Friday, April 22, 2011

Simple but often overlooked point about climate change (bio)politics
...‘taking responsibility’ for the management of ... global ecological emergency actually means holding in abeyance the ethical and political concerns of all those excluded from participation in decisions upon which their survival supposedly depends. In this sense, ‘taking global responsibility’ is really a morally charged euphemism for arbitrarily extending the institutional sovereignty conferred by a technologically advanced nation on a self proclaimed scientific elite in a way that takes political power away from all others.
- Mick Smith 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Three objections to nuclear power after Fukushima

My claim to expertise: Part of my honours thesis was a comparative study of conceptions of 'scientific citizenship' that developed from radioactive waste disposal controversies in Sweden, the USA and Australia.

The failure of cooling systems at Fukushima has already been classified by the International Atomic Energy Agency as the third worst incident in nuclear history after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

Many pixels have been lit over this issue already, much of which follows the predictable splits along socially conservative and liberal politics one might imagine.  Nuclear power is perhaps the ultimate conservative political device because of its long lead times in construction and decommissioning and unique reliance on state legitimacy through various legislative and political provisions. Thus, a few points need to be reiterated in the face of patronising calls for 'an informed public' and rallying cries by pro-nukes to unmask 'liars'.

1. Expertise in nuclear physics does not equate to expertise in radiation dispersion. At the level of philosophy of science, all the greatest excesses of Western Science are embodied in nuclear physics: true representations of nature, an ignorant and/or irrational public that must be disciplined; in short, epistemology where 'just the facts' must first be known, then people can form a rational opinion about the topic.

But nuclear physics is not nuclear engineering and nuclear engineering is not radiation science.

Damage at Fukushima may thus far be confined to reactor core and containment structures but they don't exactly have a camera in there, and there are a number of risks that must be honestly dealt with. Many nuclear advocates have bet the proverbial farm on the integrity of containment, and a full meltdown seems unlikely. (for that scenario, see Joe Romm).

It's worth noting here that once highly radioactive cesium and iodine elements are released into the environment, entirely separate bodies of knowledge are needed to deal with their movement. Because such releases are relatively rare, knowledge about the movement of radiation through the atmosphere, soils, plants and animals is basically a form of bricolage. Field testing radiation leakage models would hardly pass any Ethic Committee, so risk management of public health radiation is based on extrapolations and models that deserve public scrutiny. We're in the terrain of what Bruno Latour calls 'matters of concern', rather than 'matters of fact' here (see. eg. The Union of Concerned Scientists)

This isn't to say science should be suppressed or excluded - it's indispensable to eventually addressing those matters of concern: For example, Ben Sandilands has noted that:
This morning there was an elevated radiation level emergency declared at the Onagawa nuclear plant, which comprises three reactors, and is 120 kilometres from the NE outskirts of Tokyo, compared to about 240km for the nearest Fukushima plant. These fluctuations at Onagawa are now attributed to fallout from the Fukushima “releases” which is not comforting to those in Tokyo or elsewhere in Japan but is an inevitably that adds to the far more visible and immediate aftermaths of the tsunami.
Yeah, sorry - once this has happened, Barry Brook's credentials are no better than mine.* [Update: here's his latest update]

2. Nuclear institutions have a poor record of disclosure. One of the reasons earlier incidents were so damaging was that authorities were incredibly secretive about what was happening. Nuclear physics brings with it a completely impoverished sociology of trust: people are assumed to either hold or not hold information about a topic. The only role of science is to fill any perceived void there. This is the 'deficit model' of scientific citizenship.

In reality, as much key science studies work has shown, this 'deficit model' is an ideological fiction. Local publics have sophisticated models of trust about science and technology built from many sources - they parse the interests behind official reports of incidents in a rational manner.

Brian Wynne's classic study of Cumbrian Sheep farmers after the Chernobyl disaster exemplifies the need to be attentive to local specifics. The main point from that study was that the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant was nearby and a bunch of accidents were covered up. As a result, local farmers held little trust of nuclear authorities. When the Chernobyl meltdown occurred, authorities used a set of crude models to determine how long it would take the radioactive elements to decay around local farms. They basically messed this up, using models that assumed a dry soil, rather than wet clay. In the meantime, the stories fed to farmers were revised, information withheld and they were basically screwed around.

The bottom line is that regulatory science should (but for obvious institutional reasons rarely does) have a dose of humility.

