RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2013

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13 Geo-Social Formations: Capitalism and the Earth (1)
Convenor(s) Nigel Clark (Lancaster University, UK)
Kathryn Yusoff (Lancaster University)
Arun Saldanha (University of Minnesota, USA)
Chair(s) Nigel Clark (Lancaster University, UK)
Timetable Wednesday 28 August 2013, Session 1 (09:00 - 10:40)
Room Skempton Building, Room 060a
Session abstract "How are we to think the link between the social history of Capital and the much larger geological changes of the condition for life on Earth" ponders Zizek (2011: 331). While the idea of the Anthropocene is gaining currency as a way of capturing the extent of "human" impact on basal earth processes, some critical thinkers are understandably wary of a concept that smears liability for planet-scaled shifts across our entire species at the expense of identifying the specific dynamical processes driving ever-expanding reproduction. After all, when it comes to explaining other transformations of the Earth, both physical and social thinkers are more inclined to point to particular processes – such as photosynthesis, sexual reproduction, tectonic plate movement, rock weathering – than they are to isolate and target a specific being.

The Anthropocene also poses a problem for those who would interrogate capital. How does underscore capital’s ascendance as a geologic force while at the same time "denaturalising" the whole system? If capital has become a force of nature, from where and what has this forcefulness emerged or been acquired? There is no great challenge in viewing capitalism as a problem for the planet, but are we ready yet to see capitalism as a problem of the planet: as a product or progeny of planetary forces as well as a pathology?

In this session we invite inquiry – in any medium - into the geological implications of capitalism and alternative social formations. Given the increasing likelihood of crossing thresholds in major Earth systems in the near future, we suggest that critical thinking needs a speculative dimension, and encourage experimental approaches and exercises in extremity.
Linked Sessions Geo-Social Formations: Capitalism and the Earth (2)
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: AC2013@rgs.org
Comprehending forced change and extremity
Lesley Head (University of Wollongong, Australia)
Chris Gibson (University of Wollongong, Australia)
The time has come to stop speculating about the potential for climate crisis, but to engage seriously with the forms it might take, with resources and capacities to cope, and with the metaphors and ideologies necessary to see humans through a transition already underway. All potential options imply reconfigurations of human-nonhuman relations, but with diverging assumptions, and conclusions. Presuming that ‘solving’ the problem by removing the generic human is not possible, discussion of ‘solutions’ necessarily focuses on specific dynamic processes. Posthuman thinking, at one end of the spectrum, invites decentred, contingent and entangled ontologies. At the other end are modernist calls to arms premised on the agency of humans, triggered by biophysical ‘tipping points’ and the need for comprehensive and coordinated human response. All this requires a more frank discussion than to date about how ‘forced’ change is going to proceed (given that voluntary change is not working), of who/what does the forcing and how that might play out. In the spirit of imagining extremity, we catalogue and postulate on some possibilities: the triggers for the internal disintegration of capitalism; a reinvigorated state apparatus in stricter command of the economy; and the prospects of everyday life characterised by dependence on rations, community and informal economies, creative reuse of physical materials, and vernacular familial/household scale cooperation. Thinking through the geological implications of alternative social formations will either way require reimagining materiality and stuff: how will we go when we have to mine waste? When the local rubbish tip becomes the department store? Or should we start to talk about this as a war, and preparing for war, assuming that we are already in it?

