Kai Bosworth: …the pan­el that we have put togeth­er today, which is called Liberatory Ecotechnologies, Cyborg Ecologies and the Green New Deal. And unfor­tu­nate­ly we’ve had some tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties con­nect­ing the audio for Holly Jean Buck and so unfor­tu­nate­ly giv­en time con­straints and every­thing it’ll just have to be a slightly-abbreviated pan­el with the three of us. That said, I’m still thrilled to be bring­ing togeth­er some real­ly inter­est­ing and com­pelling folks who’re work­ing through ques­tions of tech­nol­o­gy and infra­struc­ture as they relate to the ques­tion of a Green New Deal. 

So I had a longer spiel as way of intro­duc­tion but I’m just gonna bypass that and just say quite briefly that our inten­tion in orga­niz­ing this pan­el was to get out of the kind of strict bina­ry between tech­nol­o­gy yes ver­sus tech­nol­o­gy no, which is a bit of a fal­la­cy we think and instead to begin to think about what are the kinds of pro­vi­sion­al ways in which dif­fer­ent groups of peo­ple can come togeth­er col­lec­tive­ly to make deci­sions about our com­mon future. And that’s real­ly what we hope­ful­ly talk about when we mean democ­ra­cy. Although that word I’m not so fond of these days. But if we do want to build a social­ly just, per­haps ecoso­cial­ist or com­mu­nist future as part of a Green New Deal it will have to actu­al­ly involve peo­ple com­ing togeth­er and mak­ing deci­sions about the forms of tech­nolo­gies, and the rela­tion­ships between tech­nolo­gies and social for­ma­tions that may exist. 

So, just to talk very briefly about who’s going to be on the pan­el, then. So I’ll give my own spiel. I’m not going to spend too much time intro­duc­ing myself just to say that my name is Kai Bosworth. I’m a pro­fes­sor of International Studies at the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. And then fol­low­ing me will be Sasha Costanza-Chock, and then Sophie Lewis. And each of us are going to present some inter­est­ing and hope­ful­ly provoca­tive thoughts on the role of tech­nol­o­gy and how we should think about tech­nol­o­gy in a Green New Deal, and then we’ll have some time for dis­cus­sion and ques­tions at the end. I’ve sug­gest­ed to our pan­elists that ten min­utes will be the amount of time that we’ll spend talk­ing, so this will go by like that. So, with­out fur­ther ado, then, I’ll con­tin­ue my own talk. 

So, the way in which tech­nol­o­gy and infra­struc­ture in par­tic­u­lar has fig­ured in how Americans have imag­ined the world has pri­mar­i­ly been in a sort of mod­ernist lens, right. And by that I sim­ply mean that tech­nol­o­gy seems to real­ly embody Enlightenment prin­ci­ples and mate­ri­al­ize them. We think of inno­va­tion and progress often as dri­ving his­to­ry. And tech­no­log­i­cal objects like the famous even renew­able ener­gy sys­tems like dams seem to fit into our under­stand­ing of the sub­lime expe­ri­ence, not only of nature but of our own intel­lect, and one in which we are almost side-players to the sort of evo­lu­tion of tech­no­log­i­cal forms. 

David Nye has called this American Technological Sublime, more recent­ly Brian Larkin in an oft-cited and read work has called it the unbear­able moder­ni­ty of infrastructure.” 

A group of American Indians gathered on a bluff looking at a modern water dam in the distance

And we can see this in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent aes­thet­ic forms as well, as in this Norman Rockwell paint­ing, of course, the unbear­able moder­ni­ty of tech­nol­o­gy has a flip­side in its colo­nial­i­ty, where­in indige­nous peo­ples are fig­ured as some­how on a dif­fer­ent devel­op­men­tal path, tele­o­log­i­cal­ly, and can only be seen to be reced­ing in the wake of tech­no­log­i­cal forms.

Of course crit­ics of the Green New Deal have also point­ed out the man­ner in which in a kind of clas­sic com­mod­i­ty fetish sort of form, renew­able ener­gy hides behind it a whole series of pos­si­ble forms of exploita­tion of human and non-human nature. And I think that a lot of crit­ics of the Green New Deal have latched on to this par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tive of cri­tique of of the sort of moder­ni­ty of the solu­tions that are pro­posed here, espe­cial­ly in its aes­thet­ic form. So I think Malcolm Harris has kind of the clas­sic ver­sion of this, in which visu­al­iza­tions of the Green New Deal basi­cal­ly just look like Windows 95 back­ground with solar pan­els and wind turbines. 

