Sunday, 22 February 2015

Towards a post-apocalyptic environmentalism?

Just some thoughts on what looks like an interesting development in environmentalist discourse. For a long time the environmental movement has talked about the catastrophe in the future tense. Its rallying cry has been that we must act before it's too late. Even when protests have been directed at ongoing examples of environmental destruction, the tendency has usually been to stress the fundamental threat against nature and human life in general that will follow if business goes on as usual. As Thörn points out, the environmental movement stands out compared to most other movements through its "future-oriented pessimism": Utopia is less important as a mobilizing tool than the coming catastrophe or collapse (Thörn 1997: 322, 372).

Apocalyptic imagery is still regularly invoked in environmentalist discourse, not only by activists and NGOs but also by establishment figures (think Al Gore). Indeed, so often have we heard about melting polar caps, coming water shortages, hurricanes, floods and growing chaos that we are increasingly starting to see all this as part of an establishment discourse. Instead of being oppositional and system-critical, invoking the apocalypse increasingly seems to be part of a standard jargon, the comme-il-faut of respectable discourse. Or as Timothy Luke puts it: “Climate change now appears to be a collectively acted, globally produced, and continuously staged new disaster movie without a single director, but with billions of producers following simple scripts” (Luke 2015:291).


However, recently I've come across quite a few voices offering a different perspective.


Apocalyptic imagery and depoliticization

Let me start with the geographer Erik Swyngedouw, who believes that apocalyptic imagery has become part and parcel of a post-political framing of the climate. Rather than radicalizing or politicizing the climate issue, it coexists with depoliticization. "At the symbolic level, apocalyptic imaginaries are extraordinarily powerful in disavowing or displacing social conflict and antagonisms”, he points out (Swyngedouw 2010:219). The environmental movement itself is not innocent of this depoliticization. Along with its endorsement of the organs of global governance (the UNFCCC process, the Kyoto Protocol etc), it has become integrated as a stakeholder in the negotiations, abandoning contestation and replacing politics with management.

Swyngedouw further argues that in response to the apocalyptic establishment discourse, one ought to point out that to many people the apocalypse is already here, especially in the global south. To him, it is this insight that is mobilizing. People today increasingly protest not only out of fear for the future, but also out of anger at an already ongoing catastrophe and to demand justice.
In the face of the cataclysmic imaginaries mobilized to assure that the apocalypse will NOT happen (if the right techno-managerial actions are taken), the only reasonable response is "Don’t worry (Al Gore, Prince Charles, many environmental activists...), you are really right, the environmental apocalypse WILL not only happen, it has already happened, IT IS ALREADY HERE". (ibid. 2013:15)
Bringing this message home also means to redirect the struggle, which has to become an anti-capitalist struggle as well. It is simply not true that "if the ship goes down, the first-class passengers drown too". As on Titanic, many of the first-class passengers will find themselves a lifeboat. "The apocalypse is combined and uneven. And it is within this reality that political choices have to be made and sides taken” (ibid. 17).

Next, let me turn to the political scientist Chris Methmann. Like Swyngedouw, he observes that the evidence is mounting that alarmist reports invoking future catastrophes are insufficient to move politicians to take the necessary steps to curb the environmental destruction. Despite the apocalyptic imagery, environmentalist discourse rarely results in exceptional or extraordinary measures.

Why then does this apocalyptic discourse fail to produce extraordinary measures? Following Foucault, Methmann asks what is served by this seeming failure. Taking the CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) as an example, he argues that:
... the failure of CDM serves carbon governmentality to enfold its actual function. It brings about a way of governing the earth’s carbon cycle which purports to save the climate but in fact protects business as usual from climate protection. The failure of the CDM is the success of a depoliticization of climate change politics. (Methmann 2013:71)
He adds that “understanding the failure of the CDM as a success in depoliticization may enhance our understanding of the poor performance of present-day climate governance” (ibid. 86). Rather than destabilizing the hegemonic order, the apocalyptic imagery helps integrating environmentalist discourses into that very order without changing the basic structures of the world economy (for this more general argument, see also ibid. 2010). 


