Risk and Environment

The readings from week 3 bring up some interesting points throughout their respective chapters. We are primarily concerned with Risk as a structural feature of environment and a component in environmental construction and governance. As a reminder, we’re not so much interested in “the environment,” as a “natural” setting but as something that is manifested from the components that make it up. In this sense, humans and human society do not exist independently from “nature” nor is “the environment,” simply something “out there.” It is something that is both larger than its individual components and exhibits their behavior within and through it. The Luke chapters will give a little more flesh to the concerns within the Pellizzoni chapter in the Death reader, but I will spend less time on Pellizzoni than might be expected. 

We are not interested in a definition of risk in the sense that it could be applied within analyses of it. There has been plenty of ink used in ferreting out those questions, and you’ll notice that Pellizzoni has some recommendations for further understanding risk in environment. His recommendations following his chapter will be useful for anyone wishing to write their portfolios on risk and you may incorporate them into your independent reading portfolios if you wish. I am, instead, pointing out how risk is connected to management and how management is connected to capital, or perhaps more concretely, commodification as we discussed last week.

Having an understanding of risk management within environmental construction can point you towards ecocritiques that expose structural inequalities that, to a degree, are purposefully created, or otherwise “accidentally” exacerbated. This has import into studies that would concern environmental racism as a structural feature of coloniality, capitalism, fascism, or other forms of governance. It is also something to consider when analyzing relationships of subject and state, capital and labor, upper class and underclasses, and global distributions of risk inherited from the history of territorial and state development. In a banal (but not so banal) way, risk can be understood by looking at how a society delegates responsibility – such as who takes the leadership position during a pandemic, and the measures that are in place for crisis (Pellizzoni, in Death, p.206) – as in how the U.S. has a health insurance industry built on actuaries who assess and delegate risk relative to the company’s profitability, while the U.K. has the National Health Service offering healthcare to all with triage measures in place for assessing risk relative to organizational operational capacity. 

The important thing to notice in analyses using risk, is who benefits from not assuming risk, and to whose detriment it is who must assume that risk. For example, in the production of neoprene – a polymer used in things like sports knee-wraps; who is it that gets to enjoy the products without having to assume the risk of toxic air, soil, and water contamination? More to our class’s focus; why is it that some people have to live with environmental risk and others don’t? Our readings for the week show more than tell how risk is a structural feature of the environment and below I point out a few places of interest. 

Luke’s Chapter 5: Environmental Emulations (1997) shows us how risk can be written or inscribed into an environment. As you’ll recall, this chapter dealt with a rather strange but illuminating experiment carried out as the Biosphere 2 project in the Arizona desert. Biosphere 2, a massive geodesic dome structure, was built for the purposes of replicating the functions and workings of Biosphere 1 – the Earth – at a micro-scale in a hermetically sealed enclosure. This is almost a perfect example of what we mean by environ in our course. It’s purpose was to suss out the possibilities and problems that may come from building similar environs in extraterrestrial environments and exhibits a process called terraformation – or earth shaping. The experiment became a media spectacle as researchers were enclosed in Biosphere 2 to study the movements of a simulated environment. As you’ll recall, the “oceans,” agricultural zones, desert environ, jungle enclosure, and living space were all placed together in an attempt at creating an operating ecosystem. The environ of Biosphere 2 did not include large predators, germs or novel Coronaviruses, and was built to serve its human inhabitants as a closed system. It was not a closed system in any real sense as the experiment needed input from outside its environs to insure human survival – most notably food and oxygen (Luke, 1997, p.99)! 

The experiment was funded almost entirely by private investments and these were generated through creating speculations concerning the usefulness and marketability of any findings coming out of Biosphere 2. You should notice a few things about its history: One, the experiment needed to attract capital and did this through promising a return on investment through the sale of information rendered from the experiment (this is a common practice and places like VT do this all the time) (Luke, 1997, p.98); two, this created a speculative bubble that burst in the first run of the experiment causing a change in leadership; three, the leadership change involved a reshuffling of responsibility that landed on VT UAP graduate and the architect of the Trump 2016 campaign, Stephen K. Bannon (Luke, 1997, p.99). These points taken together show that Biosphere 2, though purportedly to the benefit of “all humankind” was, in fact, a commodity complex that brought together tools for creating new knowledge commodities that could then be marketed (Luke, 1997 p.102). 

At the helm of this commodity complex were not the scientists, technicians, and engineers who were living in and through the experiment, but a manager, or group of managers responsible for channeling capital, in the form of money and supplies, to the environ, that was then sending informational commodities (or the raw resources for them) back to the managerial team that would then disperse those informational products to potential buyers. This shows a commodity circuit connected to the labor of the scientists and engineers who receive wages for their labor while creating informational capital that could then be used to write further environs. In this sense, the enclosure of Biosphere 2 is both a commodity (its functioning is imperative to experimental success) and a site of commodity production (the things coming out of it as information become commodities when an exchange-value is attached to them). It is here that we can see a self-expanding system of informational extraction based on technological instrumentation and also the delegation of risk within a commodity circuit. 

