Climate change isn’t going away, and it isn’t going to get any better — at least if we keep legislating as we have been. In Democracy in a Hotter Time: Climate Change and Democratic Transformation, a multidisciplinary collection of subject matter experts discuss the increasingly intertwined fates of American ecology and democracy, arguing that only by strengthening our existing institutions will we be able to weather the oncoming “long emergency.”
In the excerpt below, contributing author and Assistant Professor of Environment and Sustainability at the University at Buffalo, Holly Jean Buck, explores how accelerating climate change, the modern internet and authoritarianism’s recent renaissance are influencing and amplifying one another’s negative impacts, to the detriment of us all.
Excerpted from Democracy in a Hotter Time: Climate Change and Democratic Transformation, edited by David W. Orr. Published by MIT Press. Copyright © 2023. All rights reserved.
Burning hills and glowing red skies, stone-dry riverbeds, expanses of brown water engulfing tiny human rooftops. This is the setting for the twenty-first century. What is the plot? For many of us working on climate and energy, the story of this century is about making the energy transition happen. This is when we completely transform both energy and land use in order to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change — or fail to.
Confronting authoritarianism is even more urgent. About four billion people, or 54 percent of the world, in ninety-five countries, live under tyranny in fully authoritarian or competitive authoritarian regimes. The twenty-first century is also about the struggle against new and rising forms of authoritarianism. In this narration, the twenty-first century began with a wave of crushed democratic uprisings and continued with the election of authoritarian leaders around the world who began to dismantle democratic institutions. Any illusion of the success of globalization, or of the twenty-first century representing a break from the brutal twentieth century, was stripped away with Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine. The plot is less clear, given the failure of democracy-building efforts in the twentieth century. There is a faintly discernable storyline of general resistance and rebuilding imperfect democracies.
There’s also a third story about this century: the penetration of the Internet into every sphere of daily, social, and political life. Despite turn-of-the-century talk about the Information Age, we are only beginning to conceptualize what this means. Right now, the current plot is about the centralization of discourse on a few corporate platforms. The rise of the platforms brings potential to network democratic uprisings, as well as buoy authoritarian leaders through post-truth memes and algorithms optimized to dish out anger and hatred. This is a more challenging story to narrate, because the setting is everywhere. The story unfolds in our bedrooms while we should be sleeping or waking up, filling the most quotidian moments of waiting in line in the grocery store or while in transit. The characters are us, even more intimately than with climate change. It makes it hard to see the shape and meaning of this story. And while we are increasingly aware of the influence that shifting our media and social lives onto big tech platforms has on our democracy, less attention is devoted to the influence this has on our ability to respond to climate change.
Think about these three forces meeting — climate change, authoritarianism, the Internet. What comes to mind? If you recombine the familiar characters from these stories, perhaps it looks like climate activists using the capabilities of the Internet to further both networked protest and energy democracy. In particular, advocacy for a version of “energy democracy” that looks like wind, water, and solar; decentralized systems; and local community control of energy.
In this essay, I would like to suggest that this is not actually where the three forces of rising authoritarianism x climate change x tech platforms domination leads. Rather, the political economy of online media has boxed us into a social landscape wherein both the political consensus and the infrastructure we need for the energy transition is impossible to build. The current configuration of the Internet is a key obstacle to climate action.
The possibilities of climate action exist within a media ecosystem that has monetized our attention and that profits from our hate and division. Algorithms that reap advertising profits from maximizing time-on-site have figured out that what keeps us clicking is anger. Even worse, the system is addictive, with notifications delivering hits of dopamine in a part of what historian and addiction expert David Courtwright calls “limbic capitalism.” Society has more or less sleepwalked into this outrage-industrial complex without having a real analytic framework for understanding it. The tech platforms and some research groups or think tanks offer up “misinformation” or “disinformation” as the framework, which present the problem as if the problem is bad content poisoning the well, rather than the structure itself being rotten. As Evgeny Morozov has quipped, “Post-truth is to digital capitalism what pollution is to fossil capitalism — a by-product of operations.”