The Day After Tomorrow 


According to Methmann, then, the apocalyptic rhetoric is highly successful - if not in reducing emissions then in deflecting criticism of the system. This feat is achieved by constructing a "universal threat on a planetary scale" and invoking "humanity as a collective victim" while leaving the enemy unspecified. Meanwhile the discourse articulates climate change as "overstraining the capacity of political actors, and thus as ruling out exceptional measures" (Methmann & Rothe 2012:324, 329).
 
Both Swyngedouw and Methmann offer a critical perspective on the conventional environmental message about the coming catastrophe. That even established actors use an apocalyptic rhetoric does nothing to show that the climate summits are not depoliticized. On the contrary, as both Swyngedouw and Methmann show, this rhetoric is symbiotically connected to depoliticization.


Combined and uneven apocalypse
 
The picture offered by Swyngedouw and Methmann of a world in which apocalyptic destruction is allowed to play itself out unperturbed by an official "green" discourse which has become system-functional gives us glimpses into what could be called a post-apocalyptic sensibility. In literary theory, the "post-apocalypse" is already a well-established notion. James Berger, for instance, writes as follows:
Modernity is often said to be preoccupied by a sense of crisis, viewing it as imminent, perhaps even longing for, some conclusive catastrophe. This sense of crisis has not disappeared, but in the late twentieth century it exists together with another sense, that the conclusive catastrophe has already occurred, the crisis is over (perhaps we are not aware of exactly when it transpired), and the ceaseless activity of our time - the new with its procession of almost indistinguishable disasters - is only a complex form of stasis. (Berger 1999:xiii)
By a post-apocalyptic sensibility I mean a sensibility that becomes dominant when people start to experience themselves as powerless to prevent a loss which they once feared, when no-one hopes any longer that the ship mentioned by Swyngedouw can be saved. When that happens the loss is no longer experienced as a shock that needs to be averted or mastered, but is rather internalized as an inescapable fact which must be taken as the point of departure for all future political action, including attempts to salvage what can still be saved and demanding redress and settling wrongs. 
 
The third voice I would like to introduce here illuminates this stance. It is that of Evan Calder Williams, author of Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (2011).  The title is a pun on Trotsky's notion of combined and uneven development. Here is the key sentence:
The world is already apocalyptic. Just not all at the same time. To be overcome: the notion of apocalypse as eventual, the ground-clearing revelatory trauma that immediately founds a new nomos of the earth. In its place: combined and uneven apocalypse. (Williams 2011: 149)
The book is an exploration of “the apocalyptic fantasies of late capitalism” as revealed in film and literature. It also provides a useful way to expand on the arguments on environmentalist discourse made by Swyngedouw and Methmann. It does so through its much more thorough exploration of the idea that the apocalypse is already occurring, the "conviction… that disaster is not just around the corner but that the corner has already been turned" (ibid. 4). 
 
Williams stresses that the post-apocalypse is not a simple reflection of actual and future destruction. It is not an "image of that-to-be" but rather "a perspectival stance to be taken up now" (ibid. 157). "We become post-apocalyptic", he writes, "when we accept the present as rubbish" (ibid. 9). 

Central to his argument is the distinction between catastrophe and apocalypse. The catastrophe is "end without revelation" (ibid. 4f), the sad, meaningless destruction we all dread even as we see it all around ourselves. What then is apocalypse? A central trope in the book that clarifies this is that of salvagepunk. This is a vision of the world as broken and dead, "a world of stealing from the ruins, robbing the graves, and making do" (ibid. 70). In this world "the cataclysmic catastrophe… has already happened" and the work is to "uncover the revelations that never showed themselves: they are buried in all the rubble" (ibid. 11). 
 
The salvaging activity Williams evokes here is reminiscent of that of Benjamin, who advocated a "tactile" getting used to the dream-world of capitalism as a first step in order to dispel it (Benjamin 1977a:167). This was a strategy, not of subjecting the dream to an external critique, but of groping one’s way inside it in search of the dialectics of awakening at work within it. Just as for the Jews “every second was a small gate through which Messiah might enter” (ibid 1977b:261), so for Benjamin every piece of rags or refuse was a potential “dialectical image” which might trigger the sudden flash of recognition, the involuntary memory, which would help dispel the nightmare.
 
