Betraying the climate? Has environmentalism succumbed to a modernity it hitherto resisted?

control dials

This is the third in a series of four blog posts on the climate by STEPS co-director Andy Stirling, under the heading: ‘Controlling a stable planetary climate – or caring for a complex changing Earth?’ Read Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 4

In the first two of this quartet of blogposts, I asked whether struggles against global climate disruption are undermined by the dominant ways in which this problem is currently imagined. Past green successes suggest greater traction might be gained by seeing this less as a technical challenge of stabilizing global temperature – and more as a political struggle to care for a naturally changing climate by ceasing to emit disrupting pollutants.

But what would it mean to shift climate struggles from hubristic fear-driven fallacies of technocratic control, towards the greater humility of more hopeful values-based imaginations of care? What reasons are there for thinking that this kind of approach could be any more successful?

Before turning in the next post to possible political implications, it is necessary first to summarise in more detail how such ‘caring struggle’ might contrast with presently more control-based efforts. And perhaps the most concrete way to do this, is in terms of the basic features of established approaches already discussed.

Instead of trying to predict (and so control) global mean temperature, a caring approach shifts the focus of agency more directly to the activities causing the problem. Technical rhetorics of control over consequences, are replaced by a more political focus directly on actions to resist driving causes.

In other words, the emphasis shifts more immediately and exclusively to cutting climate disrupting pollution. Hardly surprising at first sight, what is crucial is that this is a values-based end in itself, rather than a science-mediated means to an end. It is not claimed that ‘carbon budgets’ can be definitively accounted and allocated. Carbon is recognised instead as a climate toxin, whose emissions must be cut more out of uncertainty than claimed precision. The grounds for action lie not in hubristic predictions, but in more precautionary humility: that impacts are unknown and potentially globally catastrophic.

Resisting climate disruption in this way reduces imperatives to try to insist on only a single set of relevant definitions for the categories, parameters, variables and framings of interest (of kinds typically embedded in modelling and accounting). Pressures are relaxed to make false claims of scientific simplicity, certainty or completeness. Because the persuasiveness of a caring argument is founded on values (rather than knowledge claims), uncertainties, ambiguities and ignorance can all be more realistically acknowledged.

In short, then – and in keeping with everyday meanings of ‘care’ in relations with a friend or child or garden – what a caring approach to climate politics does is move away from a vision of the planetary atmosphere as if it were an inert ‘object’ (with a single notionally static globally-averaged parameter of interest in temperature). Instead, the Earth’s climate – like Nature more widely – is acknowledged to have its own agency. Under this view, it remains essential to modulate one’s own behaviour in the face of another’s agency. But it is recognised to be not only impossible, but wrong, to try to control.

After all, it is widely understood in everyday life to be both futile and regressive to seek entirely to impose one’s will upon another. Surely, what is true of a dependent, or a partner, or a friend, is at least equally true of the Earth itself? For it is the natural world that encompasses and constitutes, in the first place, whatever is imagined as a separate controlling ‘cockpit’.

It is in this light, that the individualising managerial language of a ‘safe operating space for humanity’ begins to look very uncomfortable. What would it mean for the entire Earth to be disciplined in this way? Which powerful interests (concealed behind the generalised label of ‘humanity’) get to determine exactly what is meant be ‘safe’ – and for whom? Why should one particular part assume such entitled and unacccountable domination over the whole? Warping the caring responsibility not to poison the planet, into a controlling ambition indefinitely to fix global mean temperature at an expedient ‘holocene optimum’ (measured in fractions of a degree), becomes visible as pathological.

To give a concrete, positive example, what an idiom of care can help do is take the momentum out of the climate geoengineering bandwagon currently hardwired into IPCC models. Attention shifts from this military-inspired (but climate-justified) force projection, to more direct concerns for reductions in climate-toxic emissions. This brings to the fore a million different – more caring – actions.