3. Energy policy is a political matter: Nuclear scientists might dream of a linear process from 'science to society' (energy 'too cheap to meter' from the 'peaceful atom'), but energy policy is not just a logical problem to be solved according to a set of mathematical principles. Planning requires these, but they're not sufficient. Nuclear power carries with it the authority of science, but requires the social legitimacy of democratic institutions. For better or worse, Sweden placed a moratorium on further nuclear power plants following the (US) Three Mile Island incident. Such decisions must be respected if made in a fair way.

Nuclear power plants have political consequences insofar as they are part of inflexible technological networks with incredibly long lead times, incorporating mining, reprocessing, disposal and electricity transmission. This is of course a criticism that could be made against other energy technologies. It is only by suppressing the political consequences of nuclear engineering (of which there are many! - this post hasn't even mentioned weapons proliferation) that one can claim an expert 'unbiased'. And that's a recipe for a debilitated public sphere.

Some notable Science and Technology Studies Scholarship on nuclear issues:
Gabrielle Hecht's brilliant 2008 book The Radiance of France
Brian Wynne's classic 1996 study May the sheep graze safely?

*There's an interesting SSK case study on nuclear power advocacy and disciplinary training. Flannery and Barry Brook are both geologists and deal with extremely long time scales in their daily work. Thus a few thousand year half-life is a proverbial blink.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Germaine Greer on Qldfloods:
The colour of the water reveals a terrible truth. What is being washed downstream is topsoil. The water moves so rapidly because so much of the land has been cleared. Any wooded land will be, like mine, high in the catchment. As long ago as 1923, Sydney Skertchly, an Englishman who had been working for the Queensland government as a geologist before he retired to what is now the Gold Coast suburb of Molendinar, pointed out that rain that fell in the upper part of the Nerang river catchment that used to take five days to reach him on the coastal plain at Molendinar, now reached him in five hours. When the settlers first arrived on the coast of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, the rivers were navigable. As the "scrubs" (the settlers' way of referring to rainforest) were ripped out, the seasonal rains carried the topsoil into the rivers, which silted up and then began to flood.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Stengers on what is special about science

Isabelle Stengers' defence of scientific autonomy in the Speculative Turn volume is also a beautiful and blistering attack on 'the knowledge economy', constructivist science studies and culture warrior epistemologists:
Taking seriously the singularity of experimental practices also leads us to understand the strong possibility of their destruction by the coming knowledge economy. The point is not that the scientific enterprise would lose a neutrality it never had. From the beginning, experimental scientists have taken an active, and even entrepreneurial, part in industrial and commercial development. What is at risk is rather the very social fabric of scientific reliability, that is, the constitutive relation between an experimental achievement and the gathering of what can be called ‘competent colleagues’, colleagues assembled by the question of verifying, objecting, of putting to the test the eventual power of an experimental fact to force agreement by silencing other possible interpretations. Such a social fabric emphatically does not ensure anything about propositions that have failed, for whatever reason, to become a matter of collective practical concern. But it relates the reliability of the consensus about an experimental scientific proposition to such a collective concern, to the critical attention of colleagues who will use their imagination to test and criticize a claim, whatever its interest and promises.
This quite specific social fabric will be destroyed when scientists as practitioners do not depend upon each other any longer, but are tied instead to competing industrial interests. It becomes then a matter of survival to confirm the kind of promises that attracted the appetites of investors, and to produce patentable results. As the future of those results is independent of concerned colleagues, what will prevail is the general wisdom that you do not saw off the branch on which you are sitting together with everybody else. Nobody will then object too much, if objecting against a scientific argument may lead to a general weakening of the promises of a field. This amounts to saying that, with the knowledge economy, we may have scientists at work everywhere, producing facts with the speed that new sophisticated instruments make possible, but that the way those facts are interpreted will now mostly follow the landscape of settled interests. In other words, the deconstructivist-eliminativist view will then be fully verified. We will more and more deal with instrumental knowledge. But the verification will not result from the deconstructivist’s daring perceptiveness, but from the fact that capitalism will have destroyed yet another practice, just as it is an ongoing process of destruction of the commons...
My proposition is that we do not accept at face value the scientists’ complaint that rationality is under attack, that the economy should stop and respect the temple of disinterested science, but that we take seriously the fact that rejecting scientists’ complaints on those grounds itself leaves the field free for their destruction. Indeed, it justifies it, even if regretfully. My point is that there is no practice the destruction of which cannot be justified, either by the privileges they benefited, or by their alienating archaism, or by their closure and resistance to change, but all those reasons, if they amount to justifying why destruction is not a cause for struggle, also amount to giving free elbowroom to capitalism in its ongoing destructive redefinition of the world. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Pollution, Economics and STS Ngrams

