Desert of Realities
Planetary Emergency: On Green Capitalism, the Last Generation Revolution and the Temptations of Protectionist Technocracy
Image: SALAR : EVAPORATION by Anna Friz and Rodrigo Rios Zunino
"Climate change is increasingly taking its toll. The natural disaster record in 2022 is dominated by events that, according to the latest research, are becoming stronger or more frequent. Some also both at the same time. What is more, what is shown time and again is frightening: Natural disasters hit people in poorer countries particularly hard." [Thomas Blunck, Member of the Board of Munich Reinsurance Company, 2022]
"Climate protection is only possible if we abolish capitalism." “[Ulrike Herrmann 2022]
"What worries me most is that we are not able to work together as a multilateral society in the face of this global crisis. ... We have a choice. Either we act together or we commit collective suicide"
[António Guterres, 2022]
Essay by Jutta Weber
Meanwhile, our planetary predicament is largely common sense: the ignoring of the Paris climate goals by politics and industry, exploding armament figures and increasing warlike conflicts over influence and resources, pandemics, inflation and imploding infrastructures (housing, education, health, old-age care), poverty in the global south and the rising numbers of people forced to migrate - all this and much more characterises this multi-crisis.
As I write this text, fierce struggles are taking place around Lützerath - a small village occupied by hundreds of activists who want to prevent the energy company RWE, after a Brown New Deal with the red-green-yellow government, from being allowed to dredge it away to open up unneeded coal reserves. It is puzzling how the Paris target of 1.5 degrees, which is binding under international law, is to be met on this basis. And while the energy company RWE certainly wants to eliminate Lützerath, which has been inhabited by activists for two years, as a disruptive hotspot of the climate movement, after the violent eviction by 1,500 police officers Lützerath has at the same time become an international symbol in the fight against climate change and for the failure of politics. Only shortly before, the first report of the government-appointed Council of Climate Change Experts made clear that Germany - one of the largest consumers of CO2 - has again failed to meet its climate targets (ERK 2022; cf. also Agora Energiewende 2023). In view of these and similar developments, concern about climate change and doubts about the blessings of economic growth and capitalism, innovation and technology (solutionism) are increasing. For example, the think tank Agora Energiewende writes: "Around four out of five Germans say they already feel the effects of the climate crisis in their daily lives (79 percent, EIB 2022). A similarly large majority is worried about the consequences of the climate crisis (78 percent, More In Common 2022a). In line with these results, an overwhelming majority of 82 percent of Germans see a great or very great need for action on climate protection (Infratest dimap 2022)" (Agora Energiewende 2022, 79). While mainstream media and conservative politicians try to criminalise the activists as 'climate terrorists'.
Last but not least, the inability of politics to take appropriate climate protection measures once again reinforces the impression for many people that the (even rudimentary democratic) representation of their interests is not assured - as with many other issues: from old-age provision, peace, poverty, health care system, etc. This doubt is growing not least in the face of an increasingly populist and aggressive (post-)democracy with tendencies towards autocracy, polarisation and diversity of opinion. Just think of the criticism of so-called 'covidiots' and 'Putin-enthusiasts' - and now of 'climate terrorists': People who dare not to follow the (media) majority opinion in a democracy, who develop other forms of solidary community and demand compliance with internationally binding goals through non-violent civil resistance. It is more than a crisis of parliamentarism when a technically highly equipped state takes action against these climate activists with ever more stringent police laws in order to protect the profit interests of the energy companies and ignores the Paris goals.
'There is a right sticking in the wrong' (Peng! 2022).
And it gives hope that more and more people around the world are opposing governments and demanding immediate action to meet climate targets to stop the climate tipping point from tearing. For many, this is about a comprehensive social, economic and ecological transformation that should be more than green (painted) capitalism. In other words: 'System Change Not Climate Change'. For many people, it is becoming increasingly clear that the immanent growth logic of capitalism as well as the exploitative, patriarchal and racist power relations that go hand in hand with it are one of the main causes of the climate catastrophe. Especially with regard to the Global South, there are increasing calls for transitional justice for those who emit little CO2 but suffer the most from climate change.
Yet politicians continue to rely on the so-called Green New Deal - ultimately on the continuation of business as usual with the help of green hydrogen, vague hopes for nuclear fusion and as yet non-existent good storage solutions for solar and wind energy. Business and conservative politics naturally forecast a quick solution to these problems. In the 1970s and 80s, too, they promised an early solution for the safe storage of nuclear waste. We are still waiting for it today.
1.5 degrees, the end of the history of progress - and a new revolution?
