Here’s an idea for an anthropology of modernity with respect to climate change: Global carbon regulations should be seen as an attempt to force an epochal shift in the material basis of industrial civilization.

The idea comes from China’s attempt to break the energy-economic growth relationship through their energy policies of the 1980s. Apparently – I need to look into this – the relationship is that in all historical cases, energy use increases at a rate of perhaps 5x the rate of growth in GDP. Lisa Margonelli, an energy journalist, has written some about this. She wrote recently in California Magazine, “by 1988 [Deng Xiopeng’s industrialists had] made history, severing the relationship between development and energy. Energy demand had grown at half the speed of GDP.” All that fell apart in the early 2000s, when no-holds-barred growth obliterated those gains.

The relationship is technological, and indeed the whole point of a global carbon accord is not simply to stop the use of energy, which would spell economic collapse, but to change the relation between economic output and energy input. Dan Reicher, Google’s point person on climate change and runner-up to Steven Chu as Obama’s Energy Secretary, recently quoted the chief of Chevron saying that efficiency technologies are the cheapest new source of energy available today. A key analysis of this – and an important part of the story about why green tech has taken off over the past few years – is what’s known as the McKinsey report – a roadmap of how much money is to be made from carbon reductions in the context of a global emissions cap. (But some environmentalists have called this a Frankenstein scenario – more on this latter.)

The role of a global climate accord is to a) make sure climate costs are included in what people pay to use energy, but just as important, b) create both the finance and the initiative to change this historically-necessary relationship. Part of that is the global scope of the accord, which is necessary because an increase in production costs will just shift production, and dirty energy use, elsewhere.

In part, then, a dynamic element is the problematization of the global in this configuration. The other element is the epochal transformation in the energy equation that has defined industrial growth since the rise of English coal.

It doesn’t take much to understand the imaginative possibilities here for green tech entrepreneurs. Thinking on global and world-historical scales might be understood as a hallmark of techies everywhere – essentially as the rejection of socio-historical necessity through math and science – and this has all the makings of a sci-fi attempt to play with a basic material relation which, if transformed, would lead to a different world.

Of course it will be a different world, too, if the relation is not transformed – perhaps a world a bit like Venus, depending on your assumptions. The situation itself demands evaluation and decision about multiple possible human futures (hence its politics) but in the context of these green tech practices I tend to be most interested in the ethical dimension, namely how an evaluative or normative problem enters into the formation of a subject and the work upon the subject in the mutual constitution of subject and object. How do these people formulate personal commitments to environmental or social problems? So this is one aspect of an anthropology of climate change in which atmosphere as a problem might work to configure an ethical futurism of green tech investment.

By the way, in this vein anthropology is no new-comer. The idea of anthropology as modernist discipline was founded on the imagining of different worlds through the exploration of human possibility and necessity. It’s worth reminding people that Ursula K. LeGuin’s middle name is that of her father, Alfred Kroeber.