Climate scientists are people too

November 19, 2019

Climate scientists understand potential climate disasters, but can not accurately predict the timescales or details of how they will unfold.

Some are more sceptical than others about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but all see it as an essential outlet for their research.

When pushed to question some of the IPCC’s ludicrous assumptions on negative emissions technologies, some are readier than others to criticise.

These were my impressions from an all day conference in London yesterday, where scientists presented the IPCC’s three recent reports – on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, on oceans and ice sheets, and on land and agriculture.

All the scientists who spoke had felt a shot in the arm from the school climate strikes and

Earth, from space. No land is visible because that is the Pacific Ocean. Corinne Le Quere showed this photo at yesterday’s conference: a reminder that the oceans cover 70% of the earth’s surface

Extinction Rebellion. “People now feel the urgency in a more visceral way”, Andy Challinor of Leeds university said, opening the event.

Speakers repeatedly urged political and social action, which they are convinced can avert the worst impacts of global warming. But there was no mention of radical social change: the appeals were, rather, for “joined-up government policy”.

The event was organised by the Royal Meteorological Society of the UK. It was free to get in and open to all. There was a deluge of useful information, clearly and thoughtfully explained. (The presentations and other relevant stuff are on its web site here.)

To be honest, I could not understand why it wasn’t over-booked, and was disappointed that there were empty seats. One scientist I talked to in a coffee break saw it differently: he had Read the rest of this entry »


Getting lost on the road to communist utopia

September 3, 2019

A response to Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto by Aaron Bastani (Verso Books, 2019)

Communist utopias are the stuff of life. They have given hope, widened horizons and fired imaginations, from Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done (1863) and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) through to Woman On the Edge of Time (1985) by Marge Piercy.

So when my copy of Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto arrived, I had high hopes. They were not all realised.

There were things in Bastani’s book I really liked: his optimism, and his conviction that any communist society – that is, any society free of exploitation and hierarchy – will be based

From the front cover of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (Gollancz edition)

on material abundance. But his ideas about how this might be achieved were unconvincing.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC), he writes in the concluding chapter, is

a map by which we escape the labyrinth of scarcity and a society built on jobs; the platform from which we can begin to answer the most difficult question of all, of what it means, as [the economist John Maynard] Keynes once put it, to live ‘wisely and agreeably and well’ (p. 243).

Bastani writes that FALC, unlike the world of actually existing neoliberalism,

will not demand constant sacrifices on the altar of profit and growth. Whether it’s ‘paying down the debt for future generations’, as our politicians are so keen to repeat, or growth and rising wages always coming ‘next year’ it’s becoming ever clearer that the good times aren’t coming back. What remains absent, however, is a language able to articulate that which is both accessible and emotionally resonant.

Bastani aspires to provide that language – by identifying political principles for a movement beyond capitalism; by returning abundance to a central place in socialist Read the rest of this entry »


Tomorrow’s world, yesterday’s wages

August 31, 2019

Staff at the Science Museum in London went on strike Friday demanding a pay rise, after seven years of pay settlements below the rate of inflation.

The lowest paid staff earn less than the London living wage – while the Museum Director has had 5% a year increases for the past five years, plus an annual bonus of more than £20,000.

“Our pay has decreased by 13% in real terms in the past four years alone”, said the Prospect Union, which represents the workers

“Science Museum Group employees are among the lowest paid in the museum sector.

Unlike other national museums, SMG does not pay the Living Wage Foundation’s rate of £10.55 an hour in London and £9 an hour elsewhere.

“This year, SMG offered a pay increase of 1.5% to more than 75% of its staff – well below the rate of inflation again.”

The Science Museum is one of the great educational establishments of which London can be proud.

It is always full of school pupils – and many of the staff on strike yesterday work as Read the rest of this entry »


Technologies that multiply inequalities

December 18, 2017

Review: The Bleeding Edge: why technology turns toxic in an unequal world by Bob Hughes (Oxford: New Internationalist, 2016)

How is it that the internet – a technology with such powerful, democratic potential – hovers over us like a monster that intrudes and spies, interferes in our collective interactions and thought processes, force-feeds us corporate garbage and imposes new work disciplines? What happened?

