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Dec 21, 2015

The sound of a post-COP21 world

As one would expect, a great deal has been written about the climate change agreement that was reached at COP21 in Paris.  While opinions are divided as to whether the agreement is enough to address the threat of climate change, most commentators think that it is a ‘step in the right direction.’

Whilst we have to applaud our leaders for doing something vaguely positive, we do have to ask a very important question: should we trust our leaders to know whether the step they have taken is in the right direction or along the correct path?  We tacitly assume that those in power in both government and in business have some idea of what is good for us but, as will be argued in this blog, the direction we are heading is not where we as a species should be going.

We need to be moving towards a future that is brighter, more equitable, more sustainable and one that is flourishing.  Instead, we are heading towards a world of greater inequality, poverty, suffering, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, desertification the list goes on.  We actually need a fundamental change in the way the world works. However, this isn’t what the rich and powerful minority wants.  Indeed, Paris guarantees more of the same, albeit in a world cloaked in solar panels and wind farms, and in a world where there is a bit more money available for the poorest and most vulnerable to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The Paris Agreement does nothing, or very little, to change the trajectory we are on.  It does little to transform the way power is distributed. Those who are currently rich and powerful remain rich and powerful.  Those who are poor and subordinate remain poor and subordinate.  The nonhuman species that are suffering as a result of a global economic system that gives them no value still have no value and continue to suffer and to die.

The notable change that will emerge from the Paris Agreement is that the current genocidal and ecocidal system will in the future be powered differently – not by ancient sunlight trapped in fossil fuels but by today’s sunlight and other renewable sources of energy. It is sad and lamentable that so many people are describing the Paris Agreement as ‘real progress.’ It is only progress if we believe there is no alternative to the current system.

Paris helped industrial capitalism transmogrify itself – with the help of a dominant ecomodernist agenda – into the solution to the climate crisis rather than its ultimate cause.  With the Paris Agreement, nothing changes other than the diet that feeds the monster that is industrial capitalism.  This isn’t a rant against capitalism for all economic systems are flawed; however, to turn the cause of the problem into its solution is a bit cynical.

This is the very reason why the response to the Paris Agreement, from those who stood to lose the most from real change, has been so positive.  Interestingly, those who are lamenting the failure of Paris are those who understand the fact that the discourse of climate change has, over the years, been hijacked by the rich and powerful who need to control it, construct it in their image, and thereby maintain the status quo.  Climate change discourse was so much more exciting when it was constructed by those who saw the threat as clear evidence that the current system was well and truly broken.

The reason we saw world leaders and importantly business leaders, celebrating the ‘success’ of Paris was because they knew, deep down, that nothing  had changed. For them it is business-as-usual. Sure, fossil fuel companies may be a bit twitchy but they’ve seen this coming and will adapt, eventually becoming an integral part of the renewable revolution.  Remember what happened after the Montreal Protocol?  Those corporations which had largely caused the problem, immediately provided the so-called solution.  Sadly, many of their alternatives to chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) propellants were powerful greenhouse gases, but that’s a different story.

Capitalism, not the climate, was the winner in Paris.  In order for it to survive and thrive, capitalism needs to adapt to threats; it’s the way it endures and grows.  The only way it would be truly threatened is if, as a species, we decided that, as a system, it was no longer fit for purpose.  The problem is, this isn’t going to happen until civil society decides that it doesn’t want to be led by people who benefit from the status quo.

If campaigners at COP21 had really wanted to see the creation of a new world, they would have spent more time critiquing capitalism and less time calling for an end to the fossil fuel era.  These should go hand-in-hand, but sadly, they don’t. Of course we need to end our addiction to fossil fuels and we need to do this quickly but it is sheer madness not to address both the symptoms and the causes of the threats we face.

What has all of this got to do with sound, or to put it another way, what has sound got to do with COP21? Sound originates from specific sources that are the result of the processes that created them and these processes tell us a great deal about the world we are living in and the world we are creating.  Importantly, sound sources can change but the sound of the outcomes may change very slightly or not at all.   Imagine a fire, the initial spark can come from many different sources, but the sound of a raging inferno, in the same place in both space and time, will sound the same.

