Category Archives: Popular Press

Erderwärmung und Gerechtigkeit

Die WDR-Sendung “Das philosophische Radio” hat letzte Woche eine Sendung mit dem Philosophen Lukas Meyer ausgestrahlt unter dem Titel “Ist der Klimawandel ein Gerechtigkeitsproblem?” Kurze Antwort: ja. Die Sendung ist eine Stunde lang, aber das Anhören lohnt sich. Im Folgenden einige Gedanken zum Gespräch, aber zuerst kann ich “Das philosophische Radio” nicht hoch genug empfehlen. Einerseits bietet es jede Woche eine Gelegenheit, vom eigenen philosophischen Tellerrand hinauszublicken. Andererseits ist es immer interessant (und erfreulich) zu hören, wie Akademiker auf die Fragen von Laien eingehen. Und Jürgen Wiebekes Moderation ist immer pointiert und gut informiert.

Das Gespräch letzte Woche hat das Thema “Klimawandel und Gerechtigkeit” innerhalb einer zukunftsorientierten Ethik verstanden, und so legitim das sein mag, war es auch ein Dokument des begrenzten Rahmens, in dem Diskussion über Erderwärmung stattfinden. Die Anfangsmoderation hat einen zum Thema passenden Ton angeschlagen: “Es ist ungefähr so, als ob es fünf vor zwölf ist und wir werfen die Uhr weg.” Die Diskussion über “Gerechtigkeit” kreiste um Themen wie Verzicht, Gleichverteilung, und Konsum, aber der Fluchtpunkt des Gesprächs war die Zukunft und unsere Pflichten gegen zukünftige Menschen. Ein würdiges Thema, das man in anderen Sendungen aufgegriffen hat. Aber beim Anhören hätte ich gern mehr über die Erderwärmung als real existierendes Phänomen unserer Gegenwart gehört.

Meine Frage ist, ob eine Zukunftsethik uns wirklich einen festen Boden für ein ethisches Programm im Zeitalter des Anthropozäns bietet? Einerseits können und wollen wir die Frage der Zukunft nicht loswerden, denn die Umsetzung eines Programms für eine bessere Wirklichkeit geht von der Antwort auf die Frage aus, wie wir in der Gegenwart handeln wollen, um eine mögliche Zukunft zu gestalten. Meine Skepsis kommt aber von zwei Punkten. Das erste ist, “Zukunft” ist ein sehr missbrauchter Begriff. In Wahljahren in den USA wenigstens wird die Zukunft oft als eine geschlossene kommende Wirklichkeit behandelt. Das heißt, die Zukunft ist etwas festes wie ein Gebäude, wir sind auf dem Weg dorthin, aber die Politik der Opposition gefährdet sie gewiss. Aber die Erderwärmung macht die Zukunft radikal offen: wie schlimm wird sie sein? Wer wird am stärksten betroffen? Was und wieviel von unserer jetzigen Gesellschaftsstruktur wird sich überhaupt bewahren können?

Der zweite Punkt ist, dass der Klimawandel als Folge einer anthropogenen Erderwärmung gar kein Zukunftsproblem ist, sondern die Katastrophe ist da. Die Sahara dringt vor. Wildbrände haben vor kurzem wieder Vororte von San Diego bedroht. Gletscherschwund in der Westantarktis.

Es ist also nicht fünf vor zwölf, sondern eins nach. Unsere Diskussion über Ökogerechtigkeit kann und soll mit der Gegenwart ansetzen.

Ökogerechtigkeit war das, was mir in dem Gespräch gefehlt hat. In der Diskussion hat man sehr viel über Bahn vs Auto fahren, ob man weit weg in den Urlaub fliegen soll, und Ähnliches aus einem linksliberalen Blickfeld. Aber auch wenn man sich auf den Klimawandel beschränkt und andere verwandte Fragen wie Recht auf die Stadt usw. beiseite lässt, stecken größere Fragen als Bahn oder Auto hinter dem Klimawandel. Meyer nähert sich diese größeren Themen an, als er bei der Diskussion über Urlaub auf Mallorca erwähnt, dass wir unsere Gesellschaft vielleicht so organisieren könnte, dass wir nicht einmal sowas wie “Urlaub” nötig hätten.