My turn for some Ngrams (with the disclaimers about interpreting the results pointed out by Andrew Norton in mind).  First up we have the rise of the term 'pollution' in the 1960s, against 'nuisance', 'smog' and 'smoke' - the operative terms of 19th.  Lots of interesting things about this one. Rise of 'smoke' and 'nuisance' with Industrialization in the 19th Century, then its replacement with Pollution, primarily in the United States with the New Social Movements.  It was during the post-war welfare states that power generation and heavy industries moved away from population centres, used higher chimneys (leading to Acid Rain)

Second, Environemental Economics as a discipline co-inciding more or less with the oil shocks.  Their contributions to concepts of market failure and externalities would appear to be more modest than expected.  The peak in citations of Acid Rain gives Environmental Economics a shot in the arm and criticisms of 'Neoliberalism' follow.  I'm not suggesting a strong causal relationship between the last two, just noting the lag

And finally some discipline-specific musings

Stavins the heaviest hitter of Neoclassical Environmental Economics vs. Larry Lohmann - the standard bearer of Polanyian critique of capitalism and elite regimes of accumulation.  Astonishingly, Stavins has confessed on his blog to never having read Lohmann's work.

On to Science and Technology Studies.  Latour the clear winner here with Simon Schaffer a distant second

And some notable women in the field.  Haraway and Sandra Harding leading the field.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Review: What's Mine Is Your's

This is a book review of What's Mine is Your's by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers. After seeing Botsman speak at TEDxSydney, I requested a review copy from the publisher.

Waste, or non-useful expenditure, is central to understanding the value of things and the cultural circuits in which they travel.  In neoliberal discourse, waste operates as an accusation of lost economic value in some piece of policy – it stands as a zero degree of value or in excess of the useful.As Will Davies has noted, 
The left has liked to define itself as being more favourably-inclined to state-led policy solutions than market-led ones. The former are indeed a better guarantee of equality of outcome. But the left has also conned itself that the state operates with a sunnier view of human nature than the market. In fact, the logic that operates in public policy formation is ultimately the same as that which operates in the marketplace. Human beings are assumed to be rational utility-maximisers, and resources are allocated to achieve the maximum aggregate utility.

Wasteful expenditure, as the counterpart to utility, therefore, is central to life itself. And yet a science of use remains elusive. From choice of clothing to cars, beverages and smartphone operating systems, displays of use are infinitely subtle games that perform our membership in social categories.  These games cannot be reduced to units of use and measured as such, even if such units are derived from them.  John Frow has suggested that such systems of symbolic use, apparently supplementary to the norms of the rational calculation of utility that dominate political economy, may in fact render those norms unworkable.  In Frow's account, Thorstein Veblen recognized invidious displays of wasteful use – conspicuous consumption - as  the very stuff of class: an assertion of one’s free time from wage labour.  Veblen attempted to revive a functionalism from such displays.  He aimed to square the Progressive era aristocratic excesses he observed with codes of reputability using primordial distinctions of productive (female) and honorable (male) work.  Bordieu stresses the ways in which social distinction is 'gamed' - even a withdrawal from playing games (for example by labelling it 'hipster' or 'bogan') is a social group marker.  In this way, 'socially responsible businesses' are a contradiction in terms - operating between, rather than across, social divisions.

Putting these contradictions aside, for a moment, Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers’ book ‘What’s Mine Is Your’s’ seeks to fuse some of these divisions, promising a new mode of consumption that promotes harmony, rather than division.  There are two moral point of departure for the book.  Firstly, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (or 'recent changes to our economic landscape' as described on the back cover).  The GFC was, of course, at least partially caused by the systematic abstraction of working class status anxiety into equities.  Secondly, the Great Pacific Garbage patch.  The authors then go on to attack other evils of the current economic model: unsustainable resource usethe Diderot effect, Mad Men/Bernays style psychologically manipulative marketing, the paradox of choice, and increasing anomie and isolation.  The objective is "a healthier more sustainable system with a more fulfilling goal than ‘more stuff.’" As Rob Horning notes in his incisve review essay, the authors aim to step into the breach here, outlining a new model of consumption that "... internalizes ideas that have long animated attacks on consumerism, promising to turn them inside out. The new consumerism is not competitive but collaborative; not isolating but unifying; not massified but local; not authoritarian but entrepreneurial and empowering; not wasteful but conservative in the noblest sense of the word."  In short, not the rivalrous emulation that ‘the ponzi scheme of the last 200 years of industrial civilization has been built upon.’

