Archive for April, 2011

Against hopeless sorrow: a review of The Flooded Earth

April 12, 2011

NB: Also published in slightly altered form on Climate & Capitalism

Paleontologist Peter D. Ward’s The Flooded Earth (Basic Books, 2010) is similar in many ways to a number of other books published in recent years that have examined aspects of scientific findings regarding potential future anthropogenic climate change or the environmental crisis generally conceived: it reviews a number of important data and considerations regarding the the terminal implications climate change could have for the Earth’s polar ice caps but includes highly reactionary socio-political reflections on this most troubling of issues. If the dissident German psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich is correct to note that the “consequences” of “serious scientific insight” can be “very often revolutionary”1—if it is the case that the responsibility which accompanies knowledge of impending climate catastrophe “weighs,” in Marx’s words, “like a nightmare on the brains of the living”2—it is toward Ward’s exegesis of climatology rather than his political analysis that attention should be focused.

Ward opens The Flooded Earth by noting that the highest estimated sea-level rise expected to take place this century by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2007 Fourth Annual Report (4AR)—less than 1 meter—is based on rather conservative predictions regarding the possible future rise in the rate of emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases during the course of the twenty-first century—an eventuality that could come to pass, that is, if no “global self-conscious subject develops and intervenes.”3 In the first place Ward revises the IPCC’s estimate to 2100 by bringing to light the likely 1-3m global rise in sea levels that would accompany a 1m rise in sea levels by means of devastating storm surges that would themselves be driven by warmer oceans and a generally warmer atmosphere. Beyond this, though, Ward criticizes reliance on projections of sea-level rise that stop at 2100, given that sea-levels could well continue to rise beyond that date. In Ward’s mind, it is entirely possible that Earth’s atmospheric carbon concentration could reach 800 or even 1000 parts per million by the end of this century or the next—these being concentrations that would undoubtedly cause the icesheets of both Greenland and Antarctica to begin terminal melt. Examining the Earth’s geological record, Ward finds it possible that sea levels could well rise some 5m this century toward a total of 80m over centuries if both ice caps disappear entirely.

Clearly, a 4-5m rise in prevailing sea levels in the near term would be entirely disastrous for much of currently existing humanity. Besides directly removing vast swathes of land from agricultural production through inundation—one thinks of the Brahmaputra-Ganges river basin and the Mekong and Nile deltas—such catastrophic sea-level rises would further cripple the human prospect by provoking mass-intrusion of salt-water into aquifers that could otherwise provide for agriculture. Ward grimly adds that the severity of climate change that would provoke mass-inundation the world over would itself be catastrophic in other regards: atmospheric carbon concentrations of 1000 ppm would also have desertified vast swathes of Earth and likely rendered the oceans largely anoxic producers of hydrogen sulfide. Such a degree of climate catastrophe would surely imply unprecedented human suffering, mass-death, and a precipitous decline in global human population; Ward may indeed be being too charitable when he asserts that such changes would amount to a death sentence for “some proportion of humanity.” An imagined future-scenario of which he writes that has India’s military employ nuclear weapons against a multitude of dispossessed Bangladeshis who flood into the country after having torn down the separation barrier between the two countries remains a possibility that should not be discounted, similar in this sense to one presented by Gwynne Dyer in his Climate Wars (2008) which sees India and Pakistan engage in a nuclear exchange over contested water resources.

Whatever the social value of Ward’s review of scientific findings regarding potential future sea-level rise and the climate crisis writ large, it must be said that the consideration of horror which drives The Flooded Earth in no way leads Ward to propose reasonable or worthwhile reflections on the climate predicament: instead, he most certainly perpetuates alienation in the analysis he shares with readers of his work. For example, Ward rather mindlessly postulates there to exist “no conceivable political means” by which the global South can avert producing energy through coal in the near term, and he reproduces the disastrous patterns of Western capitalism into the imagined future by asserting that private-automobile use will necessarily increase astronomicallyamong Southerners in the coming decades. In the work’s final chapter, indeed, Ward mimics James Lovelock in calling for a Platonic technocracy to forcibly impose the “necessary changes” that he claims can be employed toward preventing climate destabilization—none of which, it should be noted, include the abolition of capitalism. Ward’s proposed platform of unreason includes heavy reliance on geo-engineering schemes and rather absurdly finds human population growth to be the single most important factor that will determine the severity of future climate change. It follows, then, that Ward would suggest that perhaps the “only way” of “effectively” averting climate catastrophe would be to “lower human population.”

