Thursday, May 2, 2013

"Infinite Resource: Ramez Naam, neolibearalism and collective passivity.

In his recent book, The Infinite Resource, Ramez Naam examines the global resource depletion and comes away with a simple solution: innovation.  “The most valuable resource on earth is not oil, gold, water or land,” he says.  “Instead, our capacity for expanding human knowledge is our greatest resource, and the key to overcoming the very real resource scarcity and enormous environmental challenges we face”  Unfortunately, Naam's arguments distill a narrative of mass passivity, a culture of communal non interference that allows a privileged few to dictate the planets future in limited, neoliberal terms.  

Naam philosophy is one of unmitigated growth.  In a recent article for I09, he argues that economic growth is a moral requirement.  “Roughly one billion people alive today on the planet have access to automobiles, air conditioners, and central heat. The other six billion do not. Two billion lack access to a toilet,” he says.  “A path forward that doesn't allow room for billions to rise out of poverty and to at least this modicum of comfort is not a very appealing one.”  The suggestion here being, of course, that it would be unthinkable for the developed world to cut back on their inherently consumptive life styles.  Our industrialized society is a foregone conclusion.  To question it would be sacrosanct.  To impose it upon the entire world and expect positive results is seen as progress.      

Naam's argument for this is that, through "innovation", global capitalism can continue unfettered, its current environmental and resource demands met by many of the solutions most often championed in this brand of free market futurism: a worldwide shift to solar power, vertical farming, fewer children per mother.  He even provides helpful, easy to read charts, such as this one provided by the World Bank.

In illustrating a statistical point with the faces of three, unidentified children of African descent, images like these lay unspoken blame on the dark skinned people of the global south.  If we can just get the Africans to stop having so many babies, they suggest, then we can finally move towards progress.  It is a long standing narrative of the de-population movement, one that places the same energy value on every baby's head while ignoring the facts of energy use disparity between counties.  Naam holds up Brazil as a success story, saying, "Two generations ago, the average (Brazilian) woman had 6 children over the course of her lifetime. Now, the average woman in Brazil has just 1.8 children over her lifetime."  But when the average Brazilian relies upon just 1362 KG of oil per capita, compared to 7069 KG for a US resident, these statistics begin to ring hollow.     

For Naam, complex issues like crop yields and soil health can be reduced to a few numbers on a chart, global crisis intervention as Power Point presentation.  Naam uses the below chart to argue that, "If the world as a whole had food yields similar to those of the US, we would already have sufficient food production to meet the demand expected by 2050."

Never mind that the US' high crop yields are the end point in a long chain of energy conversion that begins with fossil fuels and ends with dependence on fertilizer.  Naam argues that we can simply just endlessly innovate our way to new nitrogen sources (ie, endlessly modify crops genes).  Never mind again a recent report from the Institute For Responsible Technology, which concludes that GMO's don't even necessarily increase yields.  Never mind also that the long term effects on soil health and water caused by the agricultural practices required to create these yields.  Naam's world is one where more is better, mechanized agriculture is a given and we only have to figure out the answers after we've already made the decision to over produce.  More accurately, we only have to wait for others to figure out how to do these things for us. 

The real heart of Naam’s philosophy emerges when he asks, “What power do we have to stop those in the developing world – where almost all the real growth is to come – from consuming more? Very little.”  His is a world of isolated pockets of intellectual power, where progress comes solely through more efficient lithium batteries.  For him, “A world where growth is over is not a world we’re very likely to enjoy,” and where things like resistance and communal activism are futile against the established systems of power, if they are considered at all.

One must assume that Naam is aware of the kind of community resistance taking place around the globe from Nigeria to Appalachia.  But, just to highlight one hot button issue, it is uncertain how he feels communities should respond to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.  Does this fit into his idea of progress?  Or are environmentally dangerous projects such as this one simply the licks we have to take while we wait helplessly for innovation to save us?  Is he volunteering to wave a solar panel at the Canadian Tar Sands until those involved trade in their pipelines for Priuses?    

The implications of Naam’s narrative are disturbing, suggesting a posture of mass passivity. Placing “innovation” as the flagship for global solutions places the burden on the innovators, the educated and the wealthy who already have the greatest degree of scientific and academic access.  It is a Randian view, in which a small group of special creatives are tasked with the responsibility of everyone else’s salvation.  Over simplified scientific arguments aside, it tells us that the extent of our involvement in the planet’s future can be limited to the simple knowledge that the scientists will save us.  

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