Commonplace - Week Beginning 11 August 2019

The Use of Force to Prevent Ecological Disaster?

Stephen M Walt at Foreign Policy discusses the possibility that countries may choose to use force against states that fail to act in the interests of the world by precipitating ecological disaster. His opening, a foreboding hypothetical, poses the problem:

Aug. 5, 2025: In a televised address to the nation, U.S. President Gavin Newsom announced that he had given Brazil a one-week ultimatum to cease destructive deforestation activities in the Amazon rainforest. If Brazil did not comply, the president warned, he would order a naval blockade of Brazilian ports and airstrikes against critical Brazilian infrastructure. The president’s decision came in the aftermath of a new United Nations report cataloging the catastrophic global effects of continued rainforest destruction, which warned of a critical “tipping point” that, if reached, would trigger a rapid acceleration of global warming. Although China has stated that it would veto any U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Brazil, the president said that a large “coalition of concerned states” was prepared to support U.S. action. At the same time, Newsom said the United States and other countries were willing to negotiate a compensation package to mitigate the costs to Brazil for protecting the rainforest, but only if it first ceased its current efforts to accelerate development.

This raises questions both of the limits of the doctrine of sovereignty in such matters and of the underlying assumptions of that doctrine. The same tensions arise in the management of “transboundary water bodies” and air pollution. But with major natural resources like the Amazon Forest at stake, the tensions may go beyond the existing tools for transboundary management that we have. It is in such situations that some international stewardship of these resources may be needed. Subsidiarity is no enemy of international cooperation.

“The Land Is Out of Balance”

In other ecological news, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has published a report on climate change and the land. Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic provides a useful summary and reflection.

I appreciated Meyer’s reflection on how we are connected with the land and how we have connected the land to us:

Yet one fact—maybe the most important idea in the report—didn’t frighten me so much as leave me awestruck. It comes early in the document: “People currently use one quarter to one third of land’s potential net primary production for food, feed, fiber, timber and energy.” It’s a lot of jargon. But here’s what it means. Recall from high-school biology that primary production is the conversion of sunlight into chemical energy via photosynthesis. Besides the tiny creatures that live in deep-sea heat vents and other extreme environments, all life on Earth derives its energy from the sun. You and I don’t get our energy directly from photosynthesis, but we eat plants—or things that ate plants—that do. Every major food chain on Earth begins with a plant, somewhere, humbly transfiguring photons into sugar. This is the net primary production that the IPCC alludes to. It’s saying that the human demand for food, meat, clothes, and warmth now consumes at least 25 percent of the net product of photosynthesis on land. The free-wheeling, far-reaching maw of our material metabolism—that thing we normally call the global economy—devours as many as one out of every three sugar molecules made by dirt-bound plants, on net. Plants are one of the few things in the universe that can work this magic, as far as we know. And we have roughly hooked one out of every four of them into our planetary system of consumption and speculative exchange.

He ends on a sobering reflection on what this climate crisis actually means:

It makes clear that climate change isn’t only about coal-fired power plants, or gas-guzzling cars; and it’s definitely not about littering or—God help us—recycling. It’s about the profound chemical and physical specificity of human life. You and I are not free-floating minds that move around the world through text messages, apologetic emails, and bank deposits. We are carbon-based creatures so pathetic that we need a lot of silent plants to make carbon for us.

It is us, as creatures, in a created world, who were given dominion over the plants and the animals, yet who have abused that trust, being blind to our dependence on our biological “lessers”, us human beings who are quickly leading the world to destruction.

Catholic Kabbalah

Switching tack, but not entirely so (and you will see why in a bit), here is an article from the Church Life Journal, “Officially Sanctioned Catholic Kabbalah”. In this article, Andrew Kuiper seeks to draw out the tradition of Kabbalistic thought among Roman Catholic thinkers, both as a matter of history (identifying thinkers and traditions) as well as a matter of reflection on the work of theology.

On the latter issue, he reflects:

It is impossible that the divine life of God in the sacraments of the Church could ever be negated by any human opposition. Ice cannot block out the sun, but entire expanses of earth can become frozen and uninhabitable tundra. It is the task of theology to use every resource at hand to chip away, uncover, and thaw out the soil beneath the wasteland to make it as receptive as possible to grace. Where there are seemingly impenetrable bands of intellectual and imaginative resistance, we must be more fervent and more creative.

The task of theology is sometimes to “make strange” the Word of God:

As John Milbank has seen so clearly, it is when the Word of God is made strange to us (and not simply absurd) that we can wonder and see divine things as the saving mysteries that they always were.