And so, we might test whether the artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions actu­al­ly uphold this. I don’t think they do. But real­ly when we imag­ine you know, wind tur­bines and land­scape often­times we do fall back into these [hon­oriz­ing?] guises. 

So my ques­tion today, and my provo­ca­tion, is real­ly whether this mod­ern infra­struc­tur­al ide­al, as Kathryn Furlong calls it, can actu­al­ly be upheld or seen in actu­al renew­able ener­gy projects and in the kinds of projects that we would hope would be part of a just tran­si­tion towards a cli­mate future rather than cli­mate apocalypse. 

Now, part of the argu­ment from Furlong and oth­ers is that real­ly this mod­ern infra­struc­tur­al ide­al is a self-fulfilling prophe­cy. When you actu­al­ly look at infra­struc­ture sys­tems from the per­spec­tive of the Global South, they’re much more hybrid, pre­car­i­ous, amenable to polit­i­cal and social trans­for­ma­tion. And I want to maybe flip this and say hey, if we actu­al­ly look at the infra­struc­ture sys­tems of renew­able ener­gies in North America this might also be the case. That renew­able ener­gy might actu­al­ly fig­ure into cer­tain kinds of decolo­nial and ener­gy sov­er­eign futures for parts of this part of the world.

And so, I just have three real­ly short provo­ca­tions about what I’m call­ing tech­nolo­gies of lib­er­a­tion and exis­tence, and two real­ly quick exam­ples. And then I’ll give way to our oth­er panelists. 

So, first of all there’s this idea where we took the term lib­er­a­tion tech­nol­o­gy” real­ly from Murray Bookchin func­tion. And Bookchin is real­ly think­ing about the ways in which tech­nolo­gies can con­tribute not only to lib­er­a­tion from neces­si­ty but also from toil, from over­work. But impor­tant­ly, what often gets lost in dis­cus­sions of automa­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal change in this sort of frame­work is also that there are tech­nolo­gies for mak­ing deci­sions about tech­nolo­gies. And these include the cre­ation of col­lec­tive social rela­tions that can embody in a sort of face-to-face or direct man­ner how we think about or how we may come to think about what worlds we want to inhabit. 

And so fol­low­ing on from Bookchin then, I think­ing about some­one called Robert Sclove and real­ly a whole series of ridicu­lous dia­grams that I would like to talk about with some­one. But I’ll for­go that for a second. 

And so one sort of way in which a project I’ve been involved in, or was involved in as a sort of baby social sci­en­tist in 2009 was look­ing at wind ener­gy and scenic con­sid­er­a­tions in var­i­ous parts of the United States. There’s actu­al­ly a lot of oppo­si­tion in rur­al America to wind ener­gy. And we were try­ing to think about hey, what kinds of designs for democ­ra­cy might we tin­ker with or exper­i­ment with to see if peo­ple could cre­ate bet­ter or more amenable rela­tion­ships with this new tech­nol­o­gy that was spring­ing up in places like Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. 

So we ran these design kind of sem­i­nars or work­shops which brought togeth­er dif­fer­ent folks in the indus­try, cit­i­zens, in insti­tu­tions to is sort of col­lec­tive­ly think about what kinds of ener­gy sys­tems they would like to see, and what kinds of land­scapes they val­ue, and how the mit­i­ga­tion of the effects of these ener­gy sys­tems might be achieved. 

So we looked at images, and think­ing about var­i­ous kinds of spec­u­la­tive forms. What kinds of ver­sions peo­ple like or don’t like. And also the terms that they would use to describe the land­scapes. So the aes­thet­ic terms that might be con­nect­ed to those values. 

