Regional warlordism versus the digital panopticon

Visitors to this blog will know of my interest in climate futures, a subject I’ve published on in academic outlets. Recently I re-read British sociologist John Urry’s excellent article “Climate Change, Travel and Complex Futures”. I remember first reading this in 2008 and the future scenarios it outlined opened my eyes to the huge issue of climate change adaptation. Indeed, this article and Al Gore’s 2006 movie Inconvenient Truth were major influences in re-directing my research towards the issue of business responses to climate change (which this blog summarizes).

So it was refreshing to go back to one of the sources that have driven my interest in how corporations, governments and civil society are responding to the climate crisis. What was particularly revealing in Urry’s analysis was the consideration of different economic and social futures under climate change. His portrayal of two contrasting dystopian futures was compelling and shocking compared with the complacent assumptions of much business and management research. Urry’s provocative analysis suggested essentially a “low road” and  “high road” future under climate change. In the “low road” scenario which he termed “regional warlordism”, extreme weather events, sea level rise and flooding would undermine the veneer of civilization and humanity would revert to a nasty and brutish existence reliant on the use of physical force and local tribalism for survival:

‘Regional warlordism’ involves a barbarism of unregulated climate change, increased flooding and extreme weather events, the elimination of many existing ‘civilizing’ practices of economic and social life, and the dramatic collapse of long range mobility and related developments of the past decades, with the flooding of New Orleans iconic of the future. Life even in the ‘north’ will be nasty, brutish and almost certainly ‘shorter’, while life in parts of the ‘south’ is already being transformed by global climate change. Bangladesh in the low lying Ganges is the country worst affected by global climate change and yet has only produced small amounts of carbon emissions. These emerging global relationships have been termed ‘climatic genocide’ with millions being forced to migrate away from global climate change risks that are overwhelmingly engendered from within the rich ‘north’ but are so far mainly experienced in the poor ‘south’… (Urry, 2008: 274)

By contrast the “high road” alternative Urry characterized as the “digital panopticon” outlines a high-tech world of state/corporate surveillance which enable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions sufficient to ward off societal collapse at the price of restrictions on individual liberty:

This involves a digital Orwell-ization of self and society, with more or less no movement without digital tracing and tracking, with no-one beyond the panopticon (with London’s congestion charging or Singapore’s Electronic Road Pricing as indicative first steps). This may tame the car system (and other energy systems) if many developments take place simultaneously, including the tracking and tracing of each person’s carbon allowance which should come to function as the public measure of worth and status. So life goes on and indeed extensive co-presence through travel would be still achievable for many, but only because each individual self is tracked and traced enabling the individualized car-system to tip into a nexus, organic vehicle system…” (Urry, 2008: 274-5).

This future scenario acknowledges the need for mandatory regulation and enforcement of greenhouse gas emissions if the radical emissions reductions suggested by climate science are to be achieved. However, it also presents a fundamental challenge not only to the hegemonic ideology of neoliberalism (in which the role of government is further reduced), as well as more progressive, democratic ideals (suspicious of on-going state surveillance and control). In reality we are likely to see both of these strategies play out as the climate crisis worsens.

Already there are indications of governments working with corporations in increasing surveillance of citizens, not so much over carbon emissions but in the targeting of environmental groups as threats to further fossil fuel development. Similarly, elements of “regional warlordism” are evident in failed states in Africa and increasingly in the Middle East, where some observers have identified the impact of climate change on civil unrest and war.

Currently, the politics of climate change in “developed” economies such as the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia appear bound up in somewhat shorter-term considerations. Here the daily debate revolves around “business as usual” versus a market-based response to climate change through the introduction of “carbon pricing” and other “market mechanisms” (witness the recent bizarre political manoeuvres in Australia over attempts to price carbon emissions) . As David Levy and Andre Spicer have argued, this is more a battle between “fossil fuels forever” and “techno-market” imaginaries.

Missing from this debate of course are the more fundamental changes we will need to make in adapting to the climate crisis. Here, our cosy assumptions of affluent, consumer-based lifestyles appear hopelessly inadequate for the challenges we will face in coming decades. In looking for inspiration in imagining such future scenarios, a more useful place to start may be in the growing range of dystopian climate fiction, or “CliFi” from writers such as Margaret Atwood or Tony White, which seek to paint a picture of what life will be like in both “regional warlordism” and “digital panopticon” futures.

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