Gaia Isn’t a Socialist

I’m going to start with a memorable passage from the graphic novel, The Watchmen, in which super genius Anthony Veidt is discussing super-being Dr. Manhattan (whose human name is Jon) with a reporter:

“VEIDT: Jon? Right-wing? (Laughs) If there’s one thing in this cosmos that that man isn’t capable of doing it’s having a political bias. Believe me … you have to meet him to understand. I mean, which do you prefer, red ants or black ants?
NOVA: Uh…? Well, I don’t have any particular preference…
VEIDT: Exactly. Well, imagine how Jon feels.”

It makes a lot of sense. How could a being so much more powerful than us, who could destroy the Earth with a thought possibly concern himself with our politics? Obviously he wouldn’t; any more than we would take a side in a battle between two warring ant-hills.

Of course, there is no Dr. Manhattan in the real world. But that doesn’t mean that that basic logic doesn’t apply in some cases. Case in point: The Earth. It is a convenient comparison, since Dr. Manhattan is essentially a god, while the Earth has probably been worshipped as a god by more cultures than any other entity on the planet. And, like with Dr. Manhattan, it makes perfect sense that the Earth, an entity so old that the entire history of the human species is barely visible on its timeline, would care very little about human politics even if it had a consciousness. The processes that shape the Earth extend thousands of kilometres down through layers of molten rock, and billions of kilometres out into space. Even the thin veneer on which we, and the rest of the Earth’s biosphere, exist, admits us as only a bit player. We humans are outnumbered by an unimaginable number of insects and microbes. The natural systems that shape our lives, from the inner workings of the cell to the global climate, are so elaborate that we will probably never fully understand them. Of course, in recent decades we have learned that we have an impact on the Earth. But even the damage we’re doing through climate change is filtered and magnified through a bewildering array of complex natural systems, from Siberian permafrost to Atlantic algal blooms to meltwater deep under Greenlandic ice sheets. Gaia is bigger than us. She was here long before we showed up, and will almost certainly persist long after we are gone. Like Dr. Manhattan, she simply doesn’t care about our petty little arguments.

Its about a week past Earth Day, the traditional day for environmentalist soul-searching, but I think it’s still an appropriate time to reflect on this fact. It’s an obvious fact, and one that has been made by many other people besides me, but it has been forgotten by far too many people who profess to care about the environment. Many seem to have come to believe that Gaia is a socialist, and that the best way to spare ourselves from her wrath, particularly in the form of climate change, is to overthrow capitalism.

This is not a new perspective, but it has been made popular by Naomi Klein’s recent book, This Changes Everything. And there is a certain truth to it: We would probably have an easier time dealing with climate change if the profit motive wasn’t constantly getting in the way. Political philosophies of all varieties are the present-day detritus of historical struggle. Socialism, capitalism, fascism, and all other political movements are nothing more than the accumulated intellectual baggage of past political battles. While, from a human perspective, some political ideologies are certainly better than others, none of them is a perfect model of reality, and none of them contains a fully-formed solution to a problem as big and inscrutable as climate change. It would be an astonishing coincidence if they did.

I think that most people who have given the climate problem more than a moment’s thought realize this, and that’s why I find it hard to resist seeing the “capitalism vs. the planet” narrative in a very cynical light. It often seems to be little more than a thinly-veiled attempt by traditional socialists to co-opt environmentalism for their own political advantage. That makes perfect sense from the perspective of socialists, for whom Gaia would be an excellent ally.

But while this might be good for socialism, is it necessarily good for environmentalism? I suspect that the answer is no, based mainly on the phenomenon of Al Gore. Al Gore is, of course, the most famous climate activist in the world. He was one of the first people with a significant public profile to really call attention to the seriousness of the problem, with his movie/film phenomenon, An Inconvenient Truth. Here’s the problem, though: Al Gore is an ex Democratic Vice President and a failed Democratic candidate for President. In the polarized political climate of the United States, that meant that republicans saw anything associated with Al Gore to be bad. As soon as Gore stamped his political brand on climate change, Republicans turned away in revulsion. That’s why today we have Republican senators throwing snowballs on the senate floor in an attempt to argue that climate change isn’t happening.

With that in mind, is it really a good idea to associated climate activism with a socialist ideology? If the political mainstream rejected climate action because of its association with Al Gore, then what do you expect them to do when it is associated with Karl Marx?