This sheer breadth of activities and organizations that the authors label as forms of Collaborative Consumption are ringfenced by a number of concepts to ensure the term doesn't lapse into general analysis of the sociality of economic exchange: critical mass, idling capacity, belief in the commons and trust between strangers. I’ll deal with the first two of these before turning to the issue of trust, ‘the commons’ and expertise. 'Critical mass' is a quasi-natural process taken from Malcolm Gladwell to refer to the amount of choice available in a 'Collaborative Consumption' alternative to conventional shopping or other modes of consumption.  For example, there needs to be enough bike hiring nodes spread across a wide enough distance to make a bike sharing scheme attractive.  The authors argue that experiments with these schemes in the US seem to have been more successful than in European cities where networks have been too small, and/or the bikes systems lack technologies to prevent theft or absconding.  The concept of 'Idling Capacity' is used to implore readers to look around them for spare things that could be useful to others.  The average drill is used for just 20 minutes in its lifetime, yet there are 50 million of them in the United States.  ‘You need the hole, not the drill.’ ... which begs the question of whether you also need the Van Gogh print you'll be hanging from the hook that goes in the hole.

The authors explore three forms in which such an idle drill – or bike, car, or even silverware – could be mobilized.  Each of them operates in adversarial tension to a cultural form of consumption.  Firstly, they explore ‘Product Service Systems’ such as Zipcar or the Australian equivalent GoGet.  These are largely privately run and essentially compete with conventional care hire companies by having available cars nearby residents.  Users pay membership fees and for the time they use the cars.  The authors argue that by ‘moving our relationship with things from ownership to use, options to satisfy our needs, whether it be for travel, leisure, work food or children increase.’  The Enthusiast explored in the work of Glen Eventmechanics Fuller may have a different opinion of this particular model.

The second model is ‘Redistribution Markets’ in which the burden of wasted or idle stuff is liberated, usually through either non-commercial ‘noticeboard’ sites like Freecycle, Gumtree or commercial operations like eBay.  The authors also list a tonne of niche swap community sites (MakeupAlley, anyone?).   It’s not clear what is ‘collaborative’ about these sites – the authors don’t ever quite say.  My own experience with eBay is anything but collaborative - it is indeed my own self interest that leads to  decisions to sell old camera gear, for example.  This decision comes with very clearly delineated by rules about what is on offer, my advice and, likely, my relationship with the seller.  The cultural category these markets operate against is the Hoarder, well described by Jodi Dean in this fascinating and evocative post.  

The final, and most tenuous, category of ‘Collaborative Consumption’ outlined by the authors is ‘Collaborative Lifestyles’: organizations dedicated to sharing workspaces, goods, skills, parking spaces, travel (AirBnb, Couchsurfing).  Again, it is not clear how the most prominent of these organizations are ‘Collaborative’, rather than simply a counter-cyclical extension of capital into home economies as national economies suffer through the crisis wrought by Zombie policies.  AirBnB, for example, is a startup business that aims to compete with hotels by encouraging people to rent out spare rooms or even whole properties.  Indeed, AirBnB’s is the entrepreneurial success story that begins the book.  The startup now  has the character of a full scale corporate operation, with a new ‘collections’ branding that represent exactly the kind of marketing to social distinction that animated cultural critics like Veblen and Bordieu.

And this is precisely where sociological critiques of the concept of Collaborative raised by Rob Horning bite.  The struggle with ownership over things versus things owning us identified by critics from Nietzsche to Chuck Palinuik are recast as a fun opportunity to interact with others.  As Horning’s notes of the contradiction of ‘Collaborative Lifestyles’:  "The theoretical underpinnings for the redistribution (not of income or wealth, mind you, just the stuff you already wish you could get rid of) are a sentimental communitarianism fused with a Hayekian faith in spontaneous order... Sharing isn’t simply caring anymore; it’s becoming an alienated system for proving your trustworthiness, your willingness to play ball."  AirBnB, of course, could not operate without eBay style reputation metrics that will undoubtedly require analogous security and verification apparatuses.

It would be too easy to follow Horning’s lead and spend the rest of the review cynically criticizing the authors’ revival of ‘old time virtues’ (sic) through stories of efficiency gains made by benevolent capitalists.  Instead, I think it’s more valuable to (re)turn to the implications for public policy viz. trust and ‘commons’, and specifically its implications for climate policy.

