By empty signifiers I mean crisis scenarios which have been emptied of content but which haven’t subsequently disappeared. Now lighter than air they continue to float around claiming policy attention. I focus on two phenomena–could-isms and etcetera-ization–which signal the active gutting of crisis content in policy and management scenarios.
The best way to explain this phenomena is diving anywhere into the crisis literature. Here is one from many:
Our expert-interview exercise with leading thinkers on the topic revealed how climate technologies can potentially propagate very different types of conflict at different scales and among diverse political actors. Conflict and war could be pursued intentionally (direct targeted deployment, especially weather-modification efforts targeting key resources such as fishing, agriculture, or forests) or result accidently (unintended collateral damage during existing conflicts or even owing to miscalculation). Conflict could be over material resources (mines or technology supply chains) or even immaterial resources (patents, soft- ware, control systems prone to hacking). The protagonists of conflict could be unilateral (a state, a populist leader, a billionaire) or multi- lateral in nature (via cartels and clubs, a new “Green OPEC”). Research and deployment could exacerbate ongoing instability and conflict, or cause and contribute to entirely new conflicts. Militarization could be over perceptions of unauthorized or destabilizing deployment (India worrying that China has utilized it to affect the monsoon cycle), or to enforce deployment or deter noncompliance (militaries sent in to protect carbon reservoirs or large-scale afforestation or ecosystem projects). Conflict potential could involve a catastrophic, one-off event such as a great power war or nuclear war, or instead a more chronic and recurring series of events, such as heightening tensions in the global political system to the point of miscalculation, counter-geoengineering, permissive tolerance and brinksmanship. . . .
States and actors will need to proceed even more cautiously in the future if they are to avoid making these predictions into reality, and more effective governance architectures may be warranted to constrain rather than enable deployment, particularly in cases that might lead to spiralling, retaliatory developments toward greater conflict. After all, to address the wicked problem of climate change while creating more pernicious political problems that damage our collective security is a future we must avoid.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211467X22002255 (my bolds)
Let’s be clear about this: All such “coulds-as-possibilities” do not add up to one single “must-as-necessity.”
The only way “could” leads to “must” would mean that the article began with the last sentence’s “must avoid” and then proceeded to demonstrate how to undertake really-existing avoidance with respect to said-research and the could-events.
Please note what I am saying. There may indeed be really-existing cases–the article suggests so–where that demonstration of “must-avoid” has been or is being made. In these cases, there is no seriatim “might, can, perhaps, possibly or potentially” qualifying this plausibility or outright demonstration.
Today it is easy to demonstrate all manner of etcetera-ization of factors said to be structurally operative at the micro-meso-macro levels of policy and management: racism, sexism, neoliberalism, militarism, imperialism, nationalism, populism, consumerism, extractivism, colonialism, along with globalization, financialization, urbanization, marketization, commodification, automation, and all the etcetera-etcetera I could/should list out but don’t.
The problem of course with such et-al lists is: Your micro-meso-macro and my micro-meso-macro are not the same. We differentiate levels of analysis differently and these different granularities have important policy and management implications.
Example. In Botswana, activities around livestock boreholes were once seen through a three-fold lens: at the site, within the locality, across the inter-locality. Cattle moved between village and cattle-post seasonally, cattle management differed if the livestock watering borehole were in the sandveld or the hardveld, and real-time management at the borehole site depended on contingent factors like whether the borehole was operating and who was doing the herding.
Now, of course, that same borehole had other levels of analysis: the district, the country, Southern Africa and all the way up, though these were more loosely coupled to real-time livestock activities than factors at the site/locality/inter-locality. Again please note that I am not dismissing any of these structural factors, be they mentioned explicitly or collapsed into that ubiquitous list-end, “etc.”
If you leave out differences that matter on the ground, how then can you identify the run of different cases over which really-exiting better practices evolve, if any, to deal with these structural factors and which, as practices, can be modified in light of new but likewise specific factors identified?