Commonplace - Week Beginning 29 September 2019

Whatever else that comes below, this deserves to be read in full: an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson. :

Human beings were technological even before we became human; in other words, our precursor species from whom we evolved had early technologies (fire and tool making) and by using them, evolved into our species. So we are “homo faber,” and technology is part of our DNA, literally. The question is, which technologies make life better for every citizen of the biosphere, human and otherwise, and which are destructive, either on purpose or by accident? And how can we figure out which is which, and put the right technologies to good uses? These are questions that science fiction is very well suited to explore.

Obfuscation as resistance

At the MIT Press Reader, Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum discuss techniques of obfuscation in the age of digital surveillance, a discussion abridged from their book, Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest :

If obfuscation has an emblematic animal, it is the family of orb-weaving spiders, Cyclosa mulmeinensis, which fill their webs with decoys of themselves. The decoys are far from perfect copies, but when a wasp strikes they work well enough to give the orb-weaver a second or two to scramble to safety. At its most abstract, obfuscation is the production of noise modeled on an existing signal in order to make a collection of data more ambiguous, confusing, harder to exploit, more difficult to act on, and therefore less valuable. Obfuscation assumes that the signal can be spotted in some way and adds a plethora of related, similar, and pertinent signals — a crowd which an individual can mix, mingle, and, if only for a short time, hide.

The dangers of Ring

At Real Life, Keli Gabinelli discusses Ring, the “smart doorbell” that also gives people access to surveillance in their area.

Three points stand out. First, Ring does not just seek to quell fears and anxieties, but by its very use creates anxieties:

When opening the Neighbors app, regardless of whether there has been activity on your Ring device, threat is near and imminent. Ring promises to make its users “feel secure,” but its function defeats its purpose: barraged by a constant flow of potentially threatening information, users develop a deeper sense of insecurity as they learn about all the potential threats they’re exposed to.

Second, Ring is increasingly integrated into local law enforcement efforts:

Ring advertises itself as the “New Neighborhood Watch.” The call to action is implied; Amazon has already aggressively pursued partnerships with police departments across the nation, allowing officers to request access to Ring users’ footage in return for promoting the Neighbors app.

Finally, Ring exacerbates what people perceive as threats, which are often informed by prejudice:

An article by Caroline Haskins in Motherboard describes an internal review of 100 user-submitted posts in the Neighbors app between Dec 2018 and February 2019. Using Vice’s Brooklyn headquarters in Brooklyn as the home address and the maximum radius of five miles, the sample “Neighborhood” encompassed lower Manhattan, most of Queens, and parts of Hoboken, harnessing occurrences across disparate communities within a relatively arbitrary radius: mileage hardly accounts for the structural, material, and environmental boundaries. In Motherboard’s review, the majority of people reported as “suspicious” were people of color, who in many cases were simply caught on someone’s Ring camera going about their lives. A group of six young people walking up a stairway was posted with the title “six gang members going to the roofs.” Amplifying and normalizing this explicit racial bias has life-threatening consequences.

Amazon Fires

No, not that Amazon, but the Amazon, where a recent spate of fires has caused significant damage to one of the most important natural features in the world. Roger Maioli discusses the issue for Dissent. In a particularly dangerous example of short-term memory, some have defended President Bolsonaro’s approach to these fires by comparing them to fires in 2004-2005:

To support this point, Shellenberger uses the same graphs from the National Institute for Spatial Research , showing that the fires in 2019 pale in comparison with those in 2004 or 2005. This argument echoes the official stance of the Bolsonaro government, which has been instructing Brazilian diplomats to use data from 2002 to 2010 to deny the gravity of the fires. Brazil’s ambassador in France, Luís Fernando Serra, declared in an interview last week that “in 2003 and 2005 the fires were worse but no one talked about them. Why? Because president Lula was the darling of the press.”

However, these comparisons hide the fact that the fires between 2004-2005 were among the worst in history:

Such attempts to dismiss the crisis in the Amazon are seriously misleading. They betray, at best, a misunderstanding about Brazilian environmental policies since the early 2000s. These years witnessed unsustainably high levels of forest fires in the Amazon; the fact that 2019 is above that average means that international concern over the fires is fully warranted.

So the fact that the fires in 2019 are better than the fires in 2004-2005 don’t show anything at all, yet it is so easy to hide the truth behind such comparisons.

A proper comparison is between the policies of the previous administration and the approach taken by the current one.