Unlike in the 1970s, faith in progress and technology is fragile today. Confidence in a purely technocratic solution to political and ecological questions has disappeared, not least in view of the accelerating 'risk society' (Beck) with its nuclear catastrophes - from Chernobyl, Sellafield and Fukushima to the Ukrainian nuclear power plants as combat targets, the devastating consequences of uranium mining in countries like Kazakhstan or Niger, among others. But for many critics, the struggle for the 1.5 degree target is also linked to the hope for a way of life in solidarity with people and nature: "We are experiencing a revolution for life. For almost ten years, a new type of protest has been emerging.
This protest is neither a resumption of the social revolutions of a good hundred years ago nor merely a continuation of the civil rights movements that lasted for over fifty years. The new forms of resistance start from a mobilisation for lives that are acutely threatened and fight for the prospect of shared lives granted in common and organised in solidarity." (Redecker 2020, 10f.)
But (how) do we make this transition from a profit-oriented capitalism - which can only count human beings and nature as resources - to new forms of international cooperation that enable a radical change in the fossil-based ways of life and work of the Global North, the radical reduction of greenhouse gases, a fair and solidarity-based economy and a decent life for all? Ulrike Herrmann, journalist and trained business economist, rightly criticises: "In the climate debate it is always suggested that we already have the solution and that only the political will is missing. But in fact, so far there is no concept of how to end capitalism peacefully." (Herrmann 2022, 14f.) After her tour de force through the history of capitalism in her book 'The End of Capitalism', she proposes a model that, in her opinion, was the only one suitable for this radical restructuring because it had already proven itself once historically: The English war economy of 1939-1945. Faced with the threat of Nazi Germany, England then had to build up an extensive war industry at breakneck speed, summoning up all its forces. This was achieved through a state-directed planned economy. Industry was not privatised, but the state dictated what was produced. Consumption of the basics of life was rationed then - and should be rationed today - for all people equally - to free up resources for the envisaged goal and to make a joint effort possible, because: "Climate protection only has a chance if everyone is equally burdened." (Herrmann 2022, 249) Which would currently mean: "each inhabitant of the earth should not emit more than one tonne of CO2. Nevertheless, there would be plenty of room for Malawi to develop, because its inhabitants currently emit an average of only 100 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year. The global North would have to do without - and there above all the wealthy." (Herrmann 2022, 249) - who are now no longer allowed to consume 117 tonnes of CO2. But Herrmann also reassures: there would still be holidays, restaurant visits, smartphones or books - but no air travel, individual transport or excessive meat consumption (Herrmann 2022, 250).
A much more conservative model for achieving climate goals to break "with the end in itself of capital accumulation" (Staab 2022, 197) is proposed by sociologist Philipp Staab. He recommends a cybernetic-state or 'protective technocracy' (Staab 2022, 178ff). For him, the "possibilities of getting to grips with the corresponding problems through further democratisation" (Staab 2022, 178) are limited and he pleads for a "strategic depoliticisation of certain questions and areas (Staab 2022, 180). For him, it is about "new, technology- and expertise-supported governance formats (...). Digital control technologies ... [are intended to make] complex danger situations assessable as well as processable ... and thus ultimately hold out the prospect of new modes of social coordination (...) ..." (Staab 2022, 182f.) Artificial intelligences - data-based algorithms - are to support human decision-makers - and replace them in the long term. Even if accidents and losses of freedom will occur in the process (Staab 2022, 184), the "depoliticised management of social self-preservation" (ibid.) and a relief from heroic self- and world-shaping beyond old progress narratives would thus be possible.
Given the impressive social and political power of the young climate activists, I am surprised to see an old cybernetic fantasy of omnipotence like the Chilean cybersyn being pulled out of the mothballs of technological history to solve our current problems. Algorithms are not - as is claimed here - 'self-initiating'. They can be tuned for optimisation, but that is something else. Hazard assessments by algorithms do not configure themselves. There is a broad body of research in Science & Technology, Critical Data and Algorithm Studies that has long pointed out not only that specific values and worldviews are inscribed in technology. And that algorithms often exhibit a systematic bias - which is something different from an accident, i.e. a single error, which can then lead to an arbitrary loss of freedom. For many areas (justice, evaluation, Schufa, etc.) there are not only numerous examples of systematic exclusion of women, PoC, but also of the production of inequality because important questions such as those about social power relations were not asked, the decisive parameters were set incorrectly, contextuality was neglected and responsibility was not a central criterion in the design of the algorithms.
But possibly more importantly, it is large high-tech companies that have many of these algorithms written / modelled based on their specific interests, and it is primarily white, young, male people with corresponding specific worldviews and interests who are formulating these algorithms so far. And we have huge corpora of data that have been co-configured by these algorithms. Type the term 'CEO' into an image search engine: you will see almost only men. On this basis, the algorithm might then make its predictive recommendations.
