Levi Bryant at LarvalSubjects has pushed forward an aspect of my last blog post concerning ways in which anthropologists might take up scientific claims and climate skepticism. In my post I hedged an approach that would foreground future-oriented uncertainty as a way to mitigate, from the perspective of the anthropologist, the differences between those who take science as a basis for action and those who reject the science. In the title of the post I referred to the term “belief,” which was meant as a provocation and which did not appear in the body of my argument. But belief is indeed at the center of what I propose about climate change.

Bryant writes:

Whitington’s remark is too brief to be sure, but he seems to be suggesting that worries about climate change are yet another variation of apocalyptic fantasies. This would be a way of reducing climate change to a phantasmatic entity.

In fact I was trying to give due analytical space for apocalyptic fears within a materialist-mathematical-technological assemblage that is essentially different. I think this confusion also drove Tim Morton‘s comments. My research is about accountants and carbon market makers. They don’t have apocalyptic fears, but they also don’t necessarily understand climate science. Not believing is not the same as not knowing all the science. Still, belief is a social fact. Especially in the United States, but also in other Anglophone countries, one must contend with beliefs about climate change that are beliefs per se. (One DC energy broker told me – I never talk about climate change. It doesn’t matter who I’m talking to, I only ever refer to emissions reductions or greenhouse gas management. I’m not going to make any comments about the legitimacy of the science or whether climate change is real.)

One matter I’ve been exploring extensively is the future temporality of climate policy instruments, including the corporate anticipation of policy instruments (i.e. how climate policy will make or cost them money). The market types – in business or neoliberal policy makers – reject the closure of an apocalyptic futurity and, in many cases, openly anticipate a future that is uncertain precisely because it is subordinated to material technologies. They constantly index that no one knows what is going to happen.

Bryant pursues an analysis of apocalyptic closure through Freud’s work on repression, offering the implication that real fears are displaced onto and hence, by-and-by, also expressed through the apocalyptic. The vision in turn is properly understood as a symptom. Instead I turn to science fiction because many of the carbon market makers and carbon accountants I talk to for my research offer fanciful visions of hypothetical futures in which ‘carbon’ operates as a global currency, carbon markets will function as global information networks capable of regulating the earth’s temperature, etc etc. The point, however, is that these hypothetical futures circulate as dynamic possibilities, which indeed do drive decisions, investments or practices but not as matters of belief. They are speculative in a different way, as matters of logical extrapolation, and especially of the logical extrapolation of material technologies.

For example, during most of 2010, because the climate negotiations faltered in Copenhagen, many market makers were extremely anxious about the lack of a forward curve in the market after 2013. ‘Right now the word is uncertainty,’ the head of environmental markets at one of the world’s largest banks told me. ‘What little forward curve there is after 2012 has no liquidity because of regulatory uncertainty.’ The human subject in this configuration is essentially subordinate to the material calculative technologies of the market.

In November I gave a paper at the US anthropology conference in which I contrasted this materialist ethos with what Frederick Jameson writes about science fiction, namely that for him it involves the narration of allegories about contemporary social fears and desires projected onto imaginary events in the future. For me, for most of the activity involved in climate change & climate policy, this is precisely not the case. Instead one must have a theory of play in which one is willing to try things to see what happens. (I’ve been influenced a lot in this by the work of Philip K Dick, who simply doesn’t fit Jameson’s argument.) Ultimately this is an argument about thinking, specifically about one way in which it is possible to think through material-technological relationships, i.e. what they enable us to think.

Consider this comment by Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, who fancies himself a leader on climate change:

So we put up a $25m prize to get engineers, technicians, scientists to start thinking, Is there a clever way of extracting carbon out of the earth’s atmosphere? And hopefully someone will win the prize because obviously if somebody wins that prize we could literally in the future regulate the earth’s temperature. You know when the earth’s getting a little too hot we could take some carbon out, and the reverse, so we could actually keep the temperature round about what it is today which is obviously generally acknowledged as a pretty good temperature. (Laughter) Depending on where you live. If you live in Canada you might want to put a bit more carbon… (Comments at World Climate Summit in Cancun, 5 Dec 2010)

The logical possibilities here stem from the manipulation of material possibilities. It is both – What can we get away with? and – What can we make these relationships do?

Speculative uncertainty is integral to that formation. Its functional operation is seduction, and seduction involves a play, a gambit or wager of uncertainty. (Is Branson serious?) What can we get the atmosphere to do? How can we materially manipulate engineers & technicians into playing our game? These are the same question, for Branson. Is it a joke? Can we tell the difference? Climate change is seductive at the level of technological potential. If the technology was developed (there are patents!), would it matter if Branson, the person, was only joking? Wouldn’t someone, somewhere, be itching to use it? Do we really think – after all this – that we’re in control of these things we make?

See my forthcoming paper, The Prey of Uncertainty, in Ephemera.

The point I was trying to make in my blog post, which seems to have been largely lost on all but a couple people, is that the skeptics and the naysayers are doing something basically different that involves quasi-apocalyptic envisioning of dire futures. BUT because climate change involves an inherent aspect of anticipating an uncertain future, these similar but different temporalities get easily caught up in each other. They too are seduced, but they don’t think of themselves as seduced (which is not the same as being duped, ‘believing’ instead of knowing the facts [Branson knows very little about climate change, I'm sure]).

Hence, far from a relativism, I am proposing an inside-view of a commercial, materialist, speculative ethos that apprehends the future as uncertain. The skeptics and the naysayers have a very different relation to technology; they interpret the future as terrifying, dangerous, etc., in a way that essentially marks their powerlessness. If belief then points toward a displacement or a symptom at the core of climate change, it is a symptom of powerlessness.