I was pleasantly surprised to read a number of commentaries from COP21 which specifically referenced the sound of the negotiations.  From the hushed tones of an expectant conference hall to the cheers and claps from the delegates once the agreement was reached, it was clear that sound played an important part in the drama that was COP21.

Whilst it is quite easy to imagine the soundscape of the actual negotiations it is trickier, but perhaps more insightful, to think about the soundscape of the post-COP21 world.  What will the world sound like in the future and what can this tell us about the Paris Agreement?  What are the important soundmarks and signature sounds likely to be?

Perhaps the best way of exploring these questions is to focus on one of the main outcomes of the  agreement – the need to end the fossil fuel era and the move towards a future powered by renewable energy.  Forgetting the environmental impacts of such a transition, it will have profound implications for the local and global soundscape.

As I sit and type these words, I can hear cars, motorbikes, buses, aeroplanes, a leaf blower and a lawn mower – evidence that this is one of the warmest Decembers on record.  I can imagine the sound of coal mines, oil refineries, and blast furnaces which are all working to support materialism.  The fossil fuel era has defined the soundscape of the modern era; noise pollution from fossil fuels is one of the externalities we have come to accept as part of ‘progress.’

Now, think about the post-fossil fuel era soundscape.  I imagine it as one of hushed whirrs and gentle purrs. The sound of human movement and activity produced by electricity generated ‘benignly’ from the sun and wind and, not so benignly, from that energy source that has no place in a sustainable world, nuclear power.  The way we will harness and use energy in the future sounds as gentle, nurturing, and beneficial, as photosynthesis.

The noisy meta-narrative of fossil fuels has gone and now we reside in this softly-spoken, perhaps slightly sterile world of electrical clicks and bleeps.   The cacophonous assault of the fossil fuel era has been defeated and, in place of the noisy shout of progress, we have the soft somnolent whisper of progress. Without sound, or at least deafening noise, we can ignore the fact that new sources of energy are being harnessed to power an old system that hasn’t changed.

The problem we face is not simply the source of our energy but the purposes for which this energy is captured and used.  Renewable energy will be used for exactly the same ends as the fossil fuels it will replace.  Indeed, it is this fact that makes me think that our future soundscapes will be quite sinister.  True, in the future, the source of the noise – the burning of fossil fuels – may have all but disappeared, but in its place we will have a post-modern soundscape where the sounds of capitalist expansion have no cause, no underlying story. These sounds will levitate in a no man’s land of innocence.  They will just be and as such they will endure.

In the future, the same dominant discourses remain, the same power structures predominate, the same religious adherence to growth prevails, but there is nothing to silence, for all will be quiet and all will be well. In the future, there will be no fossil fuel-induced roars, instead we will have calming white noise – the background hum, like the fridge in the kitchen that is only annoying if we focus our attention on it.  But of course we won’t, because our senses will be dulled by our material desires that will be quietly satisfied by safe, renewable, sources of energy.

In this quiet world, nothing will have changed.  Temperatures may not be rising as rapidly, but people will be living in poverty, the nonhuman world will be disappearing, a small number of people will be benefitting from their investments in renewable energy. Capitalism wins because it removes any notion of there being an enemy or threat.  Everything is amorphous, homogenous, globalised, shiny, and innocent; however, in this quiet world of capitalist expansion and hegemony the same dominant discourses endure, the same power structures dominate, the same religious adherence to growth prevails

In Paris, the ecomodernists won.  We now move officially into a human era where nonhuman nature presents no limits to our human ingenuity and creativity.  We can transcend everything ‘natural’ that stands in our way; we can continue to grow as a species ad infinitum.  In this ecomodernist dreamland, the cacophonous roars of a fossil fuelled past have disappeared and in their place we have a soundscape of soft purrs and whirrs – the sounds of the gadgets we have created to feed our limitless desires.

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