Only Resist: Feminist Ecological Citizenship and the Post-politics of Climate Change
Lecturer in Environmental Politics in SPIRE, Keele University
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Soon after the dust of Al Gore’s The Inconvenient Truth had settled, another eco-blockbuster film took British audiences by storm. The Age of Stupid offers a dystopian image of a devastated world in 2055 and a backwards look at missed opportunities for averting the “suicide of the species.” It is a cautionary tale about the price that future generations will pay for the ignorance of current generations. To tell the tale, the