After the carbon tax: crisis mongering does not help

‘Crisis’ represents the dominant language for describing the state of the environment. How could it be otherwise? We live in a period defined by climate change and biodiversity loss, a time when floods, fires and drought are growing ever more ferocious and frequent. Political stagnation (if not barbarism) in the face of public opinion and protest has resulted in widespread disempowerment and disengagement from environmental politics.

In response, an increasing number of people have argued that only an environmental disaster would be sufficient to shock citizens and governments around the world into action. For some, the collapse is preordained, the result of peak oil, the scarcity of other natural resources, or the implosion of industrial society. For others, it needs hastening through a program of ‘decisive ecological warfare’.

These descriptions tend to paint human beings as inherently selfish, only able to make radical changes if they feel personally threatened.  Fear is the operating element in crisis politics, and it is deployed to coerce people into action.

Yet, in a world beset by calamity, might a politics of crisis end disastrously? Might crisis provide an opportunity for the powerful to solidify and entrench their power? On what possible basis do we have cause to think that crisis could open a space for egalitarian justice projects?

In response, I contend that crisis is not an opportunity for egalitarian change. Crisis politics reveals a deep feeling of alienation that most people have over their capacity to participate in decisions that affect their lives. Any politics that places the conditions for radical change outside of our control is ultimately fatalistic.

I would like to  problematise the argument that environmental catastrophe is not only inevitable but also imminent. While I hold grave fears about the survival and flourishing of future generations, we should also recall that past predictions of an apocalyptic end to civilization as a result of natural scarcities and disaster look foolish in retrospect.

For example, in 1798 Thomas Malthus predicted social catastrophe as exponential population growth outran the capacity to increase food supplied. Similarly, in the 1970s Paul Ehrlich argued that mass starvation was imminent by the end of the decade. Of course the fact that these, and other, predictions turned out to be wrong does not guarantee that a catastrophe will not occur this time. But I think that it should give one pause for scepticism.

Industrial capitalism has a long history of successfully resolving its ecological difficulties because it has the capacity to internalise ‘nature’ within the circulation and accumulation of capital. For example, the ability of a plant to grow is incorporated into agribusiness in its pursuit of profit and it is the reinvestment of that profit that allows the plant to grow again next season.

The nature that results from this interaction with capital is not evolving unpredictably but is actively and constantly being reshaped and re-engineered. The late geographer Neil Smith described this as the ‘production of nature’. Today, this production is taking place right down to the level of ‘molecular biology and DNA sequencing’.

The direction this production of nature takes is an open and not a closed question. Rather than focusing on immanent environmental collapse, we might (perhaps less comfortably) think about the possibility that capital will continue to circulate and accumulate even in the midst of environmental catastrophes. As Naomi Klein describes in The Shock Doctrine, environmental disasters create abundant opportunities for ‘disaster capitalism’ to profit. Moreover, David Harvey suggests:

[D]eaths from starvation of exposed and vulnerable populations and massive habitat destruction will not necessarily trouble capital…precisely because much of the word’s population has become redundant and disposable anyway. And capital has never shrunk from destroying people in pursuit of profit.

The expansion of capitalism has always been accompanied by differentially experienced social and environmental disaster, and there is no evidence to suggest that present-day elites will be moved by mass suffering to radically alter their practices.

Furthermore,  in his book Catastrophism, Sasha Lilly demonstrates that periods of intense public advocacy have tended to coincide with periods of prosperity and wellbeing. For example, the struggles and gains from the Civil Rights movement in the American South to the general strike in France in 1968 arose against the backdrop of rising expectations and increased social power for workers and students.

Fear does not motivate people to engage in political struggle, and scaremongering can actually have a paralysing effect. When presented with an apocalyptic scenario most people do not turn to mass solidarity or collective action. They try to cope individually, deploying a range of psychological tools to mitigate their despondency or disempowerment.

A recent US study on global warming found that the ‘more informed respondents both feel less personally responsible for global warming and also show less concern for global warming.’ Another study found that, when fears are whipped up around a particular issue, they trigger an instinctive survival response that leads people to focus on their own self interests.

Mike Hulme, from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, puts the problem like this: ‘The discourse of catastrophe is in danger of tipping society into a negative, depressive and reactionary trajectory.’

Similarly, Common Cause for Nature argues that crisis politics leaves people ‘feeling helpless and increasingly demotivated, or even inclined to actively avoid the issue.’

Clearly environmentalists face a challenge – how do we convey the objective catastrophic scientific evidence about the state of the environment, without adopting a politics that seeks to manipulate peoples fear to coerce them into political action?