The revelations that Williams hopes to salvage, however, do not  bring about a clarification “allowing you to know fully where good and evil stand” as in the Judeo-Christian model. To him, “apocalypse is not the clarification itself but a wound of the present that exposes the unseen… from which after-work can begin to dig out all the failed starts, possible histories” (Williams 2011:6). This unseen is no ineffable mystic matter, but that which remains unseen within capitalism, all that escapes the logic of surplus-value – “everything that is worth a damn yet which does not produce value” (ibid. 8).
 
He affirms the political potential of this attitude, which he describes as a lens that helps bring out the weak possibilities for counteracting the ongoing catastrophe: “until we think of ourselves as the post-apocalyptic agents of this system’s ongoing apocalypse, we cannot counter this bleak trendline toward catastrophe” (ibid. 13).
 
Williams stands out by his attempt to theorize the post-apocalypse in the light of the "combined and uneven" way capitalism is wreaking havoc with the earth. That the crisis is over doesn't mean that all is peace. On the contrary, life in the rubbles is seldom peaceful. One way to bring this out is through another of the book's tropes, that of the zombie - the emblem in popular culture for “the terminal crisis that never ends or resolves” and the projection of the fear for the hungering masses and anxieties about overpopulation (ibid. 11). Passing through a variety of incarnations - from the mindless laborer to the mindless consumer and back - he ends with evoking another, that of the accuser:
We start here with the bloodied, one-eyed glare of the accusing, raised up to get beaten down again, the endless cycle of not being allowed to die and being blamed for the fact. Not the campy schlock of the mass moaning ‘brains…’ but the quiet rage and planning of the group in formation. Bourgeois, you have understood nothing. (ibid. 75)
 
Five varieties of contemporary post-apocalyptic environmentalism
 
With differing emphasis the texts mentioned above suggest that what needs to be put in focus is the ongoing "uneven" catastrophe (Swyngedouw, Williams) rather than the future catastrophe evoked by an apocalyptic rhetoric which deflects attention from socio-economic inequality and depoliticizes the climate issue (Swyngedouw, Methmann). Taken together they form part of a common discourse, which is suited to an environmentalist movement driven more by outrage at catastrophes that are already happening than by fear of future catastrophes. 
 
This discourse is admittedly fragmentary and its contours hazy. Yet it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that it has assumed somewhat clearer form in recent years. The widespread disappointment generated by the failed negotiations at the COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen 2009 may have been one factor behind the growing skepticism regarding mainstream established environmentalism, the institutions of global climate governance, and the discourses associated with them.
 
Meanwhile, almost all well-known waves of protest that have infused fresh anti-institutional energy in the environmental movement in recent years seem to be nourished by already ongoing rather than future catastrophes. Let me mention five examples:
 
(1) The wave of environmental activism referred to as "blockadia" by Naomi Klein. “Blockadia is not a specific location on a map but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines” (Klein 2014:294f). The wave of youth activism associated with names and labels like 350.org, Power Shift and the Keystone XL pipeline to a considerable extent seems driven not by fear for the future so much as concern at what is being destroyed here and now, in specific locales and in a way that victimizes specific groups, in order to put new technologies of extraction to use. As Klein points out these technologies all depend on the creation of clearly identifiable sacrifice zones – “places that, to their extractors, somehow don’t count and therefore can be poisoned, drained, or otherwise destroyed, for the supposed greater good of economic progress”. These places are often “bound up with notions of racial superiority, because in order to have sacrifice zones, you need to have people and cultures who count so little that they are considered deserving of sacrifice” (ibid. 169f).
 
