Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Abstraction, Calculative Thinking, Global Warming, and Environmental Ethics; or the Polar Vortex of Thinking!

This polar vortex seems to be a good cause for our annual winter jokes from Republicans that global warming is somehow a lie. This time from Ted Cruz, but he is hardly the first. At the link, Weigel argues that the issue is a fundamental confusion between weather and climate. Weather being the immediate phenomenological event, climate being an abstraction. In order to understand something like rapid climate change or global warming, and the ability to understand its causes, and the ways we may stop or divert its destruction, requires serious calculative thinking. It requires care for our abstractions.

Abstraction here should be hear in the register of Whitehead. It is a idea (like Nishida Kitaro's transcendence, Althusser's problématique, Foucault's historical a priori, and Deleuze and Guattari's concept) to talk about the way that knowledge's knowing comes to be known (that is an ugly 90s-style phrase, but I think you get the idea). To quote Massumi quoting Deleuze, "the opposite of the concrete is not the abstract, it is the discrete."   As Massumi adds, “[t]he discrete: the slothful just-being-there of an inactive chunk of matter.” (Semblance and Event, 27).  Abstraction does not take us out of the situation, rather abstraction gives us prehensions of the situation. Let us take the abstraction of global warming.

Global warming is a lure for thinking about issues of consumption and production, of energy and waste, of diet, transportation, and development. We can understand how, as ethicists, we need this abstraction of global warming in order to ask and answer certain questions. And, we can also see here how the discrete is the opposite of the concrete, rather than the abstract. For example, Ted Cruz's 'joke' that Al Gore told me this wouldn't happen.  Such a move refuses the very actual, very concrete reality of global warming by discreting the moment of snow and cold in D.C. from the broader reality and the broader context of global warming. We can give many other examples. How colorblind policies discrete the reality of racism, or how 'tone' criticisms are used to discrete the lived experiences under the abstract and concrete realities of white supremacy and heterosexist patriarchy. To bring us to animals, when we are able to cherish the family pet and treat her as if she was a family member, and then to go and eat the parts of bodies of other animals, is certainly a manifestation of the discrete. That is to say, the ability to de-contextualize our pets from animals in general is a moment of discretion, and not abstraction.

My point here is that our response to global warming cannot simply be through appeals to phenomenological immediacy. Moreover, we will not be saved by virtue, infinite responsibility for the infinite other, or voluntarism. What we need is better abstractions, more calculative thinking, more en-framing, and stronger institutional responses. As David Wood has shown, when it comes to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Katrina, global warming, and a variety of other events, it has been the conservative response to embrace the impossibility of calculative thought.  Perhaps our project going further is to, as Isabelle Stengers has argued, to calculate again. This is not the calculative thought of the capitalist cost-benefit system, but a different calculation. It is, to steal a phrase from Jane Bennett, about mutually enabling instrumentalizations.  Long quotation from Stengers ahead, so bear with me:

The cosmopolitical Parliament is not primarily a place where instantaneous decisions are made, but a delocalized place. It exists every time a "we" is constructed that does not identify with the identity of a solution but hesitates before a problem. I associate this "we" with the only slogan Leibniz ever proposed: Calculemus. Let us calculate. It's an odd expression, constructed to conceptualize the possibility of peace during a time of war. But Leibniz was a mathematician, not an accountant or statistician. For him, calculation was not a mere balance sheet contrasting homogeneous quantities, calculations of interest or benefits that were presented as being commensurable. For a mathematician, the accuracy of a calculation and the validity of its result are relatively simple questions, "trivial" in the language of mathematics. What is important, and which is not in the least trivial, is the position of the problem that will, possibly, allow it to be calculated, the precise creation of relationships and constraints, the distinction between the various ingredients, the exploration of the roles they are liable to play, the determinations or indeterminations they engender or bring about. There is no commensurability without the invention of a measurement, and the challenge of Leibniz's calculemus is, precisely, the creation of a "we" that excludes all external measures, all prior agreements separating those who are entitled to "enter" into the calculation and those subject to its result. [...]
Calculemus, therefore, does not mean "let us measure," "let us add," "let us compare," but, first and foremost, let us create the "we" associated with the nature and terms of the operation to be risked. It is not a question of acting in the name of truth and justice, but of creating commensurability. It is a question of knowing that the "truth" of the created common measure will always be relative to what such creation will have been capable of, knowing also that a radical heterogeneity preexists such creation, the absence of any preexisting shared measure among the ingredients to be articulated. (Cosmopolitics II, pp. 399-401). 

One can begin to understand that the way of an abstraction of global warming, and our calculating, can produce a different we. Malcolm Bull has argued that global warming has the power to extend our moral imagination (another long quotation coming on):

What this reveals is the extent to which climate change is now constructed not as a scientific problem that generates unexpected moral dilemmas, but as an ethical problem that necessarily requires moral solutions. The sceptics are understandably wary of this, and, as Björn Lomborg has argued, we are not generally as moral as climate change ethics assumes, for if we were we might not make climate change our top priority. If we were concerned about polar bears we would start by not shooting them, rather than worrying about how much ice they had left to stand on, and if we were really worried about the global poor, we could help them now rather than helping their descendants at the end of the century, who will probably be a lot better off anyway.
These are in many respects valid arguments, but they miss the point that were it not for climate change, we would be giving even less thought to polar bears, or to the global poor, and would see little connection between our actions and their fate. As Peter Unger’s Living High and Letting Die showed, our customary moral intuitions barely extend to poor foreigners, let alone to their descendants, or to Arctic fauna. It is thanks to climate change that an entire body of political thought has emerged which positions our everyday actions in direct relation to their most distant consequences.
Contrary to Gardiner’s concerns about moral corruption, climate change does not tempt us to be less moral than we might otherwise be; it invites us to be more moral than we could ever have imagined. [...] Climate ethics is not morality applied but morality discovered, a new chapter in the moral education of mankind. It may tell us things we do not wish to know (about democracy, perhaps), but the future development of humanity may depend on what, if anything, it can teach us.

The calculative thinking and en-framing of responding to global warming, and the abstractions that will be necessary for such a response, is not one that will leave the world as it is.