; by science of reason; by industry of production; by capital of labour; by coloniality of empires. Perhaps this is why the resonance chimes of ‘taking back control’!

The relevance of all this should be clear to an idea that human disruption of a naturally changing climate is somehow about technical control of change, rather than the politics of underlying causes. Translated into yet another fixation with control, a problem caused by modernity turns into an affirmation of modernity. This time, the control fantasy fixes on stabilising something naturally changeable – disciplining a complex, diverse, dynamic Earth with a single globally-averaged number.

Photo: John Eglart (cc by-sa 2.0)

Crucially, this is controlling not just in outcomes but in process. Elite technocratic analysis ends up trumping emancipatory values and practices.

Science has of course always featured in progressive politics. But it has usually been more secondary and tactical than foundational. In truth, most positive political gains of past centuries – including environmental successes – were primarily driven more by collective action than by knowledge, more by progressive values than by elite expertise.

I am thinking here of issues like nuclear testing, heavy metals, Antarctica, whaling, carcinogens, pesticides, ionising radiation, ocean incineration, ozone holes, solvents, acid rain, food additives … Beyond this, the assumed centrality of expert analysis in climate issues also clashes with history in a stronger way. For technocracy is not just a side-line to environmentalism. More often than not, it is a technocratic culture that has historically tended to be most prominent on the opposing side!

Outside climate debates, after all, overblown claims to predictive certainty and aspirations to control are tropes that environmentalism has more usually been concerned to overturn than to assert. Again, examples are everywhere: asbestos, benzene, overfishing, antimicrobials, hormones, BSE, heavy metals, chlorine chemicals, endocrine disrupters … All are struggles fought more by explicitly political values and action than by technical control visions like those leading current climate policy.

In this disabling technocratic style, complex social drivers reduce to average global temperature. As in the industrial process for producing this element itself, ‘political pyrolisis’ reduces multiplicities of issue to a ‘fetishism’ with carbon alone. The resulting disciplined technical parameters are further simplified to scalar numbers. Models are tuned to past evidence to make them work. Globally averaged temperature becomes a proxy for the wider health of the Earth. Gross world product becomes a substitute for human flourishing. And in these terms, even action itself is reduced to a single tactical number – at a significant but expediently unthreatening ‘marginal’ figure of “1%”.

In this stifling assertion of frames, underlying categories and assumptions are treated as definitive. Ambiguities, uncertainties and ignorance are blinkered out. In the resulting vacuum of imaginable alternatives, it is the most powerful interests which shape ‘the way forward’ as ‘business as usual’.

In a world where incumbent power is far deeper than typically conceded, this reductive style has always played to conservative regulatory mantras – like ‘sound science’, ‘keep it simple’ and ‘evidence based policy’. For the interests that shape how knowledge is produced, it is generally most convenient to reduce scope for complexity – disciplining scope for debate around the ‘bottom line’.

Yet now even activists urge to “do what the science says” – even though science never honestly fully determined any single ‘best’ action. No ‘ought’, after all, can ever be based on an ‘is’. So, what this underlying imagination of control does to the climate cause is not only deeply misleading, but a tragically futile – dangerously skewed – distraction from the real complexities.

For all its rationalistic clothes, this technocratic control-ism can help feed even nastier forms of authoritarianism. Unfeasible ‘deadlines’ and overbearingly singular ‘solutions’ are self-defeatingly assertive and rigid. Equally in their manifest falsity, their political short-sightedness and their undermining despair, cries like “five years to save the planet” are shockingly misplaced. Such hysteria is lucky if it is forgotten before it is refuted. Even if it does not provoke countervailing regressive angst, the long run effect is more likely fatalism and apathy than mobilisation.

And in this ‘emergency politics’ clamour, self-conscious ‘panic’ simply intensifies the control frenzy. Hubristic demagoguery and indulgent identity politics drown out human values. Apocalyptic angst fuels proliferating military analogies. Rhetorics of extinction further fan the language of war. More diverse and nuanced meanings and narratives are suppressed. As potentialities for reason, humility and hope decline, all that is left is fear. And there are few more dangerous political drivers.

Photo: Derek Read (cc by 2.0)

So why does this happen? The answer lies less in caricature villainy or stupidity, than in expediency in the encompassing ‘control culture’ of modernity. In order to be imagined as a legitimate focus for control, global climate must be seen as a conveniently inert ‘object’ – with no agency of its own. In order for control to seem feasible, some single quantity of interest must be treated as effectively naturally static. And then some particular level must be imagined as a target – a ‘holocene optimum’ which as “our Eden” (ironically) suits best precisely the industrial modernity causing the problem!

Amidst the neglected uncertainties, one implication is clear. The focus is moving away from direct, clear-cut actions to stop emissions of atmospheric toxins that are disrupting a naturally changing climate in unknown and very complex ways. What comes into play instead, is an imagination that the culprit itself – controlling industrial modernity – can assume the notional role of managing the entire planetary climate.

Far from resisting this dissonance, contemporary modernity even celebrates it with a name. In a supposed new ‘Anthropocene’ epoch, this human impact on the Earth is itself perversely taken as if it were control. The bull who smashed up the china shop, somehow thereby holds himself entitled to control the wreckage. It is telling that this Anthropocene confusion between ‘impacts’ and ‘control’ is most intense in science.

I say this, because (more than any other single group) it so often been climate scientists who mistake destructive impacts of industrial modernity for “a self-conscious control force that has conquered the planet”. And it is some in this same expert community, who present themselves most vocally as technocrats-in-chief, in the new supposed human destiny of “taking control of nature’s realm”.

This fantasy is more than parochial hubris. It plays to powerful deeper interests, which stand to gain despite the futility. Looming ominously in the wings are the IPCC’s enigmatically-dubbed ‘negative emissions technologies’ – including many military-derived infrastructures supposedly enabling global powers to dominate others through manipulating their environments. This is control on steroids!

Tragically, the fact that these growing aspirations to control are unfeasible, barely mitigates the likely impacts. But this is not the point. Modernistic imaginations of control have never depended on validity. For even where they are manifestly false, it is through storylines of control, that contingent forms of privilege (that are actually unable to control), nevertheless maintain their status in a complex, ever-changing world.

So, why has the struggle against climate disruption descended into a futile fixation with control? Has environmentalism succumbed to the culture of modernity it has hitherto resisted? If so, what can be offered as an alternative? It is these questions that will form the focus of the remaining parts of this series.

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