A Line in the (Tar) Sand

Here’s an amazing longform article about the ongoing battle over the Keystone XL pipeline. In the long run I think the oil companies will “win,” i.e. the thing will get built, but in the even longer run they’ll lose, big time—both economically and politically, if not environmentally; people who are torn from their livelihoods usually get desperately angry.

Side note: I voted for Jill Stein in the last presidential election because she was arrested helping the Keystone XL pipeline protesters in East Texas, and I (along with many others) got an email from her from jail. Well, naturally I was going to vote for her; how could I not?

Meanwhile, the battle outside rages:

“Over the last 18 months, I think there was this recognition that stopping the pipeline is, in fact, important,” said Ross Hammond, a senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “But it has also brought a huge number of people into the movement.”

That movement, Mr. McKibben said in an interview, “looks the way we want the energy system to look: not a few big power plants, but a million solar panels all tied together.”

Only time will tell. I for one think the thing is, “in fact, important.” The people of West Virginia could probably back me up on this.

When the pipeline gets built (which as I said, it will), it’ll hopefully be the last straw for many who up until now were resting—precariously: more precariously than they’ll ever know—on the fence. Could the pipeline be our Bastille?

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Eye In The Sky

In “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace“, Sarah Wanenchak waxes philosophical about what exactly constitutes a “drone,” as something different from other robots or surveillance mechanisms, like the Mars rover. Drones, Wanenchak thinks, are flying (distanced) robots that watch just for the sake of watching—which, in turn, is done just for the sake of reinforcing power structures. Drones, in this manner, establish a sort of omnipresent and ethereal Panopticon; you’re not being watched all the time but you could be watched at any time. The possibility of being watched itself is like a prison, self-enforced.

With the element of being watched also of course comes the element of violence (as State power and violence are inseparable), as there’s always an underlying threat of action behind the perceived passivity of a faraway lens. The unstated but very intentional assumption is that if you can be watched at any time, you can also be violated at any time. (Hence the term “Predador Drone.”) Wanenchak writes:

If the source of drone violence is its Gaze, we need to understand that Gaze as existing within the context of all the other implications of the Gaze. Watching in that way enables sexual violence, of the flesh and the heart both together; the surveillance state is an element of rape culture in that – among other things – certain people are more vulnerable to being watched and to being violated. Drone culture is about the production and reproduction of social power, domination, and oppression. It can’t be understood apart from these things, no matter how benign it appears, no matter how separate from the state it looks. But drone culture is also about doing critical battle with these things, about resistance to them.

And speaking of resistance, check out this story about a man who was recently arrested by officers who used a Predator Drone to locate him, and then found guilty for “terrorizing police” (you can’t make this shit up). The author of said article then writes something that I’ll have to end this post with, since I need way more time to think about it before commenting:

Yet for all the sinister mystique of drones, and the uncomfortable feeling that being shadowed by a drone might create (many people in the Middle East feel your pain), the drones themselves are not the real issue. Had a manned police helicopter with a pilot at the controls helped to apprehend Brossart, the outcome would have been the same.

Zombies, Figuratively

“Walter White is the Steve Jobs of meth,” writes James Howard Kunstler in “Like your hair’s on fire” at Clusterfuck Nation, making the connection between the TV series “Breaking Bad” and the sad state in which we find ourselves in America today. The real villain of the show (which I admit I haven’t seen), Kunstler argues, is an enemy that creates the whole plot but which is rarely if ever mentioned: our country’s health care system—or lack thereof. The end of the road is that, as Kunstler succinctly puts it, “money is everything and nothing.” Money is why we poison our watersheds and torture animals and sit in boxes all day, but there’s so much money generated from the conversion of life into death, and at the same time money has been pulled through so many iterations of abstraction (it’s a symbol of a symbol of a symbol… on a computer screen that would go dark without oil), that the almighty dollar might as well be worthless. We can’t eat money, as the saying goes.

Kunstler also points out the growing popularity of zombies in entertainment media, a popularity that might suggest a growing self-reflection—and blank-stared resignation, zombie-like—about our current predicament. We are all stumbling around in some somnambulant fog or another, aren’t we? And Kunstler is only writing here about the financial collapse; when delving into the ecological one, TV shows will be the least of our worries. Although, sticking with TV for a moment, I attribute the rise of zombie motifs (get it?) more to the fact that every story has already been done a thousand times than to a deep, underlying cultural consensus about just how badly we’re fucked. I can picture network executives saying to one another: “zombies worked in the past, so let’s bring ’em back—this time with the pretense of production value!” and then plugging zombies into the same old situational tropes (although, “I Am Legend” is also ultimately about the failure of the health care system, isn’t it?), which they know Americans will love to watch for their supposed verisimilitude. Maybe Andy Warhol was right, and in a few years people won’t watch “shows” anymore, but instead live feeds of other people’s parties. Can’t get much more real than that.

