Author Archives: Tristan


It has become apparent to me during my time as a contributor to BuryCoal that there is a deep divergence between Milan and myself in the way we understand climate change putting a moral demand on us. Looking back at my posts, they tend to thematize advocating for climate mitigation within a broader context of care and concern for political causes. This is most apparent in recent posts such as “The Poverty of Care” and “Imperialism and moral obligation“, but traces back to early posts as well, most notably “Setting Priorities in Social Activism“. I would summarize the position put forth in those posts roughly as such: while I am willing to accept the notion of climate change as imposing a moral demand that in a sense “transcends” our other duties, I do not accept the notion that concern for climate change simply allows us to ignore political oppression or the everyday atrocity of our treatment of non-human sentient beings.

Continue reading

The Poverty of Care

Walter Benjamin gave us this passage on the moral situation of man in the modern world:

The face of the angel of history is turned toward the past.  Where we perceived a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.  The storm is what we call progress.

The Angel stands not for the perspective of a particular person, but the moral zeitgeist of our time.  Its concern is the redemption of history – the making of a just world in our shared future that would in some sense justify the “single catastrophe” of our past. But the Angel is incapacitated, blown forward by the winds of progress. Benjamin is right to make this evocation – the supernatural belief in growth and progress does stifle our ability to address the catastrophe as the debris piles skyward. And it’s easy to see this, for instance, in our society’s idea of the “impossible”: nothing is technically impossible, science is the impossible becoming possible. Politically, however, almost everything but the most simple and slight reforms are impossible. And why is there no similar hope, openness for political change as there is for technological innovation? Certainly one reason is the fear that political change would compromise technological innovation. Those with an interest in technical innovation and growth, i.e. capital, have a good reason to oppose destabilizing political change. Another reason, perhaps the greater reason, is the fear of political transformation due to the violence associated with revolution, and the worry that a new state would be as bad, or worse as the existing one. And these are genuine fears – the French revolution was indeed bloody, and the USSR never moved beyond a paralyzing system of secret police repression and state control over capital (it was in no way “socialist” because workers did not control production).

Continue reading

Open Thread: What would Zero or Negative-Growth Capitalism look like?

If we acknowledge that the world is approaching an apocalyptic zero point, where capital accumulation has become more and more so many bad loans or scraps of paper being traded back and forth – it is time to seriously rethink capitalism. There are many alternatives, but one which we might consider is the idea of a capitalism where growth no longer exists. What would this look like?

It seems to me that one way of having a zero or negative growth economy where investment still allocated capital efficiently would be to set inflation quite high. This would encourage investment (since holding onto money would not increase its value), and if the inflation rate were set above the mean rate of return on investment, the growth rate could remain negative without stopping investment. Investors would all be willing to lose money on accumulated capital – since this would be better than losing even more through inflation.

However, I think this would create problems of commodity-hoarding. Rather than hoard money, one could simply hoard beans or gold. The commodity, if the demand were stable enough, would return up to a 0% net growth rate – better than investing could do.

For this reason, a no-growth yet healthy capitalist economy seems implausible – but I’m open to suggestions!

Report Back: CJM Workshop on “Landed Resistance: How Land Rights Struggles Fight Climate Change”

Today I had the privilege of attending a workshop put on by Climate Justice Montreal at McGill University on the issues of land, resistance, and climate change. The workshop facilitated active participation to draw out the participants own ideas of their own name, lineage and family history, and encouraged them to compare that history with the narrative structures “Canadian History” is given in the state school system. The power of narrative was stressed – the idea that society is not made up of matter or even institutions but primarily of stories which we tell ourselves, tell our children, and are told by those who have something to gain by our believing them. The framework of narrative power enabled the group to criticize their own ideas of their own history, and reclaim a more genuine grasp on the relationship between their personal history and the social narratives which structure the way that history is expressed in dominant social stories.

To give a specific example, the idea of the “hard working farmers who came here because they wanted to” was critiqued. The example of Irish immigration to make this case is particularly poignant: Ireland was depopulated in the 19th century through a purposeful genocide, in order to encourage immigration to North America. In other words – many Irish immigrants did not come “to seek a better life in a new land”, but because their old life had been strategically destroyed by a colonialist power. Ireland itself was a feudal state where the British had installed Ulster-Scots as the ruling people – to dominate and oppress the Irish while themselves being second-class compared to their English masters. The Irish who then arrived in Canada were largely directed towards the United States, because social darwinist theory of the time asserted that Eastern Europeans were harder workers – and Canadian colonial services preferred to install Polish and German immigrants as prairie farmers.