Keep in mind that there is nothing in this argument which says that the “capitalism vs. the climate” proposition is factually wrong. It may very well be correct that we can’t address the climate crisis without first eliminating capitalism. If it is true, however, then we’re probably screwed. Socialists have been trying to challenge the fundamental basis of capitalism in Western societies since before the turn of the 20th century, and but for a few very isolated and deeply problematic cases, they have never succeeded. We have a few decades to respond to climate change, if we’re lucky. Do you really want to make it contingent on a socialist revolution that has failed to happen for over a century?

So by all means work towards socialism, if that’s what you want to do. But in the meantime we have to try to answer the climate crisis by any means necessary. That means capitalistic market incentives, such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes, in addition to explicit government support of more sustainable technologies, and radical environmental justice movements. It means a role for consumer activism and maybe even the intervention of a few benevolent billionaires. All those mechanisms have their problems, but at least they can be implemented without a fundamental re-ordering of society.

Like Dr. Manhattan, the Earth transcends politics. It is a physical, chemical, and biological entity which recognizes no ideology. That means that while politics will inevitably play a role in fixing climate change, they need to be limited to an instrumental concern. This is the mindset that we need, because the unfortunate truth is that everybody will have to make political compromises in order to solve the problem. If we insist on trying to make Gaia a socialist, or a capitalist, or a feminist, or anything else, then we will accomplish nothing more than undermining our own fragile existence on Earth that much faster.

I leave you with these wise words from rapper Prince Ea:

And to betray nature is to betray us,
to save nature, is to save us.
Because whatever you’re fighting for:
Racism, Poverty, Feminism, Gay Rights,
or any type of Equality.
It won’t matter in the least,
because if we don’t all work together to save the environment,
we will be equally extinct.

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Can we have innovation without billionaires?

Lately I’ve been reading a financial blog written by one Mr. Money Mustache, who managed to retire after just 9 years of work as an engineer. His radical philosophy of personal finance can be summed up by his mantra that “luxury is just another weakness”. In practical terms, this means that the best way to manage one’s finances is to avoid excessive luxuries, live well below your means, and invest your money wisely to reach financial autonomy as quickly as possible. A few days ago, Mustache published a post arguing that once you achieve that coveted financial autonomy, you will probably continue to fill your time with work. Unlike the day-job, this work is undertaken to provide a sense of purpose and direction rather than out of necessity. Here’s the argument in his own words:

“My best days are the ones where I accomplish something truly difficult, preferably in both mental and physical realms. And my worst days are those that I just spend sitting around. So I’ve learned that work is an incredibly powerful source of happiness. The key is that it must be creative, social and engaging work that brings you towards a purpose you believe in. So if a friend asks me to spend a day helping him haul steel beams and welding them into his foundation so he can resume progress on a dream house, I’ll be right over. “

Mr. Money Mustache is not the first person to articulate this idea, which is, I think, actually pretty intuitive. Answering the criticism that a Basic Income would cause everyone to sit around all day, shutting down the economy, proponents of the idea often reply, “is that what you would do?”. Consider that question yourself: If you no longer had to work for money, what would you do with your time? I think more of us would answer in a way that is more similar similar to Mr. Money Mustache, than Peter Gibbons of Office Space, whose answer is that he would sit on his ass, watch TV, and do nothing.

This might seem a bit tangential for a blog about the politics of technology, but you should bear in mind that the issues of personal finance, consumption, technology, and sustainability are all very closely interconnected. Technology is, after all, almost inseparable from work. Whether you’re talking about a space-ship or a plastic cup, it takes work to design a prototype and put it into production. Often it takes work to use it, although sometimes its use reduces the amount of work required (which can cause problems). Today, I want to talk about what implications Mr. Money Mustache’s philosophy has for the production of new technology.

The neo-liberal economic paradigm, are fundamentally based on the idea that we need to offer lavish rewards to the people who make society better. When asked to provide examples of such people, neoliberals often point to people who develop new technologies. That’s why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are such common poster-children. They earned their wealth by developing useful technologies, argues the conservative, and therefore their wealth is justified. If we don’t structure our economy to offer lavish rewards to people like Gates and Zuckerberg, then we won’t enjoy their contributions to society. This is basically the entire plot of Atlas Shrugged. But is this actually true? If we removed the chance for inventors and technological entrepreneurs to become billionaires, would all innovation cease? I think that’s very far from proven. Consider a few things:

First of all, successful entrepreneurs are, almost by definition, not stupid people. At the outset of their project, they are probably well-aware that the odds of successfully commercializing their idea actually pretty slim, and that the odds of becoming wealthy from it are even more so. Kickstarter is littered with great ideas that were never funded, and quite possibly were abandoned as a result. A savvy entrepreneur with a good idea might have a decent chance at making some money, and perhaps even earning a living. But if a smart person really wants to get rich, they’ll probably have a higher expected return on their investment by going to medical or law school, or getting an MBA. That’s not to say that the potential for obscene wealth isn’t present in their minds when they start designing a new technology, but if they’re savvy, then it’s unlikely to be their prime motivation.