We don't need ready-made algorithms that 'learn themselves', but a truly democratically secured decision on how we can and want to achieve the Paris goals. And the current development teaches us once again that you cannot simply let governments decide top-down or self-learning algorithms. It is certainly not easy to find solutions here, but the attempts of young climate activists to find new forms of solidarity, shared, careful living and cooperative decision-making should be an impulse to develop other models for real democracy. And precisely because we have little time, we have every reason to be open to new things. Ulrike Herrmann's suggestion that we take our cue from the wartime economy of Great Britain in the early 1940s may be a useful basis for the time being.
But it also seems conclusive to me that its implementation will only succeed if we involve as many people as possible in the process and do not leave the job primarily to the algorithms. The "governmentality of car management" (Kitchin/Dodge 2011, 85f) is a central part of our problem - and not the solution.
1 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 2016
2 Grisard 2022
4 siehe u.a. Blasberg 2022 sowie die narrativen Interviews der Studierenden in Staab 2022
5 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 2016
6 Grisard 2022
7 Peng!-Kollektiv 2022
8 vgl. u.a. Moore 2019, Herrmann 2022
9 vgl. u.a. von Redecker 2020, Moore 2019
10 Das bedeutet, „Forderungen nach einer just transition mit Forderungen nach Umweltgerechtigkeit zu
verbinden“ (Taube 2022)
11 vgl. u.a. boyd / Crawford 2012, Kitchin/Dodge 2011, Weber/ Prietl 2021, Suchman 1986
12 vgl. u.a. AlgorithmWatch et al. 2020, Balayn et al. 2021, Weber/Prietl 2021
Agora Energiewende (2023): Die Energiewende in Deutschland: Stand der Dinge 2022. Rückblick auf die wesentlichen Entwicklungen sowie Ausblick auf 2023. www.agora-energiewende.de
AlgorithmWatch and Bertelsmann Stiftung (2020) Automating Society Report 2020. Available at: https://automatingsociety.algorithmwatch.org
Balayn Agathe / Gürses Seda (2021) Beyond Debiasing: Regulating AI and its inequalities. https://edri.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/EDRi_Beyond-Debiasing-Report....
Blasberg, Anita (2022): Der Verlust. Warum nicht nur meiner Mutter das Vertrauen in unser Land abhanden kam. Frankfurt a.M.
Blunck, Thomas: Klimawandel und La Niña treiben Schäden: die Naturkatastrophen-Bilanz 2022; https://www.munichre.com/de/unternehmen/media-relations/medieninformatio...
boyd danah / Crawford, Kate (2012) Critical Questions for Big Data. Information, Communication & Society 15(5). 662–679.
Grisard, Manuel (2022): Tagebau Garzweiler. In allen Szenarien wird die Kohle unter Lützerath nicht benötigt. In: https://www.energiezukunft.eu/politik/in-allen-szenarien-wird-die-kohle-...
Expertenrat für Klimafragen (2022): Zweijahresgutachten 2022. Gutachten zu bisherigen Entwicklungen der Treibhausgasemissionen, Trends der Jahresemissionsmengen und Wirksamkeit von Maßnahmen (gemäß § 12 Abs. 4 Bundes-Klimaschutzgesetz). Hg. v. Expertenrat für Klimafragen (ERK). Online verfügbar unter: https://www.expertenrat-klima.de
Herrmann, Ulrike (2022) Das Ende des Kapitalismus. Köln
Kitchin, Rob / Dodge, Martin (2011): Code/Space. Software and Everyday Life. Cambridge / London
Moore, Jason W. (2019) Kapitalismus im Lebensnetz: Ökologie und die Akkumulation des Kapitals. Berlin
Peng!-Kollektiv (2022): Es gibt ein richtiges Kleben im Falschen. https://pen.gg/de/aufstand-der-letzten-generation/
Staab, Philipp (2022): Anpassung. Leitmotiv der nächsten Gesellschaft. Berlin
Suchman, Lucy (1987): Situated Plans and Actions. The problem of human machine communication. Cambridge/New York
Taube, Magdalena (2022): Der ökologisch-ökonomische Komplex, grüner Kapitalismus und Übergangsgerechtigkeit; https://berlinergazette.de/oekologisch-oekonomischer-komplex-gruener-kap...
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) (2016): Paris Agreement. https://treaties.un.org/doc/Treaties/2016/02/20160215%2006-03%20PM/Ch_XX...
von Redecker, Eva (2020): Revolution für das Leben. Philosophie der neuen Protestformen. Frankfurt
Weber, Jutta / Prietl, Bianca (2021): Artificial Intelligence in the Age of Technoscience. In: Anthony Elliott (Hg.): Routledge Social Science Handbook of Artificial Intelligence. New York/London, 58-73