And speaking of other people’s parties, it looks like according to Oxfam about 85 people run the world at this point. But, nah—that’s probably sustainable.

Quote

Ecofeminists have perhaps been most insistent on some version of the world as active subject, not as resource to be mapped and appropriated in bourgeois, Marxist, culinist projects. Acknowledging the agency of the world in knowledge makes room for some unsettling possibilities, including a sense of the world’s independent sense of humor.

Such a sense of humor is not comfortable for humanists and others committed to the world as resource. There are, however, richly evocative figures to promote feminist visualizations of the world as witty agent. We need not lapse into appeals to a primal mother resisting her translation into resource.

The Coyote or Trickster, as embodied in Southwest native American accounts, suggests the situation we are in when we give up mastery but keep searching for fidelity, knowing all the while that we will be hoodwinked. I think these are useful myths for scientists who might be our allies. Feminist objectivity makes room for surprises and ironies at the heart of all knowledge production; we are not in charge of the world. We just live here and try to strike up non-innocent conversations by means of our prosthetic devices, including our visualization technologies. No wonder science fiction has been such a rich writing practice in recent feminist theory. I like to see feminist theory as a reinvented coyote discourse obligated to its sources in many heterogeneous accounts of the world.

– Donna Haraway

Debating Water World—or, Why People Love A Good Worst-Case Scenario

Of all the collapse scenarios I’ve heard or read about, I’m guessing that 99% of them assume a desert world, where the soil has been monsantoed, the rivers and rain are toxic, and the ground is both fragile and radioactive. I too assume a level of desertification (hence the blog title—although, I’m really alluding to deserts of the mind and of culture, as well as deserts of the material earth), but on a planet whose surface is mostly covered by water (liquid or solid), it’s probably a huge mistake not to think about watery options.

Ray Jason, The Sea Gypsy Philosopher, is doing just that over at Nature Bats Last. I know what you might be thinking: I’ve already seen this movie; isn’t Kevin Costner in it? But this kind of water-world hypothetical is worth pondering not so much for what it has to offer to an actual strategy (i.e. how to construct floating “towns” out in the ocean), but instead for what it has to offer to the critical realization that our planet is both finite and extremely precarious. We already kind of live in towns tethered together, floating in a desolate ocean, don’t we?

Jason writes:

There are thousands of people out wandering the world’s waters in extremely self-sufficient, ocean-capable sailboats.  These vessels are the ideal survival pod should a societal meltdown occur.  They elegantly combine simplicity and appropriate technology.  Their electricity is supplied through solar panels and wind generators.  Propulsion derives mostly from the wind, but the diesel engine can be used in an emergency.  Water comes from catching rain or from reverse-osmosis water-makers.  Many months of non-perishable foods can be easily stored onboard.  And “security devices” can be hidden for use, if necessary.

While I think this kind of thinking falls into the same trap as the similar, land-locked technotopian visions do—that is, A. solar panels (and boats, for that matter) require an oil infrastructure to manufacture and an academic/technical elite to operate and maintain, and B. confinement, although initially appealing, doesn’t offer much of anything that humans need in the long-run: diversity of food, space to walk or run, shelter from ever intensifying storms, toxic groundwater, earthquakes, etc.—these kinds of scenarios can generate some thinking about hard-to-face realities. For instance, there will be much less people on earth in the future, one way or another.

I’ve been trying to determine why communities of “doomers” or “preppers” or (my favorite) “collapsatarians” love—love—to sit around, either around a campfire or at a computer, and discuss last-resort scenarios. I myself have wandered into these discussions many times (it’s safer in the long-run to stay in city centers near rivers or coasts, I contend), but they’re mostly silly. And yet, there are whole shows about building underground bunkers, there are guns that are intentionally marketed to preppers, and there are of course countless movies about life in the end-times. In short, people love to talk about hypothetical worst-case scenarios. Maybe it’s because discussing the strategies for each possible scenario is easier and way more fun than discussing the situation we’re currently in—how bad, dangerous, or boring it is, and how it’s just getting worse—and, more importantly, discussing ways we can prevent or ameliorate the crash.

“Will the crash be fast or gradual?” is a question I’ve seen discussed on forums for ages. Considering the fact that we’re in the crash already (200 species went extinct today, lest we forget), could this question simply be a distraction?