Continue reading

Imperialism and Moral Obligation: (not) Apologizing for Crimes Against Humanity

Milan keeps telling me that we should not confuse the problem of climate change with every single other issue the left concerns itself with – both because of the fear of climate activism being discredited through its association with other issues about which there may actually be two sides, and because it misses the transcendental nature of climate change with respect to other tragedies: if we don’t have a climate, there is no world in which we can fight for justice. And that’s fair enough – one might imagine an alternative version of Al Gore’s “Mmmm I’d just like to have some of those gold bars” with a scale whose pretence is to weigh the entire planet against the precariousness of migrant workers, or the suffering of populations directly caused by US aggression. I’ve responded to these points mostly by attempting to show that democratization of some sort seems the most promising possibility for passing climate mitigation.

Continue reading

Zizek and the paradoxical position of activism today

Activism today seems caught in a stalemate with itself. While the Battle of Seattle founded a generation of direct-action, anti-organizational chaotic intervention against neo-liberal world government meetings, they’ve failed to gain mass public support. For reasons which have been understood for decades, the media is excellent at not getting messages through which are damaging to corporate power in general, media organizations themselves being private tyrannies. And since liberals are scared to death of any acts which might provoke disorder (they are followers of Burke rather than Rousseau), there is little hope in convincing them through rational argument (although I’ll continue to try). But on the other hand, purely peaceful protests seem increasingly ineffective, and geared towards the personal satisfaction of those involved, rather than social or political transformation. Zizek holds something like this position with regards the 2003 anti-war in Iraq rallies:

The massive demonstrations against the US attack on Iraq back in 2003 were exemplary of a strange symbiotic relationship, parasitism even, between power and the anti-war protesters. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protestors saved their beautiful souls – they had made it clear that they did not agree with the government’s policy on Iraq – while those in power could calmly accept it, even profit from it: not only did the protests do nothing to prevent the (already decided upon) attack on Iraq, paradoxically, they even provided additional legitimaization for it, best rendered by none of than George Bush, whose reaction to the mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London was: “You see, this is what we are fighting for: so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!”

Quite clearly, Bush had no interest in allowing the popular demonstration to affect his government’s policy. The public are allowed to have their say precisely because their say is meaningless. Compare this to a dictatorship – this kind of huge public display is not allowed (and is in fact violently suppressed), not because a dictator hates free speech, but because in that context free speech is actually a danger to his power. In the US, the overwhelming mores of civil obedience means the state does not have to worry that such a huge public demonstration will move towards the kind of insurrection which would enable actually changing the government’s policy.

Continue reading

When Elites Threaten the Future: Peter the Great, Democracy and Climate Change

In late 17th century Imperial Russia, Peter the Great sought to modernize his country – adapt the modern ways of the west, and put down the old backwards which held his country in the dark ages. A major force for backwardness in his kingdom were the Boyars. The Boyars were the highest rank of the ancient feudal aristocracies in Russia – dating back to the 10th century. They grew their beards long, liked their streets narrow and were opposed to the adoption of Western ways and new technology.

From Russian Project

Peter’s solution was to establish the Table of Ranks. The Table of Ranks disconnected the titles of the Aristocracy from the land they possessed and from their lineage – it was now tied directly to services they performed for the Empire. Instituting mandatory civil service for the Aristocracy was beneficial in two ways – first, the nobles were highly occupied trying to one-up each other to increase their rank, so as to be less able to organize their common forces and threaten the authority of the monarch. And second, it provided Peter with an army of bureaucrats organized in hierarchical institutions which he set himself atop, which could organize and carry out the westernizing reforms that would bring Russia into the modern European world. As a side benefit, it inculcated the idea of meritocracy into the Russian noble mindset.

Continue reading

Weather Control

As Climate Change increases the amount of energy in the atmosphere, the strength and regularity of major weather events will increase. This, along with the general pleasantness of the survival of the human species, should motivate humanity to devote significant resources towards mitigating climate change. Of the many ways we are failing to respond adequately to the challenge which climate change presents, one is the underfunding of Weather Control research which might reduce the effects of Hurricanes. According to the US global change research program:

Based on a range of models, it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with ongoing increases of tropical SSTs.

