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.
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.
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?