‘Imagining Survival’ by Alex Mitcalfe Wilson
Here in New Zealand, climate change is a dark reality which looms in the background of everyday life. It is a phenomenon of such extreme complexity and destructive potential that many people find it too frightening to look at face-on. For some, it is easier to pretend that it is something that will happen in the future, or not at all; a thing that is caused by, and will happen to, other people. But, whether or not it is acknowledged as doing so, human- induced climate change has already set in motion many long-term processes that threaten people and other living things around the world. California has just endured its worst drought for 1200 years (1), almost a third of Jakarta may be underwater by 2050 (2), and 70% of currently known species could be driven extinct by the end of this century (3). Our current trajectory promises ecological collapse and human immiseration; tipping the climate into runaway warming will create a world that is beyond our experience as a species.
In the face of this, New Zealand’s attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have so far been half-hearted. At an institutional level, the New Zealand government has lobbied for a non-binding treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol(4), under which member states faced penalties for emissions growth. Such attempts to evade international accountability are troubling, given that our national greenhouse gas emissions are currently anticipated to exceed their end-of-decade targets by 50%(5). This country is doing little to build an economy which does not rely on such pollution; the current government’s continued attempts to expand deep sea oil and gas exploration are just one example of a political culture which prefers economic growth to ecological caution.
This gap between the ecological limits to human activity and the levels of consumption taken for granted in the Global North is at the core of my reading towards this essay. My research has focused on the political and economic processes which drive this overconsumption, in spite of the dire consequences that it entails. I have also been interested in local situations around the world which exemplify aspects of the different futures which remain open to humanity. Some are images of a world to be avoided at all costs, warnings of what life may become if the consumption of today’s rich locks in a desolate future for all. Other cases suggest ways that societies might evolve to respect this planet’s ecological limits while addressing the inequities fostered by our current global system. Looking at these different realities, these lives already lived around the world, is one way of understanding how humanity’s future can still be changed for better or worse.
Because they involve trade-offs about resources and money, environmental decisions are inherently complicated; understanding them requires us to recognise the ethical, scientific and economic frameworks through which people organise their reality. In most countries around the world, the last thirty years have seen the rise of neoliberal economic theory, which now holds a dominant position in most policy debates. At the core of neoliberal politics is the notion that states exist to facilitate commerce, to support the expansion of private markets, and to provide a minimum framework of security and judicial functions while conducting themselves as if they were businesses. In this country, governments from both major parties have advanced these neoliberal values since 1984, and profoundly reorganised New Zealand society in doing so.
By reducing the state’s sphere of interest to questions of financial efficiency and economic performance, neoliberal values undermine the aspirational idealism represented by goals like full employment, free education and environmental sustainability, which may be financially draining in the short term but profoundly beneficial in other ways. Where governments measure their performance in purely financial terms, such as GDP growth and inflation, the actual conditions of their citizens’ lives, or the impact they have on the planet, become marginal issues; private concerns to be addressed by individuals or conveniently ignored.
This neoliberal era has been characterised by far-reaching deregulation, designed to foster the growth of business and reduce state control over commercial activity. At the same time, powerful new technologies like big-data analytics, hydraulic fracturing and genetically engineered crops have exponentially augmented corporations’ ability to transform social and natural systems for their own profit. These twin processes have shifted the balance of power towards the world’ largest corporations and away from the trade unions, environmental organisations and regulatory bodies which previously enforced limits to their behaviour.
Saskia Sassen explores these developments in her book Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, stating that:
“…corporations have remarkable new tools at their disposal: advanced mathematics and communications, machines that can quite literally move mountains, global freedoms of movement and manoeuvre that allow them to ignore or intimidate national governments, and increasingly international institutions that force compliance with their agenda across the world” (6).
This combination of unprecedented global freedom of action and mutating, invasive technologies has incentivised corporations around the world to extract unprecedented short term profits regardless of their negative impact. At the same time, neoliberal priorities have placed regulators who police the negative impacts of this activity in a double bind. Such institutions are now required to balance the ideals they are supposed to represent, like sustainability or justice, with an overriding demand that government support economic growth based on private profit. Sassen uses the term “predatory formation” (7) to encapsulate this entanglement of regulatory regimes and legal structures with the self- interest and unprecedented capabilities of corporations that they are conventionally expected to restrain. As their name suggests, these complex alignments of powerful bodies embody a great potential to harm human beings and other living things.
Such entanglement also has serious consequences for politics as it is commonly understood. When I ask people around me what they are doing to address the climate crisis, most speak of voting, consuming consciously, signing petitions and going to protests. These activities all have the capacity to to bring about particular kinds of change, but their possibilities are also limited by the underlying dynamics of the neoliberal state.
