Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Giving Voice to Climate Silence

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

A (slight) majority of Americans accept the reality of human-induced climate change. Yet even many of those who do attach a low priority to the issue. Even worse, some join in opposing any constructive steps. As Subhankar Banerjee, editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point puts it, “we have arrived at a climate impasse. The US government hasn’t done anything meaningful to address the climate crisis, despite lofty rhetoric from Obama. On the contrary, the government has done, what it can, to foil the international efforts…”  This impasse seems especially dangerous as many climate scientists now move toward even more negative prognoses.  Work published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows the ability of the Arctic ice to reflect sunlight—known scientifically as albedo—has decreased dramatically since 1979, with the calculations showing the region's ability to reflect sunlight diminished more than twice what previous studies have shown. As less of the sun's rays are reflected back into space, the open ocean absorbs more heat leading to additional ice melt in the region. The problem is both self-feeding and a source of deep concern for scientists…” Mean global temperature may increase more than 2C—with severe social consequences-- even if dramatic moves are made now. Nonetheless if an earlier scientific consensus—and even public acceptance of it—could not sway our national and international environmental agenda, these more dire warnings—even well documented-- may not do the trick either. As the mean climate science position is becoming more stark the instinct to procrastinate appears to be solidifying.  How this paradox has emerged may be one key to reversing it.

Notre Dame economic historian Philip Mirowski points out that one large factor is “neoliberalism’s” capture of the political dialogue today. By neoliberalism, Mirowski means the conviction that markets are the solution to all problems. They are the ultimate information processing machine. They do not, however, emerge spontaneously. They must be imposed by a strong state and protected from political interference.  

Oil, coal, and petro chemical interests have flooded the airwaves with climate science denialism. It is clear that this campaign has had an effect, but as Mirowski points out this tactic is only part of a larger strategy.  The think tanks and lobbyists promoting denialism know they are going to lose the science battle. It is merely a delaying tactic.  But their fallback position, right out of the neoliberal playbook, is equally problematic:
“The project to institute markets in emission permits is a neoliberal mid-range strategy, better attuned to appeal to centrist governments, NGOs and the educated segments of the populace, as well as to the financial sector. In effect, the strategy is an elaborate bait-and-switch manoeuvre, where political actors originally bent upon using state power to curb emissions directly are instead diverted into the endless technicalities of instituting and maintaining novel markets for carbon permits and offsets, while carbon emissions grow apace… {C}arbon trading doesn’t work – and was never intended to do so. Once permit trading is put in place, lobbying and financial innovation will flood the fledgling market with excess permits, offsets and other instruments, so that the nominal cap on carbon emissions never actually stunts the growth of emissions. This, in turn, leads the prices of the permits to trend towards utter collapse,… Money that might have been used productively to transform energy infrastructure instead gets pumped into yet another set of speculative financial instruments, leading to ultra-short-term investment horizons, windfall profits for traders and all the usual symptoms of financialisation.”
Neoliberals are already preparing their own approach for the collapse of the carbon trading market: “extreme turbulence in the markets does not perturb neoliberals, since they take the longer view. The neoliberal fallback after the ‘cap-and-trade’ model inevitably fails will be geoengineering, which derives from the core neoliberal doctrine that entrepreneurs will innovate market solutions to address dire environmental problems… Geoengineering is a portmanteau term covering a range of intentional large-scale manipulations of the Earth’s climate. It encompasses such phenomena as Earth albedo enhancement through ‘solar radiation management’… ( CO2 sequestration.. and direct weather modification…Like most neoliberal prescriptions, the most important aspect of this tortured marriage of science and corporate commodification is that it doesn’t work. Geoengineering presumes corporations can take unilateral actions violating international treaties and not have to own the consequences. It doesn’t resolve the root problem – increasing CO2 concentrations – and it will not stop ocean acidification.”

I would add that the neoliberal financial agenda contributes in other ways to inaction on climate. The very instability and job insecurity it fosters forces on the population a fixation on the here and now rather than long-term investment horizons. Financial deregulation coupled with the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing—free money for investment banks—has encouraged speculation in essential commodities—further destabilizing long term prospects. Chronic unemployment has become the norm for modern neoliberal economies.  
Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has compared reaction to capitalism’s current crisis with the 14th century plague. He speculates that if a public opinion poll had been taken in the midst of the tragedy, large majorities of the population would blame themselves for its occurrence. Problematic as this mindset is for progressive causes, including the environment,  it is not insurmountable. A dramatically higher minimum wage issue is becoming an increasingly popular cause among even Republican voters. It places no strain on the Federal treasury. Indeed it may lessen the need for some federal expenditure. It also provides an opportunity to work oneself out of poverty. The very experience of a decent job and the respect that comes with it can alter one’s self-identity.