Secondly, there was a fascinating experiment done by Sam Glucksberg in 1962 which sheds some interesting light on the motivations behind problem-solving. Participants were sat at a table with a candle and a box full of thumbtacks, and instructed to find a way to suspend the candle from the wall. This is a standard problem-solving task, which most participants eventually solve when they realize that they can stick the the box the thumbtacks came in to the wall, placing the candle upright in it. For Glucksbert’s experiment, researchers promised one group a financial reward for solving the problem quickly, while a control group was given no added incentive. Surprisingly, the group without the incentive completed the task faster on average. One explanation for this is that while rewards might be useful for motivating some kinds of tasks, for problem-solving tasks they are actually just a distraction.

When you consider these two points in light of Mr. Money Mustache’s statement, then a very different account of the motivations behind new technology emerges. The implicaiton is that inventors invent not because they want to become billionaires, but because they enjoy inventing. Solving the problem and making a new thing is its own reward. My hypothesis is that a lot of technological entrepreneurs are mainly interested in finding a way to make their interest in developing new technologies earn them a living. Everyone needs to keep the lights on, after all. But perhaps the potential to get rich isn’t actually that big of a motivator.

If this is true, then it is a huge blow to the neoliberal account of technology. It suggests that we could radically restructure our economy to give more to the underprivileged and less to the wildly successful, and the John Galts of this world would still be motivated to make cool stuff for us. Here’s another possible implication: How many intelligent, driven, and innovative people do you think are out there slaving away at minimum-wage jobs, working meaningless office jobs because they can’t afford to quit, or are struggling to survive in conditions of economic destitution? How many great, world-changing ideas are languishing in the minds of people who don’t have the time or the energy to bring them to fruition? What if we took the pressure to make ends meet off of these people? What might these people create if they were given a basic income, or if they were able to earn a living by working fewer hours? And how does that compare to the innovations that we might lose if we fail to motivate the entrepreneurs who won’t pursue their ideas unless they have the opportunity to become a billioniare? I can only speculate as to the answers to these questions, but I have a feeling that they might make neoliberals very uncomfortable.

The story of the entrepreneur who works hard to improve life for all of us, and is justly and richly rewarded for it, is a foundational myth of our Western capitalist economies. It goes right back to Samuel Smiles, who developed it as a response to a controversy over nineteenth-century patent law. When I say it is a ‘myth’, I don’t mean to say that it is necessarily false. Rather, that its importance is independent of its truth. Myths are stories that we tell each-other to make sense of the world we live in.

But what if this story is false? What if we could enjoy all the benefits of a high-tech society, without having to suffer the side-effect of rampant economic inequality? That would have profound implications for technology, the economy, politics, and culture. So maybe we should be so quick to accept the story of the heroic entrepreneur who needs to be enriched to make his efforts worthwhile.

Gentrifying Transportation

I’ve already gone on record saying that I generally like self-driving cars. I lean towards the techno-utopian side of things, and so a technology that can allow people to cut down on car ownership, while still being able to affordably enjoy the benefits of occasional car use seems to me to be the perfect way to make a (mostly) car-free lifestyle available in cities that were built primarily with the private automobile in mind. People can walk, cycle, and take public transit for most of their errands, while being secure in the knowledge that if those options are ever inadequate, they can always call a self-driving cab to pick them up for far cheaper than a manually-driven taxi ever could.*

There is a critique of self-driving cars from the more techno-skeptic left, however, that I haven’t really addressed yet. This is most commonly expressed as a simple phrase: “We already have such thing as a self-driving car. It’s called a bus.” People espousing this perspective argue that we should focus on improving public transportation services based on existing technologies, because initially expensive high-tech alternatives are of little value to the underprivileged. Self-driving cars, or Google’s w-fi equipped buses, they argue, are just a distraction which will mainly benefit rich people who already have access to transportation.