The New Northwest Passage and the West Virginia Chemical Spill

Last week the NPR program Fresh Air broadcast a pair of interviews that are to be recommended.

On Tuesday Dave Davies interviewed journalist McKenzie Funk about the commercial opportunities related to global warming. The opening of the Northwest Passage with the shrinking of Arctic ice, for instance, is but one of many commercial opportunities that global warming provides, and there is a scramble amongst nations and business interests to exploit new shipping lanes and extract fossil fuels and mineral resources suddenly made accessible. There is plenty to be learned here about capitalism, coercion, and environmental degradation.

On Wednesday Dave Davies interviewed journalist Ken Ward about the chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia. The story is one of a profound failure of regulatory oversight, but also the failure of a discursive regime that disempowers the citizenry by distorting basic reality. The interview ends on a hopeful note, though, as Ken Ward suggests that a cultural shift may be afoot that we outsiders may be largely unaware of.

Buy Nothing Day Blessings

Reverend Billy appeared on Democracy Now! Tuesday. Reverend Billy is facing jail time for a protest action staged in September against JP Morgan Chase for the bank’s support of the fossil fuel industry. It’s worth watching, especially for anyone unfamiliar with Reverend Billy’s courageous work.

Reverend Billy appeared in a documentary a few years ago produced by Morgan Spurlock called What Would Jesus Buy. In the last scene Rev. Billy strolls through Disneyland shouting a kind of desperate protest as the “park’s” day trippers look on, some enjoying the spectacle, others devoutly ignoring what’s taking place. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, albeit with the exact opposite political program. The scene itself is remarkable, by the point in the film Rev. Billy has traveled across the country visiting malls and big box stores, and after all the amusing stunts and tricks, pleads with the crowd to break through the ideological fantasy. The Disney security promptly descends on him, insisting that he “needs” to stop. At the end of the scene, he is sitting in handcuffs for having disrupted Disney’s carefully structured illusion.

The trailer for What Would Jesus Buy? can be viewed here.

The full film is also now available for viewing pleasure on YouTube.

Love Canal Retrospective

Retroreport.org this week published a retrospective on Love Canal. I’m reminded a bit of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s thoughts on such “concerned citizens” movements in his essay “A Critique of Political Ecology:” That their targets are limited in scope and susceptible to social illusion, but they are germs of greater mass movements.

The Retroreport series, I might add, is an incredibly thoughtful and enlightening antidote to the pace of the news cycle, what with its painfully short historical memory.

The Christmas Tree Light Recycling Capital of the World

For anyone who might have missed it, last week Terry Gross interviewed Adam Minter, author of a new book called Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. One thing that I like about Gross’ interviews is that they tend to explore not only whatever issue is at hand, but the subject’s own connection to that issue. In this case, Minter comes from a family that ran a junkyard. The interview is very informative about the global circulation of garbage for recycling, an economy that is largely opaque to most of us.

Shijiao, China is the Christmas tree light recycling capital of the world mentioned in the title of this post. It seems that the insulation for Christmas lights is transformed in Shijiao into soles for slippers.  Gross’ surprise at this fact is perhaps relatable for all of us living in a culture of commodities that mask their own origins. Incidentally, a couple of years ago the Huffington Post put up a video of a Shijiao recycling plant narrated by Minter.

Naomi Klein on Science and Activism

The New Statesman this week published an article by Naomi Klein on science and climate activism that is worth a read. She begins with a presentation by one Brad Werner who sees any hope left on the climate change issue as lying on the side of grass roots activism, and proceeds from there into a discussion of the implications of climate change for our current political and economic systems. Reading the article I was reminded a bit of a moment in Ludwig Feuerbach’s essay “Die Naturwissenschaft und die Revolution.” Feuerbach claims that the political indifference of science is only temporary, because scientists work immanently with the totality of nature. Because philosophers deal in language, one can quash a revolutionary philosophy by finding another philosopher who will write against it and confuse the public. It’s not an argument that I am necessarily fond of, but it could be that Feuerbach’s claim gains its value at a historical moment when we as a whole species are confronted with the consequences of abusing the material basis of our existence.