Bob Hughes, by thinking both about how computers work and how society works, offers compelling insights about these and other questions.

One of Hughes’s riffs on technological themes starts with the Forbes web page about Marc Andreessen, one of the world’s richest men, who in 1994 released the first version online-spying.jpg.size-custom-crop.0x650of the Netscape Navigator browser. Microsoft distributed Netscape with the Windows operating system, making Andreessen an instant multi-millionaire.

When Hughes visited the page, he found 196 words of information about Andreessen (last week, when I looked, there were only 81). Hughes found (and so did I) about another 1000 words of promotional and advertising material.

Behind those words lay a HTML page with 8506 words, or 88,928 characters. The promotional material multiplied the capacity required by the page 88 times – and that was not including the graphics. Including these, the page took about three-quarters of a megabyte of memory.

In the mid 1990s, Netscape Navigator made such advertising displays easy. It allowed web pages to create “cookies” on users’ machines to monitor the information that they enter, and enabled Read the rest of this entry »


China: collective resistance against iSlavery

October 23, 2017

Review of Goodbye iSlave: a manifesto for digital abolition by Jack Linchuan Qiu (University of Illinois Press, 2016)

When 15 young workers jumped or fell from the upper floors of Foxconn’s factories in China in five months of 2010 – 13 of them to their deaths – it made international headlines. People across the world felt outrage at the oppressive working conditions in which iPhones and other high-tech products are made.

Much less well-publicised were the collective resistance movements that flowered at Foxconn and other big Chinese factories in the years following the “Suicide Express”.

In April 2012, 200 Foxconn employees at Wuhan took pictures of themselves on the factory rooftop, and circulated them on social media, along with threats to jump if the company kept ignoring their demand for a wage increase. The company backed down.

This action “differ[ed] qualitatively from individual acts of suicide. Instead, it became a collective behaviour that successfully pressurised Foxconn to increase wages”, the Hong Kong-based activist and university teacher Jack Linchuan Qiu writes in Goodbye iSlave (p. 134).

Qiu describes a world – our world – in which the latest technological devices are made by workers who are subject to dehumanising super-exploitation, and are also used by those workers in organising collective resistance to their conditions.

The main focus of the book is Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer. Its workforce of 1.4 million, mostly in China, make most i-products for Apple – including iPads, Read the rest of this entry »


Interrogating digital capitalism

July 10, 2017

The ways that capitalism uses technology as a means of control was discussed on Thursday evening in London, at a meeting organised by the Breaking the Frame collective.

The meeting was called “Interrogating Digital Capitalism”. Ursula Huws, who researches technology and labour at the University of Hertfordshire, started her talk by arguing that terms such as “digital capitalism” and “biocapitalism” are unhelpful. “I prefer to talk about capitalism”, she said.

Capitalism uses technology at each stage of its restructuring, after recurrent crises, Huws argued. She pointed to three main ways that it uses technology for social control.

■ Technology is used to “simplify and standardise work processes” and sometimes – but not always – to substitute for labour.

■ Technologies are used to control work processes, and for surveillance.

■ Technologies are used to “create new commodities, bringing new areas of human activity into alienated, commodified relationships”. This included Read the rest of this entry »


We need to talk about the Anthropocene

January 16, 2017

Working out the time-scale of the Anthropocene epoch can not be left to natural scientists, a group of researchers argued in Nature journal last month. Historians, anthropologists and others who study human society need to be brought in to the discussion, they said.

“The Anthropocene” is a now widely-used term, signifying that human welcomeactivity is changing the natural environment so profoundly that it has brought a new geological era into existence.

Among scientists, it is accepted that any precise definition would best be
rubber-stamped by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, an organisation of geologists that has overseen definitions of all geological eras.

It has an Anthropocene Working Group that has since 2009 coordinated discussions of the issue among scientists. In August last year, the group reported to the 35th International Geological Congress that it collectively Read the rest of this entry »


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