Thursday, 7 March 2019

Climate change is here, and that means new struggles

It’s important to think ahead. For everyone, not just for social scientists. And the future is bleak. Regardless of whether we look at resource depletion or climate change, it’s almost certain that catastrophic disruptions of the way we organize our societies await us. To many people, the catastrophes are already here. I stress that not to induce hopelessness, but to encourage all of us to think about what it means and to discuss it together. Above all, we need to sharpen our eyes to what new conflicts will emerge or become more central in a future of ecological devastation and diminishing material prosperity. To accept the inevitability of catastrophe doesn’t mean passivity at all. It means discovering a host of new struggles.

Clive Hamilton makes two important points in his Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change (Earthscan, 2010). First, he stresses the need to mourn. Rather than clinging to hopefulness – which he describes as a “means of forestalling the truth” – we should allow ourselves “a phase of desolation... in short, to grieve” (p. 211). But, secondly, he also stresses the need for mass movements in order to resist elites. One of the great dangers of climate change is that it may lead to:
…a retreat to self-preservation in which the ruthless and the wealthy use their power to control dwindling resources and exclude others form sharing in them. It is to prevent this from happening that... I urge the mobilisation of a mass movement to build a countervailing power to the elites and corporations that have captured government. In short, a revived democracy is the only means of fighting the effects of climate change in a humane way. (p. 218)

In short, we must build democracies that “do not abandon the poor and vulnerable to their fate while those who are able to buy their way out of the crisis do so”. The goal must be to “democratize survivability” (p. 223).

So here’s another reason for the importance of “climate justice”. Justice is necessary not just to distribute burdens for mitigation fairly or to compensate for historical emissions. It’s necessary from the point of view of adaptation too, in order to avoid having climate change result in a Hobbesian war. Facing the reality of climate change means facing the threat of a brutal, exterminist future in which ruthless oligarchs protect themselves while large swaths of humanity perish. To prevent that, we need to make efforts already now to reduce social inequality and strengthen the political rights of those whose position in society is weakest. That’s surely a struggle that’s still worth fighting, even if disruptive climate change per se can no longer be averted.

Framing the climate crisis in these terms helps us gain a better view of the stakes of some other recent political debates. The so-called refugee crisis, for example, is clearly linked to climate change in many ways. The way societies in Europe and other parts of Global North reacted to the crisis gave a foretaste of how these societies may react to diminishing material prosperity in the future. With the crisis, we saw a right-wing shift across the political landscape of the Global North, a new love of walls that was not least fuelled by the argument that we can’t afford accepting refugees because of the burden they place on our economies. Isn’t this readiness to sacrifice others with reference to a sacrosanct economy a glimpse of the barbaric future Hamilton warns us about?

The point I want to make here is that we can’t have a society that can only act morally when it’s rich. Such a society would condemn us to hell the moment the economy runs into decline. Unless we find at least relatively decent ways of living together that don’t presuppose economic growth, it’s not just the refugee crisis that we won’t be able to deal with. We won’t be able to deal with the ecological crisis either.

Another issue concerns neoliberalism. Neoliberalism isn’t just about economics. It’s also a political project involving the destruction of rights. Its history since the late 1970s shows how quickly rights and welfare systems can be dismantled when economic elites see their interests threatened. Even as I write, the government of Sweden (where I live) is looking for ways to restrict workers’ right to strike, justifying this with the need to limit disruptions of the economy. It’s easy to imagine a host of other rights being abolished or curtailed as climate change and resource depletion threaten the profitability of the economy – the right to public access to information, the right to free schooling, the freedom of the press, and so on. If Hamilton is right, and I believe he is right, weakening these rights is surely the stupidest and most counterproductive thing we can do. Weakening them means strengthening the very elites that we ought to mobilize against. Accepting the economy as a valid excuse to outlaw strikes or to build walls is to make ourselves hostage to these elites who claim the power to define our economic interests, but whose own interests are in fact opposite to ours.

To summarize this post, I believe that we really need to have a public debate about how to manage processes of material decline, and how that can be done in a way that minimizes suffering. Not just for the sake of refugees, but for the sake of everyone. If the word ecology indicates a focal point for many conflicts today, it’s not only because we must struggle against climate change and resource depletion, but also because of the many new conflicts that are emerging because of ongoing climate change and resource depletion.

I once used the word “post-apocalyptic environmentalism” for environmental activism that takes its departure in catastrophes that are already occurring or that are seen as inevitable. Perhaps the association to post-apocalyptic fiction is not altogether misplaced. Such fiction practically always shows heroes and heroines who continue fighting and struggling, even “after the end”, in the desolate landscapes that remain after the cataclysm. I think it’s possible to find traces of a similar heroism in today’s climate activism – but I’ll write more about that in a later post!

Nausicaa - a post-apocalyptic hero

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