Voting, for instance, decides the makeup of parliament; the body with the greatest legal authority over life in this country. Though parliamentarians occupy a powerful position, National and Labour’s longstanding commitment to neoliberal values means that their power is unlikely to muzzle predatory capitalism for so long as either is dominant in government, and neither sees a political benefit in pursuing other goals than economic expansion. If the present two-party system also keeps those who challenge the status quo,
such as the Mana Movement, isolated on the fringes of the political process, then voting in New Zealand will remain a means of averting localised manifestations of the present crisis, like opening particular coal mines or signing new trade agreements, rather than a way of transforming our society’s priorities to avert disaster.
This enduring political commitment to neoliberalism also limits the effectiveness of petition and protest. If politicians see economic growth as the highest ideal, and regulators are subtly compelled to facilitate private profit, then demands for environmental change are likely to be met with responses which are primarily profitable and somewhat helpful, rather than socially transformative, economically painful and sufficient to avert disaster.
The current possibilities of conscious consumption also require critical reflection. Careful research can identify which consumer products have the lowest environmental impact, and choosing them can help people to reduce their personal ecological footprint. What is important to bear in mind, though, is that one can make such choices while still overconsuming. Without actually researching the amount of energy, water and other resources that one is using, and making sure it is within what the planet can sustain, conscious consumption can entail buying into the brand of ecology, while ignoring its substance. For those in the rich world, living within the planet’s limits will require deep sacrifice. My lifestyle’s calculated footprint, as a person who walks to work, eats carefully and flies no more than four times a year, still has twice the ecological impact of a truly sustainable life. If every person now alive lived as I do, it would take two Earths worth of resources to replace all that we used.
By equating individualistic consumption with fulfilment, viewing its contribution to economic growth as an ideal in itself, and ignoring the financially invisible damage it wreaks on the environment, neoliberal values directly promote overconsumption like my own. To my mind, reducing consumption, production and greenhouse gas emissions to levels within the planet’s ecological limits will require new values and new ways of living, which starve the neoliberal economic machine of the endlessly cycling money it needs to survive.
Because the familiar political activities that I have described run counter to the most powerful current in our present society, the pressure to maximise private profit in spite of environmental destruction, I believe they are best understood as mitigation strategies, which might slow the approach of tipping points that will trigger runaway warming, rather than ways of reorganising society so those points are never reached. If these strategies hold a kernel of greater possibility it is that they demonstrate a commitment in principle to the massive, imminent project of changing the world. That type of transformation will require more profound sacrifices, through which the cheap pleasures of overconsumption might give way to a new social life.
The exact means by which a sustainable new global system can be brought about will differ around the world, but some of the general considerations involved are very clear. One of the most important is that any process of transition must involve a deep simplification of life in the Global North, at the same time as a massive return of wealth to the Global South.
Because the overconsumption which fuels climate change has always been subsidised by massive flows of value out of what are now the world’s poorest countries, I believe it is a moral imperative that a structural response to climate change does not leave these inequities unchecked. As Sassen notes: “it used to be that being poor meant owning or working a plot of land that did not produce much. Today the 2 billion people living in extreme poverty own nothing but their bodies”. (8) This is a reality that sows the seeds of violence and desperation, as well as ecological catastrophe. In the face of such suffering, a middle class New Zealand lifestyle is shameful as well as unsustainable; something which is not to be protected in responding to climate change but one of the most pressing problems that it requires us to solve.
Transitioning to a world of shared sufficiency will require a daunting realignment of everyday life, economic structures and political practice. One way to make this work of realignment less intimidating is to recognise that the alternative is not a continuation of the comfort which some New Zealanders currently experience, but brutal new era of expanding inequality, extreme insecurity and dwindling resources. William Robinson explores such futures in his article ‘Policing the Global Crisis’, which suggests that, if the inherent inequity, violence and ecological disregard of this neoliberal order are left to harden, then the social chaos of runaway warming could turn today’s states of miserable exception into tomorrow’s unremarkable norms.
Sassen refers to these states of exception as “the spaces of the expelled”(9). They are the places where people end up when the present system has stripped them of formal work, social benefits, and legal protections; the informal settlements of Mumbai, the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the steps of the Auckland City Library, and the refugee detention centres of Lampedusa Island. These zones frequently exist alongside areas of relative wealth and are usually stigmatised and punitively controlled by their privileged neighbours; they are the negative space of comfort like my own.