Scientism in the News

A few interesting articles came down the pike recently that are worth sharing.

First there is Leon Wieseltier’s article in The New Republic “Crimes Against Humanities.” Wieseltier’s article is a response to Steven Pinker’s article “Science is not you Enemy,” which appeared in the same publication in August.  Wieseltier’s argument is not without its own problems (is the opprobrium heaped on post-modernism really necessary here?), but given how well Pinker manages to peddle his books and land invitations from Stephen Colbert, it’s refreshing to see a critical treatment of him in the popular press.

Pinker’s article is worth reading if only because it is so typical of him, at least when he is speaking to a broader audience.  The introduction sounds reasonable enough if one does not consider the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment thinkers that he invokes.  The argument really starts to fray when Pinker attempts to appropriate the label “scientism.”  He does so through a set of convenient re-definitions and omissions, as when he speaks of skepticism and the peer review process as if they were the exclusive domain of the STEM fields.  Echoing the rather dubious thesis from The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker also makes an argument here for an ideological status quo:

And contrary to the widespread canard that technology has created a dystopia of deprivation and violence, every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise. The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty, a steadily growing proportion of humanity is surviving the first year of life, going to school, voting in democracies, living in peace, communicating on cell phones, enjoying small luxuries, and surviving to old age. The Green Revolution in agronomy alone saved a billion people from starvation.

Wieseltier’s argument, on the other hand, uses Pinker’s as a jumping-off point for a larger defense of the way humanities – specifically cultural studies, broadly understood – think about the world and broach the matter of whether an argument is “true.”  Wieseltier writes:

In literature and the arts, there are ideas, intellectually respectable ideas, about the world, but they are not demonstrated, they are illustrated. They are not argued, they are imagined; and the imagination has rigors of its own. What the imagination imparts in the way of understanding the world should also be called knowledge. Scientists and scientizers are not the only ones working toward truths and trying to get things right.

One need not look far in intellectual history to find thinkers making claims about science or history that have not been shown to be dated or flat out wrong in an empirical sense.  But whether they are right or wrong in the empirical sense is not always the most interesting question to be asked.  The value of such a text is not in its facticity, but rather in whether or not they make visible something that we might not otherwise recognize.  Freud may be “debunked,” as a graduate student instructor I once had insisted, but that does not mean that there is not a reality beyond what can be measured by instruments that Freud does not help us to understand.

Wieseltier also gets points in my book for his Musil citation.

On a related note, Adam Gopnik published an interesting review in the New Yorker of three books on the current obsession with neuroscience – Pinker’s own field.  To varying degrees and in different ways the books are all skeptical of the assumption that neuroscience can really yield some sort of truth about “human nature” (which, according to The Man Without Qualities, is “as capable of cannibalism as The Critique of Pure Reason“).  The review is worth a look, as it draws out many of the conceptual problems related to the investment in neuroscience as an avenue for accessing some deeper truth about ourselves and our faculties.

Fontane and “Die Welt”

I recently returned from Germany where I was doing a bit of work on Raabe and Fontane.  While perusing the manuscript of Die Stechlin in the Berlin Stadtmuseum I was broached by a reporter who was doing a story on the Fontane collection there.  She asked me a bit about my research and my interest in Fontane.  The article appeared on August 6 in the newspaper Die WeltYou can read it here.  I’m quoted at the bottom.