This argument is not a bad one. A future transportation system which uses self-driving vehicles to undermine the prevalence of personal car ownership definitely has social risks. If governments choose to support these vehicles rather than more conventional mass-transit options, then it’s nothing less than a gentrification of mobility. We have already seen something like this occuring in San Francisco, where chartered buses taking high-tech workers to their suburban corporate campuses are crowding out regular city buses which the city’s less privileged classes depend on. Whether our future transportation system depends on buses, self-driving cars, bicycles, or anything else, we need to make sure that governments continue to support options which some option which is comfortable, safe, convenient, and affordable for the poorest members of any given society. A free public system is one example of a policy that could help get people out of their cars without throwing the poor under the bus.

While it is a reason to think carefully about the kind of transport policies we support, however, these concerns are not reasons to reject fancy high-tech options out of hand. We are currently in a cultural battle over sustainable transportation. And, given that Jeremy Clarkson continues to attract public sympathy even after he assaults a colleague on set, I’m afraid that we’re losing.

For people who can afford to have options, the way they choose to travel is about much more than the simple utilitarian attributes of cars, buses, or bicycles. It is also about identity. Why else would anybody buy a sports car? Most people’s daily commutes are congested, meaning that a fancy car is no more fun to drive, and unless you live in Germany, there will likely be no opportunity at all to drive it at its top speed without risking a massive traffic ticket. Like clothing, means of transportation are fashion statements. People buy them because they “turn heads”.

In popular consciousness, then, if a Ferrari is the equivalent of a tuxedo; a BMW is the equivalent of a business suit; and a minivan is the equivalent of some nice but casual weekend-wear, then what is a bus pass? At best, it’s an outfit assembled from the local second-hand shop. I’m not defending this view. Buses should get a lot more respect than they do, and there are lots of successful people that ride the bus. But we need to acknowledge that these cultural story-lines are real, and that they have a real impact. Ask most habitual drivers to describe to you the interior of a city bus, and even if they have never been on a bus before, they will probably tell you all kinds of horrible-sounding things about rude drivers, filthy seats, and sketchy-looking fellow travellers. Even if the bus isn’t actually like that (and most aren’t, for the record), choosing to ride a bus rather than drive a car has implications for people’s identity.

This does not mean that we should give up on trying to convince the middle classes to take public transit. Public transit has a very important role to play in making our transportation system more just and sustainable. But we’ve been trying to do this since congestion first became a major problem in the 1960s, with very little success. Do you really think we are going to change deeply-held cultural views about transport in the next few decades?

I say “the next few decades”, because that is the time scale we’re talking about when we talk about solving the problem of climate change. During that time, We have to get the middle classes out of their cars. Transportation contributes 13 percent of global carbon emissions, which, incidentally, are causing Antarctica and Siberia to literally fall apart. Miami and Bangladesh are probably already doomed. We can’t afford to wait for a cultural revolution in which the majority of first-world commuters give up their materialism and embrace public transit. We have to work with what we’ve got.

That means that we have to embrace new forms of sustainable transportation that fit with people’s existing life-styles. Self-driving cars and private luxury commuter buses have the potential to be that. High-speed rail allows people to make intercity and even international trips without resorting to air travel, which is massively polluting. These things are actually viable options for the millions of people who will never take a bus. This is a bit of a compromise solution. Gentrification is always dangerous, whether it affects land or modes of transportation, and it has to be managed carefully in both cases. But we can’t make saving the planet contingent on our social and economic justice agenda, because that agenda will be meaningless when the full effects of climate change start to hit home. We need to act now, and act aggressively, even if it means taking some risks with our other political concerns. So the answer, I think, is all of the above: More, and cheaper buses, but also a few fancy high-tech alternatives. At least for the near future.

*Yes, this has some pretty important implications for labour relations. I’ve addressed them here.

Infrastructure, Pipelines, and the Moral Dilemma of Sustainability Transitions

If you follow American politics at all, you’ve by now probably heard the phrase “America’s crumbling infrastructure” many times. American politicians, including President Obama, are beginning to latch onto the issue, and propose programs to address it. Internet Comedian/investigative journalist John Oliver recently devoted an episode to the issue:

The consensus seems pretty clear: The American government needs find a few billion dollars lying around and use it to make some very substantial repairs. Certainly it’s an appealing political program: Put a bunch of people to work creating shiny new infrastructures that will make people’s everyday lives easier and safer. The only problem is getting the politicians to agree on where to find the money.