Fábio de Castro, professor of Brazilian studies and human ecology at the University of Amsterdam, writes that “Lula’s terms have been marked by a major increase in protected areas and ethnic territories… . Together with full protection conservation units, the spatial configuration of rural Brazil has been transformed into a mosaic of thousands of protected areas, covering … almost half of the Legal Amazon.”

By contrast,

Acting in concert with FPA interests, Bolsonaro has systematically dismantled the legacy of the Lula years by waging war on NGOs (which he holds responsible for the fires), weakening environmental agencies, transferring decisions on land demarcation from an indigenous affairs agency to the Ministry of Agriculture, intimidating scientists who raised concerns about deforestation, turning a blind eye to the murder of an indigenous leader by illegal miners, and encouraging land grabs through his anti-environmental rhetoric. In a symbolic moment, farmers in the northern state of Pará declared August 10, 2019 “Fire Day,” starting hundreds of fires out of a commitment to the president’s agenda.

Maioli’s conclusion is startling: “The Amazon fires, in short, are not just a natural tragedy but part of an anti-environmental program.”

Relatedly, the New York Times has reported that a group of activists, Stop Ecocide, are planning steps to have the International Criminal Court include “ecocide” as a crime within its jurisdiction, with President Bolsonaro as one of its first defendants:

Eloísa Machado, a law professor at Fundação Getúlio Vargas University in São Paulo, said Mr. Bolsonaro’s dismantling of environmental protections, which have decimated the Amazon’s indigenous communities, may already meet the criteria of crimes against humanity under existing international law. They could, she said, amount to genocide. She and a team of scholars are drafting a complaint the International Criminal Court could use as a blueprint to open an investigation against Brazil.

Religions and environmentalism

Willis Jenkins discusses how religious views relate to views on climate change and other issues. These particular facts were startling:

Research shows that white evangelicals in the United States are more likely to be climate sceptics than people of other religious affiliations. They may cite dominion to explain their position. In their interpretation, global climate governance would impede free exploitation of natural resources and, by slowing economic growth, worsen prospects for human welfare. That view does not seem to be based in credible social science, but the point is that they appeal to dominion to symbolize the importance of human dignity.

In contrast, non-white evangelicals in the US, and evangelicals in other countries, have a much lower correlation between their religious affiliation and climate scepticism. The difference suggests that what we are seeing is not simply a structure of religious belief shaping a particular climate policy. Rather, religious beliefs and political context feed back on one another.

He discusses what the future might hold:

Two centuries from now, I wonder if historians of religion will trace back to this time the first fissures that led to major reorganization of religious affiliation. For example, it seems possible that, if the white evangelicals in the United States continue along their current trajectory, they will come to be regarded by future historians as an ethno-nationalist breakaway from global evangelicalism. […] It also seems possible that, if many indigenous peoples continue to articulate a nature-focused political view in response to climate change, future historians will regard the climate crisis as a key contributor to an indigenous renaissance.

And in some way, even the non-religious have religious experiences of climate change:

And insofar as climate change makes secular people question the pursuits of their lives, the stories they live by, the purposes of capitalism, etc. — then climate change may be experienced by them as religious in depth.

Science Fiction’s contribution

Sarah Jones, in reviewing Ursula K. Le Guin’s body of writing, quotes her as saying:

Imaginative fiction trains people to be aware that there other ways to do things, other ways to be; that there is not just one civilization, and it is good, and it is the way we have to be,” Le Guin says in Arwen Curry’s new documentary, The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.

I was moved by Jones’s concluding paragraph:

Capitalism becomes whatever it touches. Inside this totality, the introduction of some new thing might just feel like a dream. Maybe, then, an opening is all anyone needs. A crack. A tear. Some tiny rent in the real. “Leave the tombs,” Ged tells Tenar. “And that is the beginning of the story.”

Tearing just a little hole in the mask of “what is and always has been” is an essential, non-negotiable step, and I’ve felt that to be very true in my recent reading.

Elsewhere, Vandana Singh discusses “Science Fiction in the Anthropocene”. I found her summary of science fiction very powerful:

In one sense, science fiction can be considered as an exploration of our relationship with the nonhuman universe—from animals, aliens, and others to the physical universe itself, including technology. Most of the rest of literature labors under the absurd delusion that human beings live in a bubble isolated from the rest of nature; with nature reduced to a commodity, it can then be forgotten.