(2) The struggles of indigenous peoples for whom the attempt to defend their autonomy and the rights of mother nature are a prolongation of their resistance against colonialism. Let me quote Arundhati Roy here: "If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them" (Roy 2010). For an example, take the Rights of Nature Tribunals, which were introduced an event I attended last year at the Cumbre de los pueblos in Peru, at the time of the COP20 in Lima. These are tribunals set up by activists, treating cases such as polluted water, oil spills, hydroelectric dams that will flood communities and cause major displacement, murdered anti-mining activists, "man-made earthquakes" caused by fracking, the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, the oil extraction in Yasuni in Ecuador, and attempts to commodify nature such as REDD+. It's impossible for me to do justice to the eloquence of the people presenting these cases. Suffice it to say that a message that was repeated, in various forms, by all speakers was this: we are suffering. Not in the future, but right now, already. Clearly what bothered them was not so much the threat of a catastrophe to come so much as the exploitation already going on, of nature as well as of the people living at the sites of extraction. 
 
(3) In the Japanese post-Fukushima anti-nuke movement, the catastrophe is certainly less perceived as a future possibility than as one that has already occurred. The disaster actualized a host of latent problems, not all of them environmental in a narrow sense. The impact on individuals, communities and economies was traumatic. Controversy engulfed reconstruction efforts, not least in regard to corruption and the involvement of organized crime in recruiting day laborers for the sanitation efforts. Fear of discrimination (similar to the discrimination of people who suffered radiation in Hiroshima or Nagasaki) also resurfaced. Mirroring the diverse array of issues, the anti-nuke movement is also heterogeneous. As one of its most sizable and visible contingents, it contains a "democracy movement" in which the role of freeter activists, many with a background in the precarity movement, has been central. Enraged in particular by the power of the nuclear establishment (the so-called "nuclear village") and more generally by the way power is exercised in Japan, many of these activists see the high-handed state as the prime enemy, rather than the threat to the environment per se. Also visible as distinct and forceful currents in the anti-nuke movement is a movement to support the destroyed Tōhoku communities through volunteerism and consumer initiatives, and a "zero becquerel" movement conducting radiation measurements in food, schoolyards and playgrounds. What fuels all these protests and activities is above all outrage at a catastrophe that has already occurred. To the extent that the future figures into the motivations it is in the form of fear of a repetition and anger at the persistence and survival of a deadly system in which the catastrophe may be repeated.
 
(4) In cultural movements like Dark Mountain, the catastrophe's arrival is accepted as inevitable. Even if it is still regarded as a future event, the basic stance expressed in documents such as the 2009 Uncivilisation manifesto is that since we can't stop it we'd better accept it and prepare ourselves. This too seems to be a stance that partakes of the post-apocalyptic sensibility, as one of its possible inflections or modifications. The founders of Dark Mountain are quite explicit that what motivated them to start the movement was disappointment in established environmentalism - the fact that none of its campaigns were succeeding and that environmentalists were not being honest with themselves. Instead of fearing the coming climate change with its attendant decline, depletion, chaos and hardships, they embrace it:
Together we are able to say it loud and clear: we are not going to 'save the planet'. The planet is not ours to save. The planet is not dying; but our civilisation might be, and neither green technology nor ethical shopping is going to prevent a serious crash. Curiously enough, accepting this reality brings about not despair, as some have suggested, but a great sense of hope. Once we stop pretending that the impossible can happen, we are released to think seriously about the future. This is what the Dark Mountain project is doing next. (Kingsnorth 2010)
Like in Williams, here too one seems to find a belief in salvage, that it is precisely by accepting the catastrophe that hope and possibilities for real action can be gained.
 
(5) In addition, the increasing weight given to adaptation and loss-and-damage at the expense of mitigation in the UNFCCC process can be seen as a weak reflex of the wider shift towards mobilization happening less because of the wish to prevent future catastrophe and more because of ongoing catastrophes or catastrophes regarded as inevitable. "Mitigation" in the UNFCCC parlance stands for emission reductions done to limit global warming, "adaptation" for efforts to adapt to the coming warming by limiting one's vulnerability, and "loss-and-damage" for efforts to compensate for the damage that will occur or that has already occurred.
 