And what’s inter­est­ing then is this is not just democ­ra­cy as a gauge of one’s pre-existing inter­ests, but also it trans­forms peo­ple, right. And hope­ful­ly it trans­forms them in a way where it’s demys­ti­fy­ing, where they can break through that sort of com­mod­i­ty fetish ide­o­log­i­cal ver­sion. But in fact we’re also dis­cov­er­ing that in oth­er cas­es peo­ple become more amenable to wind ener­gy, gen­er­al­ly, but more opposed to it after doing a work­shop on it in their local com­mu­ni­ty. That their val­ues are sort of rein­forced. So, one exam­ple of how one can think about infra­struc­ture devel­op­ment not in a sort of over­whelm­ing mod­ern­iz­ing sort of guise. 

Technologies that articulate with desire, history, localization, imagination, and being in a way in which the meaning of ‘existence’ exceeds a definition of continued biological survival or reproduction.

Another one that I’ve been think­ing a lot about is renew­able ener­gy devel­op­ment on the Lakota Nation in South Dakota where I’m from. Dana Powell has called these renew­able ener­gy projects tech­nolo­gies of exis­tence, where they’re not just about sur­vival and repro­duc­tion but about lib­er­a­tion in some kind of way. 

So let’s take a look at the KILI wind tur­bine, which pow­ers the KILI radio sta­tion on the Pine Ridge res. And what’s inter­est­ing about it is it’s not the kind of like, pure white sort of unin­ter­est­ing ver­sion of wind pow­er. It’s a rehabbed, refabbed old one from the 1980s California boom. It’s paint­ed. It pow­ers a radio sta­tion, which also now has rehabbed solar panels. 

And what’s inter­est­ing about this, then, is it’s not just the tech­nolo­gies them­selves but actu­al­ly the exer­cise of sov­er­eign­ty over the tech­nolo­gies through edu­ca­tion, train­ing pro­grams. These are our forms of using ener­gy which are con­tribut­ing to the ongo­ing exis­tence and lib­er­a­tion of peo­ple from an oppres­sive colo­nial structure. 

And so, of course are a lot of dif­fer­ent ways in which we can think about the dis­tri­b­u­tion­al or ener­gy or envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice con­cerns of wind ener­gy on Native nations in a set­tler colo­nial coun­try like this one. The dis­tri­b­u­tions of envi­ron­men­tal goods and bads such as trans­mis­sion lines are very impor­tant. But I also want to high­light issues of land own­er­ship. And if we real­ly want to think about ener­gy democ­ra­cy in some kind of way, we also have to think about fun­da­men­tal­ly trans­form­ing the land struc­tures of this coun­try. It’s very very dif­fi­cult to build renew­able ener­gy projects on the res because the pri­vate prop­er­ty struc­ture is so frac­tion­at­ed. And so in this way, design­ing ener­gy democ­ra­cy or design­ing a more just future that includes renew­able ener­gy tech­nol­o­gy must actu­al­ly take into account land reform. 

And this is where I get real­ly excit­ed because some of the new con­ver­sa­tions that’re appear­ing, such as from my col­league Levi Van Sant are real­ly think­ing about and con­nect­ing to long-standing move­ments, part­ner­ships between Native and non-native peo­ple, which seek to decom­mod­i­fy land and build land reform struc­tures that can actu­al­ly then sup­port and aug­ment the sort of demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sion­mak­ing pow­er of mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties at mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent scales. And so obvi­ous­ly I think that we’ve heard in the first cou­ple of pan­els many dif­fer­ent ways in which this is not going to work if we allow renew­able ener­gy to be devel­oped in the same sort of cap­i­tal­ist world sys­tem. And I think that these exam­ples show us how alter­na­tive forms of ultra­moder­ni­ty or ultra­mod­ern­iza­tions actu­al­ly embody then vast­ly dif­fer­ent pol­i­tics of technology. 

Manu Karuka on Winona La Duke's "indigenous modes of relationship": The establishment of locally controlled renewable energy infrastructure fulfills a decades-long call for the development of liberation technologies across indigenous North America…These are examples of actually existing decolonization, and they should be supported and proliferated as significant anti-imperialist modes of relationship.

And so I’ll just end right here by think­ing through, and the degree to which Manu Kuruka has called these lib­er­a­tion tech­nolo­gies. Actually exist­ing decol­o­niza­tion projects, actu­al­ly exist­ing anti-imperialist projects, and not sim­ply kind of quaint demon­stra­tion sort of things but real­ly the real move­ment that abol­ish­es the present state of things. 

Okay, so I’ll just end there. Thank you all.

Further Reference

Climate Futures II event page