Sunday, 11 April 2010

10: Davis: Building the Ark

Following on from my last blog about Campbell Jones, Mike Davis (‘Who Will Build the Ark? New Left Review 61 2010) also takes an original route to challenge the paralysis/apathy often prompted by the issue of climate change. While Jones focused on the mundane realities of individual consumption choices, Davis considers nothing less that the fate of the world. He chooses to do this in an original format; he structures his paper as “ a debate with myself, a mental tournament between analytic despair and utopian possibility that is personally, and probably objectively, irresolvable.”

Anyone who has read Davis’ previous work will know that few do ‘pessimism of the intellect’ better than him. Davis argues that given the failure of current efforts to limit carbon emissions it may already be too late.

The real scientific controversy is not whether climate change is happening or whether it has human causes but rather whether the targets for cutting emissions need to be much tougher. Davis acknowledges that he is not best placed to judge the scientific evidence but, as a leading urban geographer, he can confidently argue that current policy (international agreements to limit emissions, carbon trading, ‘green’ capitalism) is wildly optimistic and rests on dubious assumptions about how economic and social processes will play out locally and globally.
“Our old world, the one that we have inhabited for the last 12,000 years, has ended, even if no newspaper has yet printed its scientific obituary.”
Davis estimates that demographic pressures will increase the size of cities by 3 billion in the next 40 years. At the same time climate change will mean that the capacity to produce food in many parts of the world will decline. We will be faced by “… the synergistic possibilities of peak population growth, agricultural collapse, abrupt climate change, peak oil and, in some regions, peak water, and the accumulated penalties of urban neglect.” While supporters of action to prevent or manage climate change present it as a ‘War of the Worlds’ type challenge to the planet as a whole, in practice the impacts are unlikely to promote global unity:
“In a warmer world … socio-economic inequality will have a meteorological mandate, and there will be little incentive for the rich northern hemisphere countries, whose carbon emissions have destroyed the climate equilibrium of the Helocene, to share resources for adaptation with those poor subtropical countries most vulnerable to droughts and floods.”
OK so that is the pessimism nailed; what of the ‘optimism of the imagination’? Here Davis turns to what he knows best – urbanization. He argues that while the growth of the modern city might have been a driver of climate change, cities have the best potential as sites of socially and environmentally sustainable life in the future (the city ‘as its own solution’). Davis finds hope in the plans for utopian cities that inspired socialists in the early twentieth century. These show the potential for a highly planned and efficient city whose population benefit from public rather than private luxury.
“Since most of history’s giant trees have already been cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten science.”
This might sound utopian but, as Davis shows, the alternatives do not bear thinking about too long.

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