 
The genealogy of post-apocalyptic environmentalism
 
If something like a post-apocalyptic environmentalist discourse is gaining sharper contours today, what is the genealogy of this discourse? It seems to me that there are at least two important sources. One is the shift towards a posttraumatic or postapocalyptic sensibility in film, literature and popular culture which I mentioned above (see Berger 1999, Cassegard 2007). The paradigmatic references here are probably cyberpunk and films like Blade Runner in the US and anime like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and AKIRA in Japan. This cultural current per se, however, is hardly a politicizing discourse. Being more linked to melancholia, sorrow, grief, and a vague longing for recovery and consolation, it is far from obvious how such a discourse plays in with movement activism.
 
Another and more politically energizing root of post-apocalyptic environmentalism can be found in early attempts, often by Marxist critics, of bringing back the issues of class and inequality into environmentalism. An early example is Cindi Katz, who in 1995 lambasted environmental apocalypticism for being "politically disabling", for disregarding inequalities of class and gender, and for focusing only on Malthusian solutions such as “limiting population and technology rather than attacking the social sources or resource inequality” (Katz 1995:276).
 
This argument is further developed in Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, a book written jointly by Sasha Lilley, Eddie Yuen, David McNally and James Davis. In this book, they offer a whole battery of arguments against what they call "catastrophism", the idea that society is headed for a collapse from which a new, better society will be born. As for capitalism, they deny that crises must presage its end. Indeed, capitalism lives of crises which fuel the system and open up new rounds of capital accumulation (Lilley et al 2012:6). They also criticize the idea, embraced by catastrophists, that the rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their slumber. Instead, catastrophe can often be paralyzing rather than mobilizing. The environmental movement  misses that fear can hinder rather than help preventing the disaster (ibid. 2, 16). Instead of "the cold porridge of climate catastrophe”, they argue that the Left needs a spirit of joyful rebellion, such as expressed in the slogan "caviar for all" (ibid. 39, 43). Furthermore, they criticize the “we” or “everybody” so often invoked by catastrophism for erasing meaningful class and geographic differences - "Beware of plutocrats speaking of Spaceship Earth” (ibid. 26).
 
The message in Catastrophism isn’t post-apocalyptic by itself. The book's message is above all that we should refrain from apocalyptic rhetoric because it is counter-productive and politically incapacitating, not that the apocalypse is already here or that it must be the starting point of struggle, protest or salvage work. However, there are passages where the book does come close to Swyngedouw or Williams, as when Eddie Yuen writes: “The question is no longer whether there will be environmental catastrophes, but for whom. To paraphrase William Gibson, ‘the catastrophe is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed’” (ibid. 130 n2).
 
                                                             *
 
The rhetoric of the coming catastrophe has been a major mobilizing force behind the environmental movement for a long time. While apocalyptic imagery still dominates much of environmentalism, my interest here has been drawn to those voices that see the apocalypse as something that is already occurring and to those forms of activism that are fuelled less by the risk of a future catastrophe than by the experience of catastrophes that are already here.
 
If these voices and forms of activism are indicative of a larger shift in the environmental movement, then we may need to rethink several assumptions about the latter. For instance, the prominent role of natural scientists in the environmental movement may be changing. If the apocalypse is already here, movements may no longer need to rely so much on the authority of science as before and can be grounded more in the lived experience of people. Furthermore, since the apocalypse is indeed socially and geographically uneven, issues such as justice and inequality may well become permanent features of environmentalist discourse.  
 
Lastly, might we not also expect "recovery" to become a major goal of much environmental activism, along with older goals such as preserving nature or limiting damage? To me this seems like a development that is both likely and reasonable. By "recovery" I mean forms of activism that take as their point of departure a damage already done. When a nuclear reactor has suffered a meltdown, your home is destroyed by a hurricane, or your children develop cancer because of fracking, then mere preservation becomes a senseless goal. Post-apocalypse doesn't mean that it won't get any worse. It may certainly grow worse. But while preventing that, people must also redress wrongs, help victims and do what they can in the ruins.
 


Motoda Hisaharu, Ginza

 
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