As I have argued elsewhere, one of the great strengths of the environmental movement is its ability to imagine and prefigure an alternative society and to inspire people with its vision.

No amount of ‘fire and brimstone’ can substitute for the often-protracted and frequently demanding work of building a mass movement that can challenge those systems of power that are destroying the environment. History demonstrates that whoever goes into a crisis with more strategic thinking, organisation and with more groundwork prepared tends to do better. If crisis has any practical implications for environmental activists, it is that they need to take organisation and collective action very seriously.

Peter Burdon

Dr Peter D Burdon is a senior lecturer at the Adelaide Law School. He is currently a visiting Scholar at the University of California Berkeley. He can be followed on Twitter at @Pete_Burdon.

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  1. The problem seems to be that what passes for the Left these days (the ALP, Greens, NGOs, left wing think tanks, etc) has largely been captured by the rich and powerful. As a result there is little space for a genuine left movement to work in. A crisis, environmental or economic, would open up some space (as it has in Spain, for example). But as you mention, it would open up space for the left and for the right, and the right seems to be better at taking advantage of it.

    If the left promises too much, in the guise of hope, it will simply damage its credibility. Whatever crisis we face, the left needs a realistic vision of the future if we are to have long term success. (The right doesn’t need a realistic vision of the future, since they are generally concerned with short term success.)

    Most of those (like me) who think industrial society will collapse due to peak oil do not think it will be an apocalypse. Instead it will be a long slow, although fast in some places, decline over decades. This belief is based on the observation that the technology that defines our lives today, including the technology for renewable energy, requires easily acessible fossil fuels, and as fossil fuels become harder to access we will have to greatly reduce our use of technology.

  2. The real problem is that nothing helps, when it comes to convincing rightwingers to abandon something central to their tribal identity. It’s true that crisis rhetoric doesn’t work, but neither does careful demonstration that the problem is soluble at low cost, or detailed and comprehensive exposition of the facts. A mass movement can help by outnumbering the other side, not by persuading them.

  3. A very thought provoking piece, thank you.

    The problem I have with the, quite reasonable, argument that environmental catastrophism risks disengaging the mainstream is that if it is not catastrophe that we are attempting to avoid then why should the mainstream engage? Nature has many values, not all shared by all people, but all of the 99% have an interest in avoiding catastrophe. Surely avoiding catastrophe is the *only* mainstream environmental issue.

    The problem seems less with making catastrophic predictions based on evidence, which may turn out to be wrong, and more to do with the fact that we have a society where power accrues to a minority for whom catastrophe is merely the next opportunity.

    1. What too of those studies which show how quickly the natural environment around Fukushima is recovering post catastrophe – sans homo sapiens, of course.

  4. One slight correction: Sasha Lilley is a woman; and “Catastrophism” is not “her” book: she is one of four contributors.

  5. Isn’t the problem that we are actually living this crisis, right now, and that very few of us are screaming about it or willing to seriously engage with changing the inevitable suicide off the cliff we are teetering on the edge of?

    Despite multiple environmental catastrophes — rising carbon emissions is only the tip of the iceberg — capitalism is becoming more ossified. Here in Australia we are buffered from the worst effects of the great recession and it is easy to ignore homeless, unemployed and the rising inequality.

    I think people change when they can visualise and believe in their capacity and agency to realise that vision. However, many people either underestimate their entrapment in monetary values and relationships or are overwhelmed by it: the level of change necessary and the lack of left unity and solidarity around revolutionary change is a big part of the inertia.

  6. It seems to me there’s a fundamental slippage in your argument: you argue against a notion of impending apocalypse, but you yourself describe it as “objective catastrophic scientific evidence about the state of the environment.” The problem is not that our perception is askew, but, as you point out, the objective scientific evidence (unlike the evidence marshalled by earlier apocalyptics) indicates we are heading towards a series of mass-extinction events. Unfortunately, there’s no way to sugar coat this. The reason people turn away from collective action isn’t the ‘fear mongering’, but the lack of any obvious political alternative. So the problem is a matter or strategy, of the weakness of the Left, and less an issue of ‘the way we phrase’ what is clearly an impending disaster.

  7. Climate change is affecting people. As evidence read these recent reports:

    People are so caught in the money/capitalist system they can’t do anything rational within that system to change what will amount to species suicide. Meanwhile the Left is unprepared to offer a clear alternative, such as non-market socialism. Politically a critic without a solution is an absurdity.

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