Yes, it is a climate crisis. And your tiny human efforts have never seemed so meagre

We are like soccer fans in front of a TV screen at home, shouting and jumping from our seats, in a superstitious belief that this will somehow influence the outcome

Slavoj Zizek
Friday 20 September 2019 10:53
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Brazilian Air Force spray water over Amazon fires

Talk of a climate crisis moves to the top of the agenda again, just as the burning of the Amazon forests drifts from our headlines. But are we really heading towards a collective suicide?

We instinctively feel that by destroying the Amazon rainforests, Brazilians are killing “the lungs of our Earth”. However, if we want to confront seriously threats to our environment, what we should avoid are precisely such quick extrapolations which fascinate our imagination.

Two or three decades ago, everyone in Europe was talking about Waldsterben, the dying of forests. The topic was on the covers of all popular weeklies, and there were calculations of how in half a century Europe will be without forests. Now there are more forests in Europe than at any point in the 20th century, and we are becoming aware of other dangers – of what happens in the depth of the oceans, for example.

While we should take ecological threats extremely seriously, we should also be fully aware of how uncertain analyses and projections are in this domain – we will know for sure what is going on only when it is too late. Fast extrapolations only hand arguments to climate change deniers. We should avoid at all costs the trap of an “ecology of fear”, a hasty, morbid fascination with looming catastrophe.

This ecology of fear has the hallmarks of a developing, predominant form of ideology in global capitalism, a new opium for the masses replacing the declining religion. It takes over the old religion’s fundamental function, that of installing an unquestionable authority which can impose limits.

The lesson hammered into us is that of our own finitude: we are just one species on our Earth embedded in a biosphere which reaches far beyond our horizon. In our exploitation of natural resources, we are borrowing from the future, so one should treat our Earth with respect, as something ultimately sacred, something that should not be unveiled totally, that should and will forever remain a mystery, a power we should trust, not dominate.

While we cannot gain full mastery over our biosphere, it is, unfortunately, in our power to derail it, to disturb its balance so that it will run amok, swiping us away in the process. This is why, although ecologists are all the time demanding that we make radical changes to our way of life, underlying this demand is its opposite: a deep distrust of change, of development, of progress. Every radical change can have the unintended consequence of catastrophe.

Things get even more difficult here. Even when we profess the readiness to assume responsibility for ecological catastrophes, this can be a tricky stratagem to avoid facing the true scale of the threat. There is something deceptively reassuring in this readiness to assume the guilt for threats to our environment: we like to be guilty since, if we are guilty, then it all depends on us, we pull the strings of the catastrophe, so we can also save ourselves simply by changing our lives.

What is really difficult for us (at least for us in the west) to accept is that we might be reduced to a purely passive role of impotent observers who can only sit and watch our fate. To avoid this, we are prone to engage in frantic activity, we recycle old paper, buy organic food, whatever, just so that we can be sure we are doing something, making our contribution.

We are like a soccer fan who supports his team in front of a TV screen at home, shouting and jumping from his seat, in a superstitious belief that this will somehow influence the outcome.

It is true that the typical form of fetishist disavowal around ecology is: “I know very well (that we are all threatened), but I don’t really believe it (so I am not ready to do anything really important like changing my way of life).”

But there is also the opposite form of disavowal: “I know very well that I cannot really influence the process which can lead to my ruin (like a volcanic outburst), but it is nonetheless too traumatic for me to accept this, so I cannot resist the urge to do something, even if I know it is ultimately meaningless.”

Is it not for that reason we buy organic food? Who really believes that the half-rotten and expensive “organic” apples are really healthier? The point is that, by way of buying them, we do not just buy and consume a product – we simultaneously do something meaningful, show our care and global awareness, we participate in a large collective project.

The predominant ecological ideology treats us as a priori guilty, indebted to Mother Nature, under the constant pressure of the ecological superego agency which addresses us in our individuality: “What did you do today to repay your debt to nature? Did you put all your newspapers into a proper recycling bin? And all the bottles of beer or cans of Coke? Did you use your bike or public transport instead of your car? Did you open the windows wide rather than firing up the air conditioning?”

The ideological stakes of such individualisation are easy to see: I get lost in my own self-examination instead of raising much more pertinent global questions about our entire industrial civilization.

Ecology thus lends itself easily to ideological mystification. It can be a pretext for New Age obscuration (the praising of the pre-modern etc), or for neocolonialism (developed world complaints of the threat of rapid growth in developing countries such as Brazil or China), or as a cause to honour “green capitalists” (buy green and recycle, as if taking into account ecology justifies capitalist exploitation). All of these tensions exploded in our reactions to the recent Amazon fires.

There are five main strategies to distract from the true dimensions of the ecological threat. First there is simple ignorance: it’s a marginal phenomenon, not worthy of our preoccupation, life goes on, nature will take care of itself.

Second, there is the belief that science and technology can save us. Third, that we should leave the solution to the market (with higher taxation of polluters, etc). Fourth, we resort to the superego pressure on personal responsibility instead of large systemic measures (each of us should do what we can – recycle, consume less, etc).

Aerial footage shows Amazon wildfires burning and devastation left behind

And fifth, perhaps the worst, is the advocating of a return to natural balance, to a more modest, traditional life by means of which we renounce human hubris and become again respectful children of our Mother Nature.

This whole paradigm of Mother Nature derailed by our hubris is wrong. The fact that our main sources of energy (oil, coal) are remnants of past catastrophes which occurred prior to the advent of humanity is a clear reminder that Mother Nature is cold and cruel.

This, of course, in no way means that we should relax and trust our future: the fact that it is not clear what is going on makes the situation even more dangerous. Plus, as it is fast becoming evident, migrations (and walls meant to prevent them) are getting more and more intertwined with ecological disturbances like global warming. The ecological apocalypse and the refugees apocalypse are more and more overlapping in what Philip Alston, a UN special rapporteur, described entirely accurately:

“We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario,” he said, “where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”

Those least responsible for global emissions also have the least capacity to protect themselves.

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So, the Leninist question: what is to be done? We are in a deep mess: there is no simple “democratic” solution here. The idea that people themselves (not just governments and corporations) should decide sounds deep, but it begs an important question: even if their comprehension is not distorted by corporate interests, what qualifies them to pass judgement in such a delicate matter?

What we can do is at least set the priorities straight and admit the absurdity of our geopolitical war games when the very planet for which wars are fought is under threat.

In the Amazon, we see the ridiculous game of Europe blaming Brazil and Brazil blaming Europe. It has to stop. Ecological threats make it clear that the era of sovereign nation states is approaching its end – a strong global agency is needed with the power to coordinate the necessary measures. And does such the need for such an agency point in the direction of what we once called “communism”?

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