Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Welcome to the Antropocene? Rio+20 revisited

My friend David Rojas, a graduate student at Cornell University, conducts multi-sited fieldwork on global management initiatives; he works with environmental scientists, with peasants in the Amazon deforestation frontier and visits United Nations conferences. As an anthropologist, he attended Rio +20 and wrote a short and disturbing piece "On Rio+20 and the Environmental Imagination in Climate Change Diplomacy" (Anthropology News). He frames the distance between Rio 1992 and Rio+20 in comparing the changing imagery. In 1992, images from outer space of the "Blue Marble" became what Sheila Jasanoff called a global icon for secular societies. In 2012, this image was replaced by a video which was played at the beginning of the conference, "Welcome to the Antropocene". Having set this frame, David gives an intense and frustrating account of the dilemma of Brazilian environmentalism.

 The depiction of Earth as  Blue Marble was devoid of humans and symbolized ecological transcendence; critical voices were highly suspicious of the accompanying representation of the  "global 'We' that bore no traces of colonialism or capitalist exploitation", as David Rojas writes. Scholars also criticized that "such earthwatching risks enshrining Northern experts as 'ecocrats' (Arturo Escobar) who bear the responsibility of managing the planet." In Rio+20, these issues remained on the agenda, but in the (imagery of) antropocene, Earth indeed is now inhabited and populated.The antropocene video shows how in the past 250 years, the industrial revolution  crept like a wildfire all over Earth,
 a beautiful, irregular cascading network of lights—cities, roads, air and sea travel routes—progressively spreading across the globe as it illuminates Earth’s night. In the video’s last few seconds, the mass of the planet—continents, oceans and the atmosphere—gradually fade out. Nothing remains but a diaphanous sphere of anthropogenic lights floating in space.
Rojas contrasts this imagery with a heated debate on a Rio+20 panel between Isabella Texeira, Brazil's Minister of the Environment, and two demonstrators who challenged the assumption of successful Brazilian environmental politics. It is worth watching this debate on the video at least for a moment, even when you are not fluent in Portuguese:
"Texeira, did not reply as an 'ecocrat' who would place herself above her critics - at Blue Marble height - (....). Rather, she submerged herself in the heat of of debate and (...) presented herself as a leader who was capable of working in an impossibly imperfect world where success was redefined as the capacity to endure failure."
Rojas' senior informants, Brazilian NGO environmentalists who had worked closely with Texeira, had long left the attempt to protect "Nature" and an environmentalism which transcends nature, but lets untouched the difference between North and South, rich and poor:
 My informants assumed that in a world fragmented along economic and geopolitical lines, some degree of environmental degradation was unavoidable. Moreover, they focused on two goals. First, delaying and managing severe environmental disruptions (an adaptation approach); second, building global markets on which competing stakeholders could come together and define the price they are willing to pay for preserving and destroying environmental services (a public-private-partnership and “green economy” approach).
 But even this strategy which embraces failure in order to avoid or delay the tipping point in deforestation;  his informants
witnessed how climate change diplomacy had failed to produce any discernible patterns—only a continuing unraveling of our common worlds. As if, while trying to avoid the violence associated with ecological transcendence, we had reached the point at which iconoclasts frequently arrive: the sanctification of violence as a transcendental horizon.
This snapshot from Rio+20 gives a disturbing picture of the dilemma environmentalism is facing today, and what is at stake on global climate negotiations. Maybe this is due to the slight shift of perspective from North to South which David Rojas presents here. It makes a difference.


Günter Heß said...

Dear Mr. Kraus,

It is written in the text:
„Moreover, they focused on two goals. First, delaying and managing severe environmental disruptions (an adaptation approach); second, building global markets on which competing stakeholders could come together and define the price they are willing to pay for preserving and destroying environmental services (a public-private-partnership and “green economy” approach).“

This looks to me like a fatal methogological flaw that would explain some oft the difficulties. In a sense the parapraph shows that the environmentalists do not work on specific goals that are „smart“ , but rather on preferred solutions chosen by the environmentalists.

In project management this is seen as an obstacle to sucess working with multifunctional teams toward a future goal.

Best regards
Günter Heß

SMART ist ein Akronym für „Specific Measurable Accepted Realistic Timely“ und dient im Projektmanagement als Kriterium zur eindeutigen Definition von Zielen im Rahmen einer Zielvereinbarung.

Werner Krauss said...

I sent David a notice that I presented his article on "Klimazwiebel", and this is what he wrote me in an email:

"Thank you very much for your email and for a really nice summary of my little piece. (....)
I think your comment on the importance of a “Global South” perspective in my work is absolutely right. It is one of my objectives in my dissertation to clarify the extent to which the Globe seems rather different from Brazil's postcolonial perspective. On the one hand, there is a beautiful kernel of postcolonial critique in Brazilian climate politics that destabilizes techno-managerial projects for planetary management. On the other hand, there is a rather violent and fatalistic thrust in these same political approaches insofar as they are premised on the understanding that any call to build a common world is only the expression of geopolitical interests. It is a very strange form of political realism that combines populist elements with calls for environmental justice that are based on the conservative premise that we can think of the Globe only as a space of unbridled competition."

