The double bind of global warming

October 7, 2010

Anthropologist Kim Fortun is wicked smart. I’m trying to power through her book Advocacy After Bhopal on the advice of a researcher I queried in my quest to find the right graduate school. (So naturally I’ve stopped to blog…)

Dig the following, on logical paradoxes operating in the real world, p. 12:

A classic example is the statement that a therapist might make to a patient, or a parent to a child: “I want you to disobey me.” To obey the statement is to disobey it; to disobey it requires obeyance. The contradiction is produced by the condensation of messages of different logical types in one experiential fold, from which there is n o escape. [Anthropologist George] Bateson was particularly interested in double binds produced by family interaction. I want to understand the double binds produced by environmental crisis within globalization. 

On December 3, 1984, in Bhopal, India, a Union Carbide pesticide plant leaked 40 tons of toxic gas into the atmosphere, killing somewhere between 2,000 and 15,000 people and sickening hundreds of thousands more.

One key contradiction revolved around choice of a forum for the litigation of the Bhopal case. On the one hand, the trial should have been held in the United States so that the role of Union Carbide Corporation — the parent company — would be built into the way the case was presetned — making an important statement about the responsibility of multinational corporation for the activities of their foreign subsidiaries. On the other hand, the trial should have been held in India to demonstrate that Indian courts could successfully oversee adjudication of disputes involving Indian citizens — making an important statement about national sovereignty and the capabilities of the postcolonial state.

Fortun later seems to come down on the side of holding the trial in the US, so I’m actually not sure why the above counts as a double bind, which she defines (p.13) as

not simply a situation of difficult choice, resolvable through reference to available explanatory narratives. “Double bind” denotes situations in which individuals are confronted with dual or multiple obligations that are related and equally valued, but incongruent.

I feel double bound by global warming. On one hand, the very meaning we give our lives emerges from the political-economic-historical system in which we exist. To be blunt about it: I have to make a living, whether or not that living is sustainable, and I can’t force people to do what I want them to do. On the other hand, the system that allows me to make a living and to enter into moral obligations with my fellow beings is marching us all off a cliff. Once that cliff is finally in sight, all hell is going to break loose, because meaning will no longer mean what it used to.

Gwynne Dyer and Vandana Shiva were caught in a double bind on Democracy Now. Dyer was arguing that we need to investigate whether we can “geongineer” the climate, or physically intervene in the atmosphere so as to stave off the worst effects of warming while we scramble to reduce our emissions. Shiva was arguing in favor of small-scale farming to rebuild the system from the ground up. Watch them oscillate between climate “realism” and eco-feminism [emphasis added]:

VANDANA SHIVA: There is a movement against geoengineering called HOME—Hands Off Mother Earth—citizens telling irresponsible scientists, arrogant in their path, hands off mother earth.

GWYNNE DYER: Look, your solutions are good. They will work. And if you were the dictator of the world and could impose—

VANDANA SHIVA: Which I would never be.

GWYNNE DYER: No, but let me finish. Let me finish. If you were the dictator of the world …//… and could change land ownership patterns in the United States, like that, you could have it all done in three years.

VANDANA SHIVA: It’ll happen.

GWYNNE DYER: You can’t do that.

VANDANA SHIVA: No, it will happen.

Note the double bind: to solve the problem requires a dictator of the world, which goes against the very nature of the proposed solution.

All is not lost, however. Our political-economic-historical system is not monolithic. There are concrete steps we can take, starting with addressing income inequality. And double binds can be seen as opportunities.

As Fortun writes (p. 13),

Double-bind situations … forc[e] ethical agents to “dream up” new ways of understanding and engaging the world.

So there you have it, kids. Dare to dream!

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