That’s the popular narrative, anyway. I, however, have a quibble: Some of America’s transportation infrastructure is bad. Not just in the sense that it’s falling apart, but in the sense that even when functioning perfectly, it does bad things. I want to talk about highways in particular. The American highway infrastructure perpetuates a transportation system that killed over 30,000 people in 2013, wastes billions of person-hours in traffic jams, leads to dependence on increasingly scarce and dangerous oil supplies, and of course contributes to pollution and climate change. If Americans go on driving as much as they do, then every single one of these problems will get worse. The problem is that an infrastructural system, such as the United States’ highway network, is a bit like a muscle: by repairing it, you strengthen it. If the US Federal Government invests in another round of highway building, then the new and refurbished highways will be built a little bit bigger and a little bit better in order to accommodate future anticipated traffic. That will just lead to more cars on the road, and more resources being devoted to supporting them. So what if, instead of repairing all the highways, the Americans only repaired the most essential highways, and put much more money into effective regional rail and public transit systems?

I know what you’re thinking, and no, they probably can’t do both. It’s hard enough to make a big fiscal commitment to one major national infrastructural project; doing two at once would require the government to walk a fiscal and political tightrope. People will inevitably think that their local highway improvement project is inadequate, and will complain when they see money going to trains that they believe they will not use. That means that the government has to take a fairly brave stand against highway interests in order to stat to change the transportation system towards something a bit safer and more sustainable. To encourage a transition, you have to nurture alternatives, but you also have to put pressure on the existing system.

There is, of course, a glaringly obvious problem with my logic that I have ignored up until now. While the perpetuation of the car system threatens lives, economies, and the very planet in the long-term, the abysmal state of American highways threatens lives now. Many Americans, regardless of their views on the matter, have little choice but to drive on the highways if they want to be able to do things like go to work and buy groceries. A failure of the American highway system, such as a major bridge collapse, would endanger a lot of people. That makes a very compelling case for investing in highways, regardless of what the sustainability implications would be.

This problem was also illustrated in Vice News’ recent mini-documentary. Pipeline Nation. It’s pretty chilling stuff, illustrating the  If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, scroll to TIME, when an EPA administrator spells out an environmental case for new pipeline construction, at about the five-minute mark.

“If I were king of the world, I would be replacing pipelines, and if I was king of the EPA, I would be helping people replace pipelines…The biggest factor for risk is the age of the pipelines…From my standpoint as a spill responder, I would like to see lots more newer pipelines. I drove to get up here. You drove to get out here to come talk to me.  We need the oil, and as long as we do, I would like to see safer infrastructure.”

My proposal about highways above might have seemed very radical, but it is basically the same thing that climate activists, including Naomi Klein, are proposing about pipelines. Their strategy is to strangle the oil industry by impeding its ability to get its product to market, thereby helping to keep the oil in the ground. It’s not necessarily a bad strategy, but the spill responder quoted above lays out a pretty good case against it: As long as no new pipelines are built, the existing pipelines will be used, and they will cause spills. To make matters worse, when oil companies can’t use a pipeline, they put the oil on trains. This can be extremely dangerous: In 2013, one such train exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, devastating the town and killing 47 people.

If the Energy East pipeline had existed in 2013, then the Lac Mégantic disaster would not have occurred. And if the Keystone XL pipeline gets built, then it is a safe bet the absolute rate of spillage of southbound tar sands oil will go down. But at what cost? These projects will reinforce the oil extraction industry, making it that much harder to transition away from it and leave the oil in the ground. If we can’t manage to leave the oil in the ground, then climate change will cause a lot more devastation down the road than one train explosion ever could.

Lest any fossil fuel lobbyists stumble across this post, I should say that I absolutely do not support the construction of the Keystone XL, Energy East, the Trans Mountain Pipeline, or any other major oil export project. We need to be phasing out fossil fuels, not expanding the infrastructure used to extract and burn them. But there’s a moral dilemma here that the climate movement has not adequately addressed. What, exactly, are we going to say to the people who are put at risk when we block unsustainable infrastructure? How many additional car accident deaths are acceptable in the process of adjusting our infrastructure to create a car-free transportation system? How many oil spills and train explosions are we willing to accept as the cost of strangling the oil sands and other major oil extraction projects? There is no easy answer to this question, which is why we need to start thinking very hard about it.