 The only risk capital must assume in Biosphere 2 appears to be whether there will be a return on investment. Luke does not mention whether the experiment was a success in that way, but looks at it as a monument to a way of thinking and articulating “the environment;” or, more adroitly, a manifestation of instrumental logic that shows Biosphere 2 as an engineering marvel of the movements of capital itself. Its technological edifice is exhibited in the combination of humanity, machinery, and the bios in an attempted replication of our planet and its ecosystems. However, as Luke says, the actual relationship to the technological system of Biosphere 2 and the relationship of capital to Biosphere 1, is rather confused. The extraction involved in the production of capital through activities such as mining, or drilling, is an intensive input into a system that then draws out resources necessary to make or become commodities while despoiling the earth as a byproduct. In Biosphere 2 the direction is supposed to be reversed and new information coming out of the project is directed through commodity circuits to become a sort of “green capital.” Capital intensivity is still exhibited in the flows of services and supplies going to Biosphere 2 to support the environ itself, but the experiment was supposed to be “self-sustaining” and operated as a stand-alone system. However, the Biosphere 2 enclosure more adequately reflected the real processes of terraformaiton through the advance of technological systems that attempt to subsume the biological and organic into synthetic artifice. 

One should notice that the systems embodied in the “ocean” ecosystem of Biosphere 2 contained no megafauna such as whales or sharks and had those risks taken out of the design. The systems and subsystems of Biosphere 2, therefore, do not replicate Biosphere 1 as it occurs through its novelties and creative energies, but is, instead, the manifestation and embodiment of a way of thinking about Biosphere 1’s conveniences and inconveniences. In other words, Biosphere 2 is a designer, a boutique system that does not replicate the magic of Biosphere 1, but only imitates or emulates the parts which were found desirable by design. The information arising from that environ is simultaneously disembedded from its conditions of discovery embodied by the humming of the technological systems that make up Biosphere 2, and only alludes to the environments of Biosphere 1 as it is purposefully designed and controlled as an enclosure that produces commodities for speculative capital. 

The design, presentation and operation of Biosphere 2 exhibits a dynamic important for the arc of the course. It shows the mobilization and operation of technocrats – a sort of manager – in the production, design, and distribution of commodities that have the potential to re-write the environment in the image of capital as well as accidentally embed more risks into the supermassive technological ecosystem of the Earth itself (Luke, 1997, p.111-114; Luke, 2019, p.28-38; Pellizzoni, in Death, p.199-200, 204-205). Luke makes the point that the only thing Biosphere 2 emulated really was a process of environing that removed “undesirable” parts from existence within it as much of planet Earth has suffered in the name of product development, risk and operational convenience. 

We build massive technological systems that envelop us in settled society, and in the U.S., UK, EU, Japan, China, Korea, India, etc.,. In almost any and every sense, a “settled society” is one that exists through and because of an arrangement of technologies into systems. How those systems are arranged, and what they’re made of exhibits how subjects – people, for example – relate to each other, their technologies and environment. We are so deeply embedded in our technological systems that their multiple and interlocking interstices create liminal spaces of uncertainty that embed risk within our daily lives. Car accidents, nuclear meltdowns, acid rain, ocean acidification, coral reef die-off, accelerated species extinction, are all risks embedded within the supermassive environ of planet Earth that can be attributed to the operation of social-technological systems that draw in the life and living of Biosphere 1. We, to my mind, in the global North are entirely reliant on the circulation, use and expenditure of hydrocarbons to power our societies.

As you read this, take a look around and see what in your immediate surroundings can be attributed to the extraction, refinement, and circulation of commodities such as oil. You’re most likely sitting on polyester, if not wearing it, and this is an oil derivative! The synthetic revolution that occurred contemporaneously with the full employment of oil and coal as the bedrock of industrial power has created a myriad of things you use everyday that are derived from some sort of hydrocarbon. The circulation of hydrocarbons – plastic for example – leeches from both the “organic” environment of Biosphere 1 through mass-scale extractive activity, and becomes part of both “settled society,” and novel ecosystems represented by massive trash islands, in this case. The novel ecosystems generated by the interaction of organic flows (say ocean currents and their vortices and collection points) and the commodities generated through industrial activity (like plastic) exhibit in their being, the interaction of technological commodity production and organic economies of matter and energy that make the planet work. What we’re witnessing is the formation of new habitats for both humans and non-humans that are and will have novel effects within the biosphere. That is, the exhibition of novel systems composed of social-technological activity, and biospheric function. The risk embedded in these novel combinations is a result of both technological activity and the economies of energy and matter that exhibit social intervention within them. Plastic straws might not be risky for Texans but apparently they’re not good for sea turtles.