A number of works outline the contours and dynamics of the current media ecology and what it does — Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Antisocial Media, Safiya U. Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression, Geert Lovink’s Sad by Design, Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine, Tim Hwang’s Subprime Attention Crisis, Tressie McMillan Cottom’s writing on how to understand the social relations of Internet technologies through racial capitalism, and many more. At the same time, there’s reasonable counter-discussion about how many of our problems can really be laid at the feet of social media. The research on the impacts of social media on political dysfunction, mental health, and society writ large does not paint a neat portrait. Scholars have argued that putting too much emphasis on the platforms can be too simplistic and reeks of technological determinism; they have also pointed out that cultures like the United States’ and the legacy media have a long history with post-truth. That said, there are certainly dynamics going on that we did not anticipate, and we don’t seem quite sure what to do with them, even with multiple areas of scholarship in communication, disinformation, and social media and democracy working on these inquiries for years.
What seems clear is that the Internet is not the connectedness we imagined. The ecology and spirituality of the 1960s, which shaped and structured much of what we see as energy democracy and the good future today, told us we were all connected. Globally networked — it sounds familiar, like a fevered dream from the 1980s or 1990s, a dream that in turn had its roots in the 1960s and before. Media theorist Geert Lovink reflects on a 1996 interview with John Perry Barlow, Electronic Frontier Foundation cofounder and Grateful Dead lyricist, in which Barlow was describing how cyberspace was connecting each and every synapse of all citizens on the planet. As Lovink writes, “Apart from the so-called last billion we’re there now. This is what we can all agree on. The corona crisis is the first Event in World History where the internet doesn’t merely play ‘a role’ — the Event coincides with the Net. There’s a deep irony to this. The virus and the network … sigh, that’s an old trope, right?” Indeed, read through one cultural history, it seems obvious that we would reach this point of being globally networked, and that the Internet would not just “play a role” in global events like COVID-19 or climate change, but shape them.
What if the Internet actually has connected us, more deeply than we normally give it credit for? What if the we’re-all-connected-ness imagined in the latter half of the twentieth century is in fact showing up, but manifesting late, and not at all like we thought? We really are connected — but our global body is neither a psychedelic collective consciousness nor a infrastructure for data transmission comprising information packets and code. It seems that we’ve made a collective brain that doesn’t act much like a computer at all. It runs on data, code, binary digits — but it acts emotionally, irrationally, in a fight-or-flight way, and without consciousness. It’s an entity that operates as an emotional toddler, rather than with the neat computational sensing capacity that stock graphics of “the Internet” convey. Thinking of it as data or information is the same as thinking that a network of cells is a person.
The thing we’re jacked into and collectively creating seems more like a global endocrine system than anything we might have visualized in the years while “cyber” was a prefix. This may seem a banal observation, given that Marshall McLuhan was talking about the global nervous system more than fifty years ago. We had enthusiasm about cybernetics and global connectivity over the decades and, more recently, a revitalization of theory about networks and kinship and rhizomes and all the rest. (The irony is that with fifty years of talk on “systems thinking,” we still have responses to things like COVID-19 or climate that are almost antithetical to considering interconnected systems — dominated by one set of expertise and failing to incorporate the social sciences and humanities). So — globally connected, yet divided into silos, camps, echo-chambers, and so on. Social media platforms are acting as agents, structuring our interactions and our spaces for dialogue and solution-building. Authoritarians know this, and this is why they have troll farms that can manipulate the range of solutions and the sentiments about them.
The Internet as we experience it represents a central obstacle to climate action, through several mechanisms. Promotion of false information about climate change is only one of them. There’s general political polarization, which inhibits the coalitions we need to build to realize clean energy, as well as creates paralyzing infighting within the climate movement about strategies, which the platforms benefit from. There’s networked opposition to the infrastructure we need for the energy transition. There’s the constant distraction from the climate crisis, in the form of the churning scandals of the day, in an attention economy where all topics compete for mental energy. And there’s the drain of time and attention spent on these platforms rather than in real-world actions.
Any of these areas are worth spending time on, but this essay focuses on how the contemporary media ecology interferes with climate strategy and infrastructure in particular. To understand the dynamic, we need to take a closer look at the concept of energy democracy, as generally understood by the climate movement, and its tenets: renewable, small-scale systems, and community control. The bitter irony of the current moment is that it’s not just rising authoritarianism that is blocking us from good futures. It’s also our narrow and warped conceptions of democracy that are trapping us.