How to Turn an Image Into a Concept II: Self-Consumption, Research Time, 29/06/2018

Most of the popular political activism around the environment and Earth’s ecologies is about climate change. Which is a very serious topic and problem that we do need to confront honestly. But it isn’t the only environmental crisis facing human civilization, just the one that’s gotten the most press.

Mining, and the pollution that comes from large-scale mining, is another process significantly adding to the conditions that will keep humans from staying alive on Earth.

Yet the problems of mining are much more difficult for an environmental activism movement to address. The causes how* are frankly painful. It all revolves around those rare earths mines that I was talking about earlier this week.

The Tesla auto company is promoted as a leader in developing the
technology for cars to have no negative environmental impact. It's
true that Tesla cars don't give out greenhouse gas as exhaust, and so
can be major contributors to preventing climate change. But
climate change isn't the only form of catastrophic result from
industrial pollution. The more you learn about heavy industry of
all kinds, the easier it is to conclude that we're damn if we do and
damned if we don't. It's definitely quite easy to feel damned.
* If we say “reasons why,” then why wouldn’t we also say “causes how”? I think I’m going to run with this phrase for a while and see what it gets me. Is it a neologism? Is its meaning clear? I think so, but I need feedback from people who aren’t me. Let me know.

Rare earth metals are essential for the core technologies of the renewable energy industries as well as computer devices. Some examples. Cerium and lanthanum are used in hydrogen fuel cells and batteries. Dysprosium, neodymium, and praseodymium are important for the powerful magnets used in wind turbines. Neodymium is also an essential component of hybrid car engines. Terbium and europium are used to make solar panels, and terbium is also needed to build fuel cells for fully electric cars.

So the environmental movement becomes, inevitably, complicit in environmental destruction. That’s just great, then. There seems to be no way of continuing large-scale industrial civilization that doesn’t cause severe ecosystemic harm somehow.

Jussi Parikka looks at this fact, as well as heavy industry’s dependence on fossil fuel energy, and concludes that any attempt at an ethical geological approach to philosophy will inevitably be an assault on capitalism as a social order. It seems we can’t build genuinely environmentally friendly and constructive technology products, without causing severe ecological harm somewhere in the production processes.

I’ve been talking a lot about the different social orders that we call capitalism. A lot of us have been talking about it. The last decade or more of Western politics has largely revolved around confronting or sublimating the economic anxieties of life under an increasingly destructive oligarchical economic system.

Because sites like this lie behind every Tesla car, every Prius, every
hybrid and all-electric vehicle, it can really drive you into a more
pessimistic point of view about our future. Here's another horribly
depressing fact: Most of the public transit buses we use today are
hybrid, so these filthy, destructive mines are behind every
proudly environmentally-friendly bus. We can't even reduce car
use without driving the heavy industries that to serious harm to
our ecosystems and ourselves.
You can find plenty of critiques of capitalism in today’s journalism, entertainment, and theory. When they occur in so many different contexts, it can seriously confuse the popular definition of capitalism.

If you use the term as a shorthand label, it means entirely different things to different people. So when I write official publications, I mostly describe economic relationships and processes, rather than the single label for this diverse family of systems.

Geological philosophy, as Parikka describes its mechanics, is an ontology and an advocacy all at once, because thinking philosophically about geology displays the most destructive aspects of capitalist economics. Unlike most of the capitalism-critical traditions, geological (and ecological) thinking focusses on the physical destruction of Earth’s processes and ecologies, rather than directly human misery.

Capitalist society is produced through societies’ energy consumption to build and consume things. But not all energy consumption is capitalistic. You properly call it capitalism when you cross a threshold of intensity in energy production that radically transforms how your society operates.

More than this. Crossing the threshold of heavy industry’s intensity of energy production and consumption transforms what is and isn’t possible for a particular society. That change in what can be is far more profound than a mere change in what is. Keeping energy consumption in a particular, very intense range limits some possibilities and opens others.

Here’s the question you’re left with. Are the possibilities of a high-intensity lifestyle of energy consumption better overall then the possibilities of low-intensity energy production? Is the worst of one better than the best of the other?

Which one?

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