Ward’s outrageous populationism and his attendant blindness to systemic considerations are one with the racism he exhibits in much of the text. In an imagined future-scenario Ward provides at the beginning of a chapter entitled “The Flood of Humans” that proffers the reflections of an aging geologist (Ward himself, most likely) regarding a visit to conduct research in the deserts of Tunisia in 2060 CE, the man is shown as noting that “hunger” is “almost visible” on the faces of impoverished locals, who despite their plight have been spared the “check on overpopulation” he finds HIV/AIDS to have constituted in many other African countries. In light of these reactionary perspectives, it is to be imagined that the Tunisian children Ward describes as pestering and thus interrupting his work—“skinny sacks of bones, with little energy”—are not to be considered within such a racist-Orientalist constellation to be subjects capable of intervening in history and overthrowing tyrants or systems of horror. Fortunately for Tunisians and humanity in general, Ward is mistaken in this sense, as shown for example in the mass-popular mobilizations which succeeded in ousting long-time dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali just weeks ago: instead of provoking catastrophic climate change that would cause sea-levels to rise precipitously as well as destroy much of life itself, humanity can “do something else”4—it can, in the words of Ernst Bloch, “become-other.”5


1The Mass Psychology of Fascism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), p. 170

3Theodor W. Adorno, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983 [1962])

4John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto, 2010), p. 86

5The Principle of Hope vol. 1(Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1986 [1959]), p. 232

On Refugee Anti-Statism: A Review of Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed

April 8, 2011

James C. Scott’s latest work, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009), is a deeply important book. The text, a historical-anthropological investigation of the highlands of Zomia, which Scott calls “[o]ne of the largest remaining nonstate spaces in the world,” demonstrates clearly that matters can be radically other than they presently are over much of the globe, as children, dreamers, and science-fiction writers have long insisted. One of Scott’s central contributions with Art is to show that the state is not a natural condition. In Scott’s estimation, human history to date is to be divided into four phases: a stateless original state, the longest by far; then an epoch that saw states arise amidst expansive stateless peripheries; a time in which the state came to assert its dominion over such peripheries; and the prevailing period, in which states administer “virtually the entire globe.” In the opening pages of the work, indeed, Scott reminds his audience that historical reflection on the “standard human condition” reveals this to be one free of imprisonment or mediation by the state: the subjects of the earliest historical states and empires—China, Egypt, India, Greece, Rome—are, Scott claims, demographically “insignificant” when juxtaposed with the vast swathe of such subjects’ autonomous contemporaries; the former amount at the time of their existence to a mere “rounding error in the world’s population figures.” As should be clear, the currently prevailing fourth-stage global system is rather removed from such considerations, given technological asymmetries and extant power-inequalities: Scott himself resignedly notes that his study has been largely invalidated by the course of developments of the past half-century, as Southeast-Asian states have engaged in significant internal-colonialist schemes aimed at bringing peripheral Zomia to heel. It is to be hoped that he is mistaken in this sense, both as regards Zomia and the totality more generally conceived, or that future developments could dislodge this dynamic; his examination of the contingency of the state as well as of the numerous societal efforts taken by Zomians toward the end of resisting state encroachment or evading its grip entirely certainly merits reflection, particularly in light of the momentous Arab Spring as well as other popular-mass movements that could conceivably be expected to develop in the near term.

Instead of considering the hill peoples of Zomia as “left-behind” remnants of a bygone era, Scott finds them to be subjects who consciously have opted in favor of existence at the margin of the state or free from its dominion altogether. Noting many stateless Zomians to be descendants of those who fled subjection to the padi states that arose in the valleys below Zomia, Scott observes that this choice for autonomy often entailed relative material deprivation vis-à-vis subordination within valley states—yet this dynamic does not seem to have discouraged such moves, against the claims of capitalist apologists. The bulk of Scott’s work in Art, not dissimilar from the concerns that drive the works of French anthropologist Pierre Clastres,1 is the cataloguing of strategies by which those who have fled state control maintain their autonomy: besides geographical considerations regarding the resort to seeking refuge in highly inaccessible highlands, Scott’s thesis is that much of the social interplay of such groups—their livelihoods, modes of social organization, ideologies, and oral cultures—is designed to maintain distance from states and prevent statist structures and practices from emerging in these stateless societies in the first place. To begin with, then, the reliance of many Zomians on foraging, hunting, pastoralism, and root-based shifting agriculture for sustenance is seen by Scott as a means by which such hill peoples work effectively to evade appropriation by states, as such methods allow for great physical mobility and yield only small populations. On Scott’s account, it is no accident that states have arisen in the agriculturalist valleys below Zomia, for the rise of agriculture has permitted large growth in human population—a source of forced labor—together with political centralization, given that agricultural production can be readily appropriated by groups employing violence. Because Zomians themselves produce little economic surplus and proffer relatively few bodies to be captured for production, raiders and slavers associated with states have found them not to be terribly attractive object of concern; in turn, Zomian groups for these reasons have had less need to cooperate and subordinate themselves to the mandates of centralized power. This dynamic nonetheless has changed markedly in recent years, notes Scott, due to the widespread discovery of valuable natural resources in the peripheries of Zomia, with attendant increased militarization, re-settlement programs, and other internal-colonialist policies.