Recall from last week that the commodity form is an ever present way of understanding oneself in relation to others and to “nature.” It is a way of perceiving conditioning one’s judgment within interaction. It is a fairly easy jump to assert that Biosphere 2 is an artefact of commodity form thinking in how it was articulated technologically as a simulation designed to produce further commodities. These commodities were supposedly in response to “market desires” for technological fixes to environmental problems threaded within living spaces as risk inherited from industrial technological externalities and capital development. You’ll notice that the core of Luke’s ecocritique in Chapter 5 is “At the end of the  day, Biosphere 2 appears in many ways to be an attempt to replicate technologically a naive anthropocentrism as the  fundamental design rule for operating the earth’s biosphere rather than a new collective defense technology for guarding Nature from further ecological degradation. (p.96)” The simulation of Biosphere 2, it would appear, is yoked to a “business-as-usual” logic masquerading as environmentalism that has created and exacerbated environmental risk for some over others rather than environmental risk for all

The purposeful creation and management of an environ we will call environmentality. We will flesh out the meaning of environmentality and you’ll see how it fits into ecocritique in the coming weeks. For now, however, Biosphere 2 exhibits an environmentality in its being and day-to-day function. In the above quotation, the environmentality displayed by Biosphere 2 is characterized by anthropocentric thinking regarding the role of the living within technological systems; an environ that supports technoscientific development of commodities; and an environ that is reliant on capital inputs channeled through managers that attract speculative capital and alienate the information produced through the environ through commodification. The environ of Biosphere 2, thus, is conditioned by the commodity form in its construction and operation and its day-to-day functioning, being, and operational mission all decenter any humanistic scientific project in the service of capital. The environ, the lived territory of Biosphere 2, exhibits a managerial approach to “nature” that treats it as a space and thing of inertia to be controlled through enrolling it in technological systems that embed structural risk in the worlds of the humans and non-humans that are its populations.    

Gardens by the Bay is an excellent (and possibly updated) example of biospheric mimesis. I can speak from experience that its enclosures direct the attention of its tourists to the delegation of risk away from repsonsible parties and down to the individual. Singapore is around the size of L.A. and is the 25th largest carbon emitter in the world, and handles nearly a quarter of all global trade through its port based solidly in the hydrocarbon complex at the heart of global civilization. Don’t believe the hype, but definitely go there if you get the chance. It is a massive commodity complex that cost Singapore around $1.5 billion to construct and forms a crown jewel in the City in the Garden development strategy.

Risk must be managed for the production and expansion of capital through the circulation of commodities (Pellizzoni, in Death, p.203-204). Capital prefers predictability and control within its attendant economies as a matter of creating and conditioning certainty (Pellizzoni, in Death, p.198-200). Uncertainty and risk can and must be managed psychologically and materially to ensure organizational viability and as a function of systemic security. This means that environs must be written and structured in a way as to deflect or down-play systemic risks that are embedded within technological systems as a result of the inherited blindness of instrumental reason used to organize matter and energy into the systems necessary for social reproduction and population viability. This means that risk is an object of management and this implies that management is, in some way, threaded into “the environment,” itself. Consider this before I lose my job for writing this on here: 

Virginia Tech, the Blacksburg campus, makes an environ that is used both as a site of education and the development of human capital (you guys, your training and the degrees that signify satisfactory competence in that which is deemed important by those training you) and also a site for extracting capital (your cash, your guardian’s cash, student loan cash, informational products, and physical inventions brought to market). This environment is made up of interlocking technological systems designed to solve certain problems and they work with variations between them. Campus housing, transportation, dining, entertainment, and health services, for example, all have separate bureaucracies tasked with doing different things, but they are all reliant on the movement and placing of students within the campus environ. All of these attendant systems that make up VT require capital inputs – people need to pay for beds and meal plans for the housing and dining systems to work, for example, and VT, as a space and organization that transforms capital through its movements, needs students to be at the physical site in Blacksburg [for now and probably forever]. All of this bureaucracy is wrapped up into the commodity package of an “educational experience” bought by and sold to you, the consumer. If these systems are interrupted in their function by hiccups in capital flows, the university (read; the commodity complex) suffers and has trouble functioning. 