Botsman, a highly articulated speaker, has visited Number 10 to outline implications for Collaborative Consumption to the Coalition government.  And it’s easy to see why there’d be a receptive audience for her ideas given the Neoliberals transformation of Whitehall deftly documented by Davies.  As Davies argues, Policy Utilitarianism has mostly been a clandestine operation – pursuing aggregate welfare increases with no regard to means.  For example, if there is evidence of decreased road tolls near churches, an entire secular machinery will offer religious tax credits to stimulate building more churches.

As Davies notes, these sorts of policies may be very successful in the aggregate, but unfortunately the view of ‘the aggregate’ is a view from nowhere, cannot be easily communicated and is susceptiable to the criticisms of Price Theory. For example, WRAP is a QUANGO established with the promise of ‘transforming waste to riches’ by pursuing productivity gains in government, households and corporations.  It’s not hard to see how individual focused organizations of Collaborative Consumption would perform ‘resource efficiency’ better than a government agency.  As Marx recognized well, prices function within capitalist systems to stimulate technological innovation; Chicago School economists like Coase saw prices everywhere, generalizing them to human behaviour beyond the marketplace.  The question for policy makers, therefore, became less what was worthwhile and more what could be demonstrated to provide maximum welfare gains in this abstract sense.

The appeal of CollCons is that it preserves Coase’s fascination with ‘transaction costs’ (indeed, in a characteristically broad and frustratingly facile generalization declares them ‘Collapsed’ in a 1.5 page section of Chapter 4) but provides the resources to generalize the problem of market failure into every nook and cranny of the house.  This would be receptive to Whitehall because the ‘collaborative’ label addresses policy-makers problems communicating the welfare enhancing character of alienating calculative systems whilst preserving their ability to act as centralized operators of welfare maximization.  This is where the generation of numbers of different kinds through acts of consumption appeals enormously to policy makers, for reasons I’ve explored elsewhere.  Fwiw, their use of the work of Mark Granovetter here deserves scrutiny but space forbids it.

Numbers represent the archetypal fact upon which bureaucratic authority is founded, and it’s in the generation of numbers that Botsman and Rogers’ faith in free enterprise may conflict with their concern about the global commons of the atmosphere and climate change.

Climate Policy since the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol have framed national emissions quotas, monitoring systems and transaction logs to keep track of emissions.  Most national governments have simply handed their emissions quotas to their largest polluting facilities and established their emission reduction commitments accordingly.  It’s clear that if we’re to have any chance whatsoever of closing the emissions/policy gap, relying on entrepreurial ‘Collaborative’ systems alone will not be enough.
For example, BCycle, currently operating in many US Cities, embodies the kind of successful, socially responsible 'Product Service System' that may come to play an important role in climate policy in the coming decades.  Indeed, the authors attack suggestions that the current crop of Generation X entrepreneurs are 'valueless' - rather they're 'changing the world' .  Botsman and Rogers stress that CollCons systems like bike and car sharing must consider the relative and marginal benefits of a particular service in relation to other transport options.  BCycle appears to have successfully incorporated design failures that have plagued EUropean bike sharing schemes - their nodes are close to sites of use, rather than restricted to just the centre of town like Copenhagen; they can be tracked and booked online and require a membership, rather than just the insertion of a coin.  Furthermore - and this is where it may get interesting - it tracks your mileage and also provides a figure of 'carbon offsets'

This is the collision between these new enterprises and existing forms of ('public') expert systems will be interesting to watch.  What Donald Mackenzie has termed the 'techno-politics' of climate change exists in the material calculative devices like the ones used to track BCycle bikes.  What baseline assumptions are made transport usage of the riders?  Is this a voluntary disclosure or checked against car ownership records?  How big a car do they own?  Who will get credit for these offsets?  (The collapse of the Chicago Climate Exchange suggests they're unlikely to find a market in the voluntary sector, so how will these figures be used by official authorities?)

These questions are where the 'game' like character of social life theorized by Veblen and Bordieu intersect with policy decisions relevant to 'caring for the commons'.  Expertise will be required to reassure concerned publics that their 'collaborative' efforts are not wasted.  The question is how this reassurance can take place and by whom - and these are political questions irreducible to acts of consumption, collaborative or otherwise.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Stavins on the death of carbon cap-and-trade

The guy essentially made his career promoting the idea.  The money quote
But climate change is distinctly different [to the Clean Air and Water Regulation of the 1970s]. Unlike the environmental threats addressed successfully in past legislation, climate change is essentially unobservable. You and I observe the weather, not the climate. Until there is an obvious and sudden event -- such as a loss of part of the Antarctic ice sheet leading to a disastrous sea-level rise -- it's unlikely that public opinion in the United States will provide the bottom-up demand for action that has inspired previous Congressional action on the environment over the past forty years.