Science fiction has the capacity to draw connections that are otherwise hidden (wilfully or not):

The trouble is that modern civilization conceals and dismisses these connections, so that between jobs and hanging out with friends in bars, and worrying about love lives and children, we forget that with every breath we take, we owe ocean plankton for over 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe. There is something pathologically wrong with a paradigm that obscures the deepest and most essential connections between ourselves and the rest of nature. Science fiction, while remaining mostly mired in similar distortions of perspective, at least offers us the possibility of a way out—not merely though cautionary tales of apocalypses and dystopias, but through the intelligent and wide-ranging exercise of our most powerful tool, the imagination.

Her political conclusion, related to what Jones writes about Le Guin:

Can science fiction save the world? Certainly not by itself. But it can shine some light upon who we are and where we might end up if we choose this path or that one. Science fiction is the literature of “what-ifs”—what if some people, somewhere in the world, found ways to speak to other species, or to generate electricity from the tides, or to live in ways that left the lightest possible footprint on the earth? What would that take? Science fiction is story, not a blueprint for the future, but it holds the rare possibility of freeing the imagination itself. Things don’t have to be the way they are. Is there a more revolutionary statement?

Secular faith?

I was introduced briefly to the work of one Martin Hägglund in this review by Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins and Daniel Zamora in Dissent (I’ve been reading a lot of Dissent lately, and it is very good).

I won’t get into the details of the Hägglund’s political arguments on the need for “decreasing necessity” so that people can answer the question “what makes life worth living”. I can agree with many of his conclusions on that. But my attention was captured by Hägglund arguments regarding the “secular faith”:

Hägglund places human values at the center of his work, which he claims are often ignored by theorists on the left. But where religious conservatives and reactionaries have recently attempted to embed capitalism within systems of traditional religious values, Hägglund argues that democratic socialism demands a radical form of atheism. The question of how one should live their life, according to Hägglund, can only be answered intelligibly if one believes that this life on earth comes to an end at death. “If I believed that my life would last forever,” he states, “I would never be seized by the need to do anything with my time.” Death is what gives life a sense of urgency. This sense of finitude—the temporality and fragility of our lives and the world in which we live—requires what Hägglund calls “secular faith,” in a life committed to persons and projects that might be lost.

That is,

Religious faith, according to Hägglund, prevents its adherents from seeing finite lives as ends in themselves; in times when they act as if those finite lives do matter, Hägglund believes they are abandoning the precepts of religious faith in favor of secular faith.

For him, then, when religions attempt to alleviate material conditions, they are not longer acting as religions:

Hägglund’s theology of death leads him to argue that any common ground between liberation theology and secularism results only from the secular qualities of the former. Religious theologies that promote social justice and material welfare, or the freedom to organize our shared life together, are not really practicing religious faith at all.

I would like to get into this theory a lot more. It strikes me as having a prima facie plausibility if one takes a certain view of religion, premised on some distinction between the eternal and the temporal, the material and the spiritual. How does theology adequately account for both the eternal and the temporal, and what gives meaning to life?

Gender and Hildegard

In Church Life Journal, Abigail Favale, in responding to Sr Prudence Allen’s work on “The Concept of Woman”, helpfully delineates certain differences in the “complementarian” approach. This was helpful for me as I’ve only ever been exposed to the dichotomy between complementarianism and egalitarianism.

[C]omplementarity, as it had become to be understood in Protestant thought, was really a refurbished polarity theory, because the “parts” of human nature associated with women were seen as inferior to those traits and dispositions associated with men. The result was that man could be a fully formed human being in his own right, but a woman was, by nature, incomplete without a man.

In contrast, there is an integral complementarity:

Allen argues that the incarnational vision of St. Hildegard reaches its full development in the 20th-century philosophy and theology of Saint John Paul II, who is properly the “founder” of this third way: integral complementarity. This theory of gender relations upholds the two principles of equal dignity and meaningful difference, while also adding a third principle: synergetic fruitfulness. Not only are man and woman whole persons, rather than fractional parts—their complementary difference is generative.

In St John Paul II’s theology:

The masculine and feminine genius are not oppositional, but analogical. They both reflect an orientation toward safeguarding and fostering human life, particularly in its most vulnerable forms, but in distinct maternal and paternal modes.

These are helpfully termed the “masculine genius” and “feminine genius”. I appreciate the subtleties to this approach, which captures which a great deal of nuance and sophistication what we, in some quarters of evangelicalism, feel but struggle to articulate in a context of opposition between two warring sides.