One extreme case, described by Andre Czegledy in Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, is the city of Johannesburg in 2003, where the palatial houses of Rosebank and Randburg are surrounded with electric fences and patrolled by private security companies who promise to answer callouts “with firearms and explosives”(10). Elsewhere in the same city, hundreds of refugees from Rwanda and Zimbabwe sleep on the pews and floors of the Central Methodist Church, destitute and in fear of xenophobic violence from police and locals alike(11). In this snapshot, an isolated, militarised elite maintain their privileged position through normalised violence against a desperate class of rightless scapegoats, who have been expelled from formal protection. This is the type of intertwined violence and misery which will expand across the world if runaway climate change erodes the foundations of the present social order, and society does little to adapt.
Fortunately, these horrors are not yet inevitable. A short window remains in which a drastic transformation of the global economic system, and deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, could still pull the world back from irreversible climate change. Some of the new strategies needed to bring that transformation about can be seen in places where people expelled from neoliberal society have already constructed communities whose bare subsistence is based on novel ways of protecting and providing for one another. These places offer fragmentary glimpses of what a mode of life that is equitable and humble enough for the planet to sustain might entail.
One example that Jill Stoner describes in Toward a Minor Architecture is Torre De David, in Caracas, an incomplete, forty-five storey office tower abandoned by its owners during a financial panic, then taken over by the city’s poor. Throughout the seven years it was inhabited, Torre de David’s occupants improved and expanded its habitable areas until the tower’s population peaked at more than 2500 people. What had once been rusting offices were transformed into family apartments, cafes, hair salons and places of worship.
Operating without government support or formal ownership structures, the tower became a functional and largely autonomous urban settlement in which volunteers coordinated their own health care, electricity, security, child care and waste disposal services, paying a monthly fee of around twenty five New Zealand dollars to support the building’s developing infrastructure. Although the community was long tolerated by Venezuela’s government, it was never accepted by them; in July last year, the tower’s occupants were evicted, and it has been suggested that Torre de David will now be redeveloped as a corporate headquarters.
The history of Torre de David illustrates one particular way that people can organise their lives to pursue dignity rather than profit, and how a community can be predicated on shared action and free affiliation, rather than legal instruments of property. It is one model, among many, which might inform a peaceful convergence of today’s rich and poor towards a shared future.
In saying this, I recognise that few in the Global North would wish to live as barely as the inhabitants of Torre de David have done, but it is by beginning the transition to a more equitable and less materially intensive way of life that they will have the opportunity to negotiate the conditions of their future existence by building on such fragile models from the social margins. If a new world system which respects the planet’s limits is not created in time to keep global emissions from triggering runaway warming, then even the humble conditions of life of the Torre will become inaccessible to all but the very wealthiest.
It is a good thing to continue voting for political parties who say they will ban offshore oil drilling, to protest in the streets against structural instruments of corporate empowerment like the TPPA , to petition the government against the sale of public assets, and to grow fresh, safe food. But these familiar ideas can only be the first steps in changing global politics to avert climate chaos.
I believe that the most important question to ask is how, in every place, all people can live within the planet’s limits in ways which supply them with more than the bare sufficiencies of life. For those in the Global North, answering this will mean moving beyond the neoliberal consensus and accepting that society will never achieve environmental safety or social justice through the self-interested pursuit of profit or the purchase of consumer goods. By accepting and participating in those global structures which impoverish a majority of humanity and imperil the future, we pump political capital and fast money into the corporate and governmental machines which reproduce predatory capitalism.
One way to undermine this neoliberal consensus, and to clear the ground for a better future, is by revoking the tacit support we all offer it through our dedication to overconsumption. By undertaking a radical simplification of life, it will be possible to push away the spectre of runaway climate change, at the same time as opening up an empty space in which to construct new values that make novel communities of care and mutual aid possible. Making these communities a reality will require those who benefit from the present order to face up to those who it expels; to recognise their human potential, and ask their permission to learn, to work together and to make amends.
- http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climateconsensus97percent/2014/dec/08/ californiajusthaditsworstdroughtinover1200years
- http://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2015/jan/20/everydayclimate- change inpictures
- http://www.generationzero.org/live_from_lima_nz_s_record_on_climate_not_somethin g_to_be_proud_of
- http://www.generationzero.org/live_from_lima_nz_s_record_on_climate_not_somethin g_to_be_proud_of
- Saskia Sassen (2014) Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy.Cambridge: the Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press. p. 213
- ibid p.147
- ibid p. 222
- http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/01/southafricanchurchrefugeesjohanne sburgand http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/sep/01/letterfromjohannesburgmethodistmission