Steaming into the Capitalocene
Andreas Malm (Lund University, Sweden)
Champions of the ‘Anthropocene’ concept have dated the birth of this new geological epoch to the coming of the rotative steam-engine. That is a prudent choice. The engine revolutionised the metabolism between human beings and the rest of nature by tying fossil fuels to two artefacts crucial for commodity production: machines and vehicles. Ever since, self-sustaining growth has generated rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. But who was it that sired this new geological force, and why? This paper takes a closer look at the ascent of steam, focusing on the British cotton industry and maritime empire in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Contrary to the notion of the ‘Anthropocene’, it was not, of course, the human species as such that appeared on the scene at this critical juncture; nor do other standard explanations of the diffusion of steam – scarcity of traditional energy sources, cheapness of coal, innate technological superiority – stand up to scrutiny. Instead, it was the distinctive spatio-temporality of capitalist property relations that conditioned the transition.
Empirical research into the rise of steam-power reveals some of the major flaws in the Anthropocene concept and points towards another, more scientifically accurate designation of our current geological epoch, with few prospects for gaining consensual support: the Capitalocene. Given that the mean atmospheric lifetime of emitted CO2 is practically infinite, capital as a geological force will linger long after capitalist property relations – and possibly even the human species – have vanished from the face of the earth.

Down to Earth: A Changing Climate of and for Tourism
Martin Gren (Linnaeus University, Sweden)
Edward Huijbens (University of Akureyri, Iceland)
In an epoch we term the Anthropogeocene, the interpellation of politics and science demands, a shift of focus away from Society and Nature as conceptual and organizing pillars of human life towards the Earth as a reference plane for science and politics. Building on and moving beyond Actor-Network Theory, we argue how a particular capitalist endeavour; tourism is inherently an earthly business, whether it is conceptualised in terms of the spatial movement of people to and from destinations or as an all-embracing ubiquitous part of contemporary social life. Hitherto tourism has fitted seamlessly in the project of modernity which, after all, has had as its primary objective to liberate humans by empowering their social world and their societies. Moving also beyond Marxian observations such as Harvey’s (2005: 160-161) about “the commodification (through tourism) of cultural forms, histories, and intellectual creativity entails wholesale dispossessions”, we argue how tourism through its contribution to climate change dispossess the earth and us with it. In other words, tourism business development is about “concerted attempts at primitive accumulation which often seem to hark back to an imperialism that has been written off…” (Thrift 2008: 34), maintaining the reign of westernised consumptive practices dispossessing the global masses and the Earth itself. With this in mind we conclude by proposing scenarios for the future of tourism as an example of capitalism on and of the earth.

Capitalism’s underground
Kai Bosworth (University of Minnesota, USA)
It could be argued that capitalism has always had a special relation to the Earth’s underground. From conquistadors and later white settlers fervently searching for gold in the Americas to the rush to colonize Africa, finding the so-called “raw materials” for industrial capitalism often required a journey beneath the Earth. This relation, it could be argued, was a very condition of possibility for capitalism, but one that individual capitalists loathed: terrified of becoming too dependent on limited sources of raw materials, intensely afraid of the filth of miners, anxious that socialism was brewing underground. Those who spent too much time underground were said to be in danger not just of physiological problems, but of psychological ones as well. To stay underground too long risked madness. There was no Edenic, romantic or pastoral myth to rely upon in the mines, only darkness, danger, profit or revolution. In this paper, I ask what we can learn about the trajectories of Earth and capitalism from a brief history of going underground. If the Earth is indeed an ungrounding and traumatic force (Woodard 2013), how can we theorize its relation to the also traumatic forces of capitalism that reterritorialize the Earth as value? And further: if the ungrounded Earth has a specific relation to capital, what possibilities exist for a tenuous and unnatural alliance between the Earth and labor, between mines and miners against the forces of capital? Do these possibilities still exist today, when our miners are more often machines than people? The decaying and holey Earth works against naturalist and vitalist theories as well as the geo-logic of capital accumulation, but binding this relation requires unearthing creative strategies for narrating the history of capitalism from the Earth’s nethermost point of view (whether world-historical, mythic or science fictional). I probe the dark history of the Earth’s underground for possible politics not because the Earth is immediately political, but because it disturbs our political theories of capitalism and thus offers different strategic possibilities for the Anthropocene era.
Stratigraphy in the Anthropocene - Discussant
Noel Castree (University of Manchester, UK)