COVID-19 emerged from an environment constructed by the interaction of humans, machines, and non-human commodities. Its virulence – it’s a damn cold virus for the love of God – is accelerated by clustering humans together in and through space within the presence of a vector. As vectors are, oftentimes and in this case, known-unknowns, this means that risk of infection is part and parcel of uncertainty in everyday life and individual agents are constrained by the structural features of the environs in which they live out those lives. VT needed to bring you back to Blacksburg and ran risk models (oh boy, more models because that worked well with campus population growth and housing!) to assess whether the costs of running the campus environ could be justified against the risk of human mortality from COVID-19 within their populations. The influx of students into Blacksburg based on economies reliant on the movement of specific bodies, in specific space, and at specific times represents an influx of risk within the locality of Blacksburg and its surrounding territories and populations. This means that risk is being pushed down to the level of individual students, and individual bodies as students arrive from urban centers such as NOVA, VA Beach, and New Jersey that then influences the function of the commodity complex of VT’s campus. This whole process may not happen without the assistance of informational production that is then fed into risk-reward analyses based on “models” that are then fed into the university decision-making apparatus populated by technocrats. This means that the functioning of the environs of Blacksburg and the NRV are attached materially to the decision-making apparatus of VT and that apparatus chose, based on how it generates and articulates knowledge, to rethread mortal risk into those environs (don’t panic, you’ll be just fine) in the pursuit of capital. This is part of VT’s environmentality whether they’re conscious of what they’re doing or not.  

The dreams of a placeless (fully online and nearly fully automated) university are a technological fantasy that would, we’re told, weedout structural risks inherent in bringing tens of thousands of people to a specific location as bricks-and-mortar universities must. This has been a dream in the ether for decades, if not longer, as Luke discusses in Chapter 2: Informationalism and Ecology (2019). You should notice that this chapter was written and published in 1983, and he’s watching the transformations in industrial modes of production wrought by the realizations of computing (Luke, 2019, 25-26). We can apply this to the case above by recognizing that participation within the attendant systems of online education (Canvas, Zoom, Brain Clutter, etc.,) means that one participates in a flow of information connected to the functioning of a commodity complex – VT.

Let’s imagine that they pull it off and VT is fully online and the “educational experience,” that was packaged and sold as part of actually being at VT is decoupled from its material conditions and repackaged through online ed. Each and every class you participate in will engage in extracting information from you regarding product development and delivery, from me and any of your professors in how we manage that information and “create” an “educational experience,” and will be channeled through networks that are owned and surveilled by neither party. The networks might be owned by VT, a private corporation (a concentration and machine of capital) or jointly owned but you, and me do not write the rules for their use, but may enforce their standards and rules through our actions within those networks. In this sense, we both will have become decoupled from our physical beings through participation in online education as we are rearticulated through those technological networks as information. 

This is an instance of environmental construction, and governance related to the production of risk within “the environment,” generally construed. Supposedly, an online university would mitigate the risks inherent in face-to-face learning such as COVID-19 infections. However, these environs would not be without their environmental impacts (look at energy use relative to digitization over the past 40 years), and would not be without their structural risks as well. Mass scale information gathering on you already includes the risk that some undesirable entity might use that information for nefarious ends. Maybe President #45 doesn’t like what I have to say and I end up on a blacklist. Maybe you accidentally plagiarize something, but the informational scanner doesn’t understand this and this creates a problem for you. Maybe an EMP generated by some SNAFU in an energy grid knocks out communications for a while and your money is totally wasted because VT already has it and doesn’t care that you experienced difficulties wrought by some other technocracy and apparatus. Due to how the commodity form conditions thinking and can structure environs, it seems likely that any technocrat will err on the side of their machines working rather than the livability within the habitats they create and administer as a consequence of technological necessity rather than a valuation of life and the living (Luke, 1997, 97-99, 104-109; Luke, 2019, p.33; Pellizzoni, in Death, p.202-204). 

In this way and the ways above, we can see the operation of risk as a structural feature of environments. As we exist in and through technological networks coupled with and articulated through organic economies that display the synthesis of technological deployments within those economies in the pursuit of commodity development and circulation; and as those massive technological systems contain risks inherited from this coupling, we can assert that risks in “the environment,” are partially anthropogenic and thus conditioned by human decision-making and technological operation. The logic and operations of technocrats are conditioned by the economic imperatives of capital for continued maintenance and expansion and it is those technocrats who are at the helm of massive technological apparatuses such as VT.

Technocrats are chiefly responsible for constructing and administering environs and thus, will create environs from which they can extract capital by writing the rules of conduct into those environs either materially or through instruments such as policies that then exert a material influence. Therefore, it is fair to assert that the articulation of risk within environs as they stand currently is inherited from the logic of capital itself and the actions of technocrats in service to capital and its development through technological systems. Therefore, environmental risk, as it stands as a structural feature of “the environment” is partially inherited from the production and circulation of commodities channeled through industrial decision-making apparatuses populated by technocrats. For now, the technocrats responsible for environmental production and reproduction are human, and we have an ability (though not usually the opportunity) to talk them out of environmental construction in service to the commodity form and technological fetishist pathologies. But what would an environ run by a non-human look like? What are the possibilities of resisting un-democratic technological environmental construction if the whole lifeworld becomes one massive technology run by the imperatives and logic of technology itself? 

Kubrick was brilliant for making this film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.