Whether in agroecology, renewable energy, clean production, resource efficiency, consumption sufficiency, the circular economy, public mobility, community innovation… these more caring practices offer a host of radical ways, not to control the Earth’s climate, but (simply and directly) to stop disrupting it. Confounding past expert modelling (that wrongly branded these practices as marginal), what recent positive trends show in each of these areas, is that a controlling mindset of predictive technocratic expertise has actually been suppressing appreciation for what is possible.

In all these areas, then, a further key lesson of environmentalism emerges. Political and engineering transformations favoured by hopeful and caring citizen values, repeatedly prove to be massively more viable than was asserted in the early pessimistic predictive models of a would-be controlling elite. When the time is right, innovations like wind, solar and ecological farming have – again and again – been shown to thrive out radically.

Contrast this with the abject worldwide failure of the epitome of modernistic technocratic control: nuclear energy. Despite intensely-asserted climate excuses, the underlying drivers of this deeply-integrated (and massively expensive) weapons/power control-complex have always – and remain – primarily military. Yet with abandonments, over-runs, market collapse and multiple bankruptcies around the world, it is now for the first time becoming clear to all – both in electricity generation and on the military side – that this technology is (like so many before it) becoming obsolete.

Nuclear submarine HMS Vanguard arrives back at HM Naval Base Clyde, Faslane, Scotland following a patrol. Source: Defence Imagery. Image licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0 (OGL).

Despite the uncertainties and variabilities, then, the evidence is now overwhelming around the world, that – by comparison with other (far more diverse) strategies for cutting carbon emissions – nuclear power is more expensive, less rapid, less secure, less job-intensive, less safe and more problematic in other ways. Nuclear investments can crowd out more effective action against climate disruption.

Yet tellingly, it is increasingly among climate scientists and lobby groups, that this obsolescing nuclear regime finds its strongest support. In countries with nuclear weapons, organisations which formerly campaigned most actively on the interlinking of ecology and peace become oddly muted on nuclear power. Despite a remarkable (and under-recognised) track record of technological prescience – in areas like renewable energy, super-efficiency, ecological farming, closed cycle production – environmentalism now seems to be dancing more, to its former opponents’ tune.

Arguably no other example shows more vividly than the contrast between nuclear and renewable strategies, the practical implications of the difference between controlling and caring approaches to resisting climate disruption. And in few other areas is it more clearly visible how formerly transformative imaginations of environmentalism have become locked in – to calculative linear controlling assumptions (rather than values-based nonlinear hope) about “what is possible?”.

It seems, then, that a key imperative in ceasing climate disruption, lies in environmentalism finding the courage of its earlier convictions again – challenging (rather than acquiescing to) industrial modernity.

But are these just flowery words? What might it all mean in practice? It is to this final crucial question that my last post in this quartet will turn.

Other posts in this series

Is the naming of ‘climate change’ a dangerous self-defeat? Andy Stirling, 9 July 2020

Does the delusion of ‘climate control’ do more harm than good to climate disruption? Andy Stirling, 10 July 2020

Our theme for 2020: Natures

NaturesNature is all around us, but there are many ways of seeing different kinds of ‘natures’, and many efforts to involve it in forms of control or domination.

How is talk of crisis shaping nature and people’s views of it? How can colonial forms of knowledge, technology and power be challenged, and what might it mean to ‘decolonize’ the study of environmental change? What do alternatives look like, and how can we explore, nurture, imagine and live the relationships we might want for the future? 

Find out more about our theme for 2020 on our Natures theme page.

One comment:

  1. Care and caring can be defined in different ways, but their centrality is undeniable. For indifference–not caring one way or another–has long been recognized as the real enemy of good policy and politics.

    More, we know what causes the spread of indifference in movements and professions: cumulative burnout. The worst policy analyst—or any practitioner for that matter–is one who, having tried again and again, can no longer muster anything more going through the motions.

    And who wouldn’t burn out, early or late, if they’re constantly told and come to believe that their environmental movement has failed utterly because it hasn’t “taken control” of climate change, species extinction and biodiversity loss?

    It’s a struggle to keep caring, as Andy points out, and no one does any good if “success” is defined as controlling inputs, processes and outputs for the most complex ecosystem we have, planet Earth.

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