Islands of unsustainability

John Rawls’s (1971) notion of national self-sufficiency in terms of resources is about as far from our current globalized world as we can get, in terms of theory aimed at non-ideal applications. Globalization is a fact of life. And yet, with each displacement in our life, we have expended more and more energy to have a never-ending commodity change for each product stretched across the globe, on call and ready at hand for our whim to flick a switch and watch, do, or order something.

Just this week, a new study is out showing that our music streaming, from services such as Spotify and Apple Music, are in fact, creating billowing clouds of greenhouse gasses, leading to more destruction even as we have “virtualized” the materiality of music listening. The cloud–which after all just means storing your data on somebody else’s computers/servers and accessing it via satellite or cable/fiber-optics–is an expensive process to maintain, after all. It turns out that “owning” your own stuff in a place-based location (on your device) makes much more sense ecologically, than having it distributed all over the world and calling it in on a regular basis.

Rawls’ (1999: 39 and 106–7) aim for polity self-sufficiency suggests that a polity may not inflict negative environmental externalities on other polities, and yet, that is what the top 20% economically are doing to the bottom 80%. We (the royal, cosmopolitan, globalized western “we”) are happy to live a fabulous lifestyle as long as the carnage from our consumption are pushed out of sight and out of mind. This is precisely what Ulrich Beck refers to as the “distanciation” of the effects of our actions.

But what allows us to maintain this unsustainability is not that the top 20% don’t care about the consequences, but that we have bought into a sort of exceptionalism that suggests that we and our loved ones will be spared from the worst of the environmental fall-out. We’ve bought into American Exceptionalism Gone Wild–the rampant idea that somehow – through wealth, technology, national identity, gender, race, etc. – that we will be spared. That we are God’s Chosen One’s and can stick out our tongue and thumb our nose at the rest of the world. (Of course, such performances of behavior, implicit or explicit, prove that such people absolutely have no concept of god or powers beyond themselves.) In other words, there is a certain strata of the population, that truly believes that they will get off scot-free by cheating: barraging the world with their waste without having to clean it up or other pay for it. It is the ultimate planetary intergenerational ponzi scheme.

It is also the ultimate abdication of responibility. As we hash out details (what Freud referred to as the “narcissism of minor differences”), the world burns. And elites are quite happy about it too. Because then no nation or their people or leader has to be responsible, and can carry on with the charade. As Elinor Ostrom writes:

“Reducing emissions now is more urgent than reaching an international agreement to reduce emissions by a given percentage, which might not be achieved for some time into the future. We do not face a situation where little harm is caused by overuse until we pass a given threshold, as may be the case with some renewable resources” (2010, 28; italics in original, bold added). No, what is at stake is the world, and nothing less. Fly, eat meat, and burn fossil fuels at your own expense, with each joule and calorie added to you account. There is no pawning off our responsibility any longer.

(Also See Bruno Latour’s Down To Earth and Michele Serre’ The Parasite)