Inaction on climate science has many parents, and all must be addressed if there is to be any response to the growing dangers we face. In my previous column I cited the role of neoliberalism, the faith in markets and the willingness to go to any extreme in order to impose them. Notre Dame’s Philip Mirowski has identified a neoliberal “thought collective” that played a vital role in the success of the neoliberal agenda.
Mirowski’s neoliberal thought collective is, however, not a free-standing, totally autonomous movement. In the US case, one would need to examine the role of social conservatism, 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 conservatives have advanced the neoliberal agenda in one other way, and progressive environmental advocates need to learn 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 planet? And if technology cannot save civilization, does that mean technology and human resourcefulness are unavailing in securing life somewhere?
How do we face the prospect of widespread environmental/social collaps
e 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, citing comments of Dr. Marek Edelman, the last survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, argues that “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.”
John Buell (email Jbuell@acadia.net) lives in Southwest Harbor Maine. Sources for this essay are available upon request.
From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2014
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