Weather Control is normally associated with cloud seeding for rain. However, human interaction with weather events has also been used in attempts to reduce the strength of major storms. Beginning in 1962 the United States Government ran Project StormFury. Roughly, the hypothesis behind StormFury was to lace the inner wall of the eye of the hurricane with silver iodide, causing latent heat to be released through snow. The hypothesis failed, however, because similar structural changes were observed in both seeded and unseeded hurricanes. The project was officially cancelled in 1983.

While research on storm weather control has largely been pushed outside the field of mainstream science, there are several promising ideas, each of which might reduce the strength of a Hurricane. In order for a Hurricane to form, surface ocean temperature must be at least 26.5 degrees centigrade – and during Hurricane Katrina, ocean surface temperature was 30 degrees! Reducing sea surface temperature at the site of a hurricane could significantly reduce the strength of a Hurricane. One way of doing this is with a wave powered pump – like this one named “the salter sink“. Backed by Bill Gates, the pump, if deployed in sufficient numbers, could reduce ocean surface temperature. According to Scientific American,

The idea is that hundreds of these floating wave-powered seawater pumps would be deployed year-round in areas, such as the eastern tropical Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, where hurricanes typically spawn or grow in intensity. (The devices would not, as widely speculated, be deployed only in the path of a hurricane that already formed.)

A possible side benefit to the installation of these pumps could be increased biological productivity in the tropical seas were they are deployed, because nutrients from deeper parts of the ocean would be brought to within 100 meters of the surface, the deepest that sunlight can penetrate and power the photosynthetic plankton that are the base of the ocean food chain”. However, Ricardo Letelier has pointed out that increasing the available nutrient levels in oceans can have unpredictable results:

If you were to keep the pumps running continuously…you may allow phytoplankton to bloom….If you do it for too long, you get a successional pattern where grazers take over and recycle nutrients. And that’s one of the problems we’ve had with iron fertilization experiments—the response of biological systems are not linear.

Worse, Letelier warns that deep ocean waters contain higher levels of dissolved C02 than surface water because deceased plankton sink. Therefore, mixing the two layers of ocean might lead to a significant CO2 transfer from the largest carbon sink (the ocean) to the open air.

The difficulties which surround weather control, therefore, quickly begin to resemble the difficulties of geo-engineering. Still, I doubt we can justly afford to ignore and underfund research into weather control as we move into a century which is likely to be heavily characterized by obscene weather events.

Boycott Canada?

The Alberta Tar Sands are one of the great, if not the greatest individual environmental disaster being committed at this moment. It is certainly the greatest environmental crime in Canadian history. How Canadians respond to this reality both determines and is symptomatic of their moral character. The question is: what ought we do?

When America invaded Mexico in 1846, Henry Thoreau protested by refusing to pay a poll tax. While in jail, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”.  We might ask today, whether it is right to pay taxes to a government subsidizing such a crime as the oil sands project? And if not, are we all guilty of not being in jail?

But, not all of us are willing to go to jail for a right cause. In fact, hardly anyone is willing to act on principle or conscience when a power responds with real consequences. This is why the police strategically targeted non-violent protestors both at the G20 in Toronto, and at Montebello Quebec in the famous exposed and admitted agent provocateur incident. Given how ineffective protest based on illegal action is at engendering any kind of mass movement, we must look elsewhere for ways of exerting public pressure.

Continue reading

Government mysteriously cancels investigation into oil sands environment impact

Canwest News Services has learned:

Federal politicians from the government and opposition benches have mysteriously cancelled an 18-month investigation into oilsands pollution in water and opted to destroy draft copies of their final report.

I’m not going to go over details as to why the oil sands are an environmental disaster, or why they need to be shut down in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. Instead, I want to point out that the destruction of this report simply constitutes a flagrant disregard for the public good by the current administration – and that this absolutely should be read as a sign of extreme corruption between business and the federal government. Canadian people’s interests are not served by covering up information about the environmental effects of the oil sands. The only interests served by avoiding decreases in the marketability of oil sands which could result from the publication of this report are those connected with short term business profit.

If anyone is in possession of the “ripped up” report (what, was it made on a typewriter?) is absolutely morally required to leak the document. No oath, no promise of secrecy overrides the democratic duty of a citizen expose extreme corruption and collusion.