Besides remote physical location and the practice of that which Scott terms “escape agriculture,” an additional method employed by Zomians toward the end of both keeping existing states at a distance and preventing the rise of internal statism is social structure. While the totality of Zomian groups rests on a continuum between anarchy and hierarchy, with some having chiefs or other regents, the region as a whole is “relatively stateless,” claims Scott. The tendency among Zomians to be organized into acephalous small bands by its nature inhibits control by external powers—a negative mirror-image, in this sense, of the Jewish councils which Hannah Arendt famously denounced as having facilitated the Shoah.2 The imperialist method of indirect rule, whereby a native hegemon is tasked with governing a given region in the interests of the colonial power, is made difficult if subjects have few ties among themselves or simply ignore claims to power. When Zomians have faced incorporation into state systems, writes Scott, they have often engaged in further dispersal and scattering, or “social disaggregation into minimal units,” from bands to households; the idea here follows the Berber slogan “Divide that ye be not ruled.” Echoing inter alia the efforts of runaway slaves to establish Palmares in rural Brazil, Zomians have sought refuge from subjugation by means of desertion of state spaces and conscious atomization-processes that leave administrators facing spaces that are not easily managed. Though Scott notes that some Zomian groups at times have assassinated or deposed particularly authoritarian chiefs, he claims the historical tendency among Zomians to be more toward exodus from rather than armed struggle against states.

An additional critical means by which Zomians have resisted statist expansion is their use of religion. In many cases, writes Scott, the peoples of Zomia have adopted religions that have taken hold of valley populations, but Zomians tend to radically reinterpret the teachings of these schools of thought in an attempt to maintain their autonomy: similar to the case of Christianized African slaves brought to the Americas, the major religions are shaped by Zomians in heterodox manners that promise future or even imminent emancipation from rule by the state (Buddha or Jesus is expected to return, for example, and usher in a state of redemption, social equality, and so on). As an “escape social structure of a high order,” millenarianism represents a method through which Zomian political communities have instituted thoroughgoing societal changes: Scott describes how prophets claiming religious inspiration have prepared Zomian communities for mobilization or exile, calling first for significant changes in dietary habits and the attendant adoption of mindfulness. More speculatively, Scott finds religious experience among marginalized Zomians to amount to a theodicy of their suffering, their “long histories of defeat and flight”: millenarian religion has “kept alive a reservoir of hope for a life of dignity, peace, and plenty in the teeth of very long odds,” and it is within such parameters that concepts of right and justice have long been framed among Zomians. Such perspectives are of course relevant for reflection on theistic communities beyond the reaches of Zomia, from Bahrain to Chiapas.

The value of Scott’s account as hitherto summarized notwithstanding, there is little comparative exploration in Art of patriarchy and women’s status in Zomia relative to the padi states. This omission is rather strange, given the in-depth treatment of a number of other important social issues; the question of Zomian women is treated only in passing by Scott, when he notes that women enjoy a “relatively higher status” among the more egalitarian Zomians as compared to the case in the valleys. Clastres famously held women’s subordination to be a given among the stateless, putatively non-hierarchical societies which he studied, yet this recognition bizarrely did not lead him to question whether such groups could in fact be said to be non-hierarchical. It is to be imagined that Scott himself does not share Clastres’ lack of sensitivity to this question, but Art does little to dissuade the reader of such concerns.

The minimal effort dedicated to examining patriarchy among Zomians aside, Scott has done a great service with his latest book, continuing from his earlier works. He has reminded his audience of the highly coercive nature of the state-form—the padi states were all slave states until relatively recently, he asserts, their subjects captives—and demonstrates the contingency of its existence. The importance of both such perspectives today should not be underestimated, what with the criminalization of migration, imperial war, generalized material impoverishment, and catastrophic climate change that attends the present system of state sovereignty and capitalism. In emphasizing the importance of common spaces—eclipsed as they are in the present by statism and private-property regimes—for the maintenance of social relations not governed by states, Scott demonstrates the dire threat such an alternative could represent to the prevailing state of affairs; in this sense he presents a political task to us all. While it is to be doubted that a return to Zomian-esque hunter-gatherer lifestyles would be the most rational future course of action, and though the diffuseness of Zomian groups seems largely to preclude collective action (as it did with the native inhabitants of the Americas, with maddening genocidal consequences), it is to be imagined that such problematics could readily be resolved by conscious political movements. Like Yemel’ian Pugachëv, Stenka Razin, Emiliano Zapata, and other insurrectional agrarian-radicals, humanity can come to abolish the present state of affairs in favor of a far more humane social existence.


1Society Against the State, The Archeology of Violence

2Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil