‘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.