Mirowski’s neoliberal thought collective is also not a free-standing, totally autonomous movement. In the US case one would need to examine the role of social conservatism as well, a theme William Connolly has developed in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style.  Though many neoliberals do not share social conservatives’ hostility to reproductive choice or gay marriage, both groups embody hostility to liberals and a sense of entitlement, a feeling that they are oppressed if their agendas are questioned or not fully embraced by all. These sensibilities resonate with each other, helping to foster a powerful electoral and social alliance.

Some social conservative have advanced the neoliberal agenda in one other way, and progressive environmental advocates need to learn some lessons from them. Many already accept the likelihood, indeed even certainty, of an environmental apocalypse, though one attributed to God, who is seen as controlling the climate.  In such apocalyptic visions ultimate redemption both of virtuous individuals and nations is envisioned. The fear of death is addressed, though in ways that most liberal modernists could not embrace.

Climate science and some environmental activists now offer predictions of civilizational collapse, widespread death, and a planet perhaps inhospitable to all human life. These scenarios may, however, contribute to the very inaction activists hope to avoid.  Has climate science reached a point where it can predict with certainty the uninhabitability of the entire planet? And if technologies such as geoengineering cannot save civilization as we know it, does that mean technology and human resourcefulness are utterly unavailing in securing life somewhere?

How do we face the prospect of widespread environmental/social collapse without becoming immobilized? Cultural attitudes to death can intensify these challenges. Nonetheless. populations facing widespread death have on occasion responded with extraordinary courage and mutual support. Witness the determination of citizens of Leningrad to support their troops during the Nazi siege by eating wood. Though “defense of the fatherland” inspired their actions, other causes may equally inspire.

Thus ethical/ religious questions must also be in play. Viewing death as punishment or even as an inadequacy of the human condition to be perpetually resented only intensifies the urge to find compensation is techno wonders and belittling others. (Usually some combination of both.)

Can the fear of death itself be defanged? The right to die movement can be seen as growing out of and fostering a diminished fear of death and an emphasis on the quality rather than quantity of life. But one of the consolations easing anxiety regarding death, the chance to die in relative peace surrounded by loved ones, may not be possible if the more extreme scenarios are realized. But here too there are alternatives. Christopher Hedges cites comments of Dr. Marek Edelman, the last survivor of the Warsaw ghetto uprising: “Traditional concepts of right and wrong,… collapse in moments of extremity. Edelman spoke… about a woman doctor in the ghetto hospital who poisoned the sick children on her ward as the Germans entered the building. 'She saved children from the gas chamber,' Edelman said. 'People thought she was a hero. So what, then, in that world turned upside down, was heroism? Or honor? Or dignity? And where was God?' Edelman answered his own question. God, he said, was on the side of the persecutors. A malicious God. And Edelman said that as a heart surgeon in Poland after the war he felt he was always battling against this malevolent deity who sought to extinguish life. 'God is trying to blow out the candle and I’m quickly trying to shield the flame, taking advantage of His brief inattention….He is not terribly just. It can also be very satisfying because whenever something does work out, it means you have, after all, fooled Him.'” The Hedges piece led me to picture victims of 9/11, but this time afforded opportunities beyond the hideous choice of being burned alive or jumping from the towers to their deaths.

Perhaps in the face of widespread destruction preservation of the human species in both as diverse modes and in as many locales as possible can be a compelling goal. Such a goal can grow out of and constitute a response to the anxieties surrounding death and the certainty of our identities.  This goal need not be exclusively anthropocentric or unmindful of the preservation of other beings.   As Jane Bennett points out, agency and the diversity it occasions is not confined to human actors: “The starting point of ethics might lie in the recognition of human participation in a shared, vital materiality. We are vital materiality and we are surrounded by it, though we do not always see it that way. The ethical task at hand here is to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it. (p. 14, Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things.) Such a perspective might help sustain an Epicurean sensibility that appreciation for the pluripotentiality of existence is more compelling than the length of life itself. 

Movements for international survival depend on efforts to reduce the psychological, economic, and even religious pressures to secure collective and individual identity by demonizing an other.  Survival also depends on a regard for things as important in themselves rather than merely as objects of consumption.  Cultivating a capacity latent in many to appreciate a world of multiple sources of agency in organic and inorganic life is crucial.  But also vital-- and clearly related-- is appreciation of growing diversity in religions, languages and backgrounds, family structure, sexual orientation, music, dress, food. The Pentagon is preparing for war against the immigrants sure to be displaced by floods and draughts. Environmental and social justice advocates need to prepare now for a different future by collaborating across borders to provide subsistence for all in developing nations while slowing and finding alternatives to the mindless and self-defeating growth compulsions in affluent societies.

Our notions of courage might be broadened to include bravery on behalf of our global neighbors and openness to what they bring coupled with a willingness to question our fixed certainties.  I fantasize a new navy that might live up to the boasts of its recent ads, a “global force for good.”

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