Werner Krauss said...

In a next E-Mail, I asked David.

"Dear David,

(thanks for your E-mail). It is something we in Europe are not really aware of. Just to be sure if I get it right, the complexity of Brazilian environmental policies: they are both postcolonial critique and submission to "Realpolitik", that is, industrializing its own space. Correct?

Another question: you mentioned "violence" in the end: what do you mean by violence - in a literal sense, or in a metaphorical / rhetorical sense?


And here part 1 of his answer:

"Dear Werner,

Yes! Their Realpolitik is premised on the industrialization of the Brazilian space (you would be surprised how influential Ratzel and other German geopolitical thinkers were in elaborating plans to develop Amazonia during the military government era of 1964–1985).

I use the term “violence” here in a symbolic sense. It refers to how the Realpolitik stance interprets all proposals for building a common world as surreptitious geopolitical maneuvering. Ultimately, such “realism” transforms any altruistic stance in self-interested national positioning. This is best expressed in age-old Brazilian interpretations of proposals to reduce deforestation as Northern plots to stop industrial growth in the South. There may be more than a grain of truth in such a diagnosis. As historical studies have amply proven, Northern forest management schemes were often driven by political and economic interests and had dire consequences for local populations (both human and non-human). However, there is a radical difference between saying that some environmental proposals were and are geopolitically driven and saying that every ecological proposal has to respond to geopolitical interests. The violence that is intrinsic to the latter approach lies in how it redefines environmental justice."

Werner Krauss said...

and here part 2:

"Under the Realpolitik gaze, environmental justice can no longer mean to “slow down” and address historical legacies of domination and inequality by arresting extreme forms of economic competition. Quite the opposite. Today environmental justice is being redefined, in practice, as the right that poor nations have to compete with world super-powers on their own terms; to accelerate growth in the South, to “use” “our forests” just as Europe used “theirs,” to exploit the land just as American farmers do, to emit carbon just like industrialized nations do . . . The right to use, to dispose of, to destroy if necessary. Creative destruction as the grounds for a good life. This approach establishes global climate politics as a struggle between winners and losers while redefining justice as the moment when former losers (Southern nations) claim their place in the pantheon of victors. The tragedy, of course, is that that pantheon is known to be collapsing. Some of the scientists with whom I worked (Nobel Prize winners advising the Brazilian government) explained to me that the policies in which they are taking part amount to war-like struggles among competing development projects that are undermining the environmental conditions required for capitalist growth. Development is known to be “unsustainable” and potentially self-destructive, but is still posited as the ultimate goal in climate politics. The symbolic violence in this approach does not lie in the cold, authoritarian logics of managerial control (my interlocutors know that by definition you cannot control catastrophe). Neither are my interlocutors responding solely to the self-interested logics attributed to the homo economicus (they are honestly concerned with social and environmental issues and are neither blind bureaucrats nor insensitive financiers). When explaining their own work, my interlocutors always came back to explaining that ecological policies had to right the wrongs of history, to bring Brazil to the status of a global power capable of doing on its own terms what others had done before (calls which, understandably, resonate with the desires and aspirations of Brazilian populations).

The predicament, of course, lies in the age-old question of justice and violence. For us as scholars, it means to find ourselves in a position wherein to denounce Southern climate politics can be interpreted as yet another imperial effort to side with the “winners.” Whereas to support Southern calls for climate justice can easily become yet another glorification of the right to development (which, in more than one way, amounts to advocating for the right to self-destruction).

Best regards, David"

Werner Krauss said...

Dear Günter Heß,

thanks for your comment. I think "managing" a post-colonial nation like Brazil is slightly different and more complex than, for example, a German enterprise. I have no conclusion what a "smart" strategy might be here in this global climate conflict about development and conservation. But David's explanations give a great insight what is at stake in these climate negotiations. I think, for me there is a lot to digest here...

Günter Heß said...

Dear Werner Krauss,
I sent this comment behause your friend seemed to confuse "working to implement a solution" with "working towards a goal" and therefore maybe on the wrong track.
Of course a nation might be more complex than a enterprise, but the principles of leadership are similar. Do you think your friend can analyse a complex Nation without getting the basic principles right.
Best Regards
Günter Heß

Werner Krauss said...

Dear Günter Heß,

I am a little confused: you are educating my friend about the general principles of leadership, be it in economy or the nation state. Before he doesn't accept these general principles, you don't even listen to his arguments (because he is not able to analyze correctly the situation). Thus, you avoid the discussion of any of the many topics raised in the article about the unequal relationships between the global South and the North concerning climate negotiations. You try to maintain discursive leadership with a seemingly technical / managerial argument - which is part of the problem, I guess.