But this is not merely theological navel-gazing. There is a real connection between the theological assumptions that we make and the way that we interact with the world:

The reduction of nature to standing-reserve and the posture of science as a dominating instrumental rationality are problems deeply rooted in the Western psyche, particularly after the Enlightenment. The integrity of nature as more than standing-reserve cannot be maintained without locating its significance in something more than a concatenation of haphazardly juxtaposed efficient causes.

Even in this field of ecology, Kabbalistic thought renews our appreciation of long-obscured or encrusted truths:

The concepts and symbols of the Sefirot and the Shekhinah foreground the nuptial intimacy between the Creator and the creation and allow our interaction with the natural world to be far richer and more complicated than that of a subject harnessing an object for use. Instead of assuming that nature is a dead mechanism or that language is simply an instrumental tool, we could take up Kabbalah as one way to contest the demythologization of nature, language, and ritual.

Retrieval of “alternative modernities” is a necessary theological work in this time. If the existing frames of thought have led us to where we are now, perhaps tapping into these reserves will enable us to think of ways out of the coming crisis. And even if this is too optimistic, the very act of retrieving, preserving, and propagating these ideas may simply be good.

After Technopoly

Alan Jacobs has written a multi-faceted reflection at The New Atlantis on “technopoly”, that is, “a system that arises within a society that views moral life as an application of rules but that produces people who practice moral life by habits of affection, not by rules.”

This, according to Jacobs, is the unsettling paradox of the technological age that we live in. It is a paradox that exacerbates fundamental inequalities in wealth and power. The fact that those who work for the “tech giants” of our age restrict their children’s use of the very technology they work on is particularly telling. One could also frame this in Jacobs’s language — those who exercise power in technopoly cannot allow themselves to become swayed by the “habituation” that they expect of everyone else. Of course, they cannot escape it themselves, but they cannot be influenced by the same kinds of behaviour as the “masses”.

What happened was the elevation of a technocratic elite into a genuine technopoly, in which transnational powers in command of digital technologies sustain their nearly complete control by using the instruments of rationalism to ensure that the great majority of people acquire their moral life by habituation. This habituation, of course, is not the kind Oakeshott hoped for but a grossly impoverished version of it, one in which we do not adopt our affections and conduct from families, friends, and neighbors, but rather from the celebrity strangers who populate our digital devices. A commonwealth of rationalists would be better than this; but a commonwealth of rationalists is not in the cards.

What, then, can be done? Jacobs, perhaps unexpectedly, draws lessons from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (now I have the urge to purchase all three books at once). The entire discussion deserves a careful read. He concludes:

In an ever more highly developed technological future, mere accommodation will be co-opted; simple resistance will be unsustainable; naked myth-making will be despised and uprooted. But there may be an alternative. The great hope of the books is that one can pass through the technological to the mythical. There may be a path to areophany, to transcendence, that leads first to altering the landscape — terraforming — and then to another kind of transformation, areoforming.

After providing three concluding thoughts on what this might mean today, Jacobs closes the essay with an exhortation:

Let us applaud those mythmakers who seek their own quiet corner to develop their stories, their communities. Let us applaud also overt resistance to the regime of technopoly, if it is nonviolent. But we also need people who have the resourcefulness to turn the anti-mythological myth of technopoly against itself before its coming collapse implicates us all. To find the better path, we need to re-educate ourselves in mythmaking and in the right reception of myth.

Doing and Not Just Hearing, or, Notes Towards the Resistance

(h/t @marmanold)

We all know by now the problems surrounding Amazon’s treatment of its workers. Frankly, this doesn’t just apply to Amazon, but also to many companies out there whose business practices are predatory, whose profits are earned from squeezing life out of its workers.

Olson reflects on the temptation to quietism when faced with such evils:

The stricken lament “What can I do?” becomes silently absorbed within the bland futility of “What difference does it make?” The powers and principalities thrive upon such fatalism. They howl in derision and rest content upon thrones of currency and code to the extent that we imagine ourselves without choices. When we feel all other options have been excised and there is only one dissatisfying course of action available to us, the powers have secured the perpetuation of their dominance.

This particular paragraph is convicting:

James 2:15-16 describes a ludicrous scenario in which a privileged believer behaves as though their bare words were sufficient to satisfy the material needs of a poor believer. It is tantamount to the same absurdity to decry these wrongs but change nothing of our patterns of consumption. Otherwise we are saying, “Be warmed and filled while I stream the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Sentimentality is more prevalent than solidarity because it is infinitely easier.

In applying James 2:15-16 to these other areas of life, we begin to see the problems with virtue-signalling and “sending positive vibes”. Real evil must be met by real action. It is a struggle that must be taken up, even if it ends in nothing. We owe it to our neighbours and to God.