Environmental and Aesthetic Problems: A False Dualism

Today the New York Times’ reported on a city block sized, three story high pile of petroleum coke in Detroit. The coke is a byproduct of tar sands oil production.  Usually it gets shipped off to China or Latin America for fuel, contributing to the air problem out “over there” where we in the United States don’t have to see it.  But at the moment we have a growing mountain of the stuff in Detroit.  The source of outrage here, I would argue, is not the existence of such a pile but the use of Detroit as a “sacrifice zone,” to borrow Chris Hedges’ term.  If this is how we are going to power our civilization, then would it not be better to keep the ugly byproducts within our field of vision?  Yes, the waste becomes a very real social and environmental problem for the people who ultimately are left to deal with it.  But the reason our waste gets sent somewhere else to spoil the material basis of someone else’s life is so that we wealthy consumers in the global north do not have to be confronted with either the toxicity or the sheer ugliness of things like petroleum coke.  What we have is an empirically quantifiable problem of toxicity, yes, but that is not what the article is really about.  The real issue that dominates the article is the fact that it’s ugly, and we can’t hide the ugliness from view.  In other words, the environmental problem is also an aesthetic problem.

I remember watching the pieces that 60 Minutes did on Chernobyl in 1989 and 1996. The images of the nuclear fuel, which had melted, combined with the sand, and then solidified into a kind of glass flow, were beautiful.  The radiation level on the surface when it was discovered was 10,000 Röntgen per hour.  500 Röntgens in five hours is the lethal level for humans.  Radiation is not something that humans can perceive with their bodily sensory apparatus.  In other words, we have something beautiful but deadly, and if you were to go near it, you would only perceive the deadliness through its physiological effects on your body.  That is an aesthetic problem.

Plant and animal life is slowly re-taking the town of Pripyat, by Chernobyl.  Its social character is slowly vanishing as a second nature gives way to a first.  Luckily we now have the internet to satisfy our desire for the melancholy contemplation of ruination, because in spite of its appearances, the exclusion zone is a dangerous place.  That is an aesthetic problem.

The title of Rachel Carson’s classic book Silent Spring is an allusion to Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”  We start off, in other words, not with science, but aesthetics.  The book’s opening chapter “A Fable for Tomorrow” is about a town that knows it is poisoned because of the conspicuous absence of birdsong.  That is an aesthetic problem.

There’s a scene in Raabe’s novel Die Akten des Vogelsangs where the two main characters are standing on a hill, a kind of nature park where the people from the town go to relax.  In the novel, “nature” has been compartmentalized on this hill, it is planned and made beautiful.  In the middle is a copy of Canova’s sculpture of Hebe.  What we have is a compounding of aesthetic problems.

Kant observes in his discussion of the mathematical sublime that we can can estimate the magnitude of something (a mountain, a galaxy, etc.) through measurement, but that does not mean that I know the magnitude of the measure.   The metric system in America has the same problem, because when Americans ask how many miles are in x kilometers, they are trying to obtain a sense of the magnitude of the measure.  We haven’t understood the data if we haven’t grasped it through intuition and thus obtained a real understanding of the concept.  Put very basically, the numbers are meaningless if they are not understood aesthetically.  In my example of Chernobyl, I told you how deadly 500 Röntgens in five hours was so that you could have a sense of how much radiation is in 10,000 Röntgens an hour, and only then do you know what a problem that is.

Common sense would have us distinguish between environmental problems and aesthetic problems.  Nobody ever got poisoned by a novel, at least not literally.  But the distinction is illusory, and if we cling to it then we have failed to understand the environmental crises we are confronted with.  Aesthetics in the narrow sense of perception and judgment is how we arrive at a sense that there is a problem in the first place.  Aesthetics in the broader sense of “relating to art” can also help us to conceptualize how we got here and to imagine other possible kinds of relations.

This is the point, in other words, where we who do cultural studies can legitimately enter the conversation on environmental problems.  And we can do so without selling ourselves short simply because we operate in more speculative realms.

The Making of MacArthur Park

Nathan Masters, a colleague of mine from my undergraduate days, has been producing a series of fascinating articles under th auspices of “LA as Subject”, which is an association of libraries and archives.  The articles have bee appearing through KCET, the latest of which on the history of MacArthur Park can be read here.

Together the articles constitute a fascinating history of the spatial transformations in a city that is polarizing often precisely because of its spatial dynamic.  Beyond the compelling stories, the articles are all supplemented with fascinating historical images that have a lot to say about the changing face of Los Angeles.

Now, the park’s notable place in the history of pop culture falls outside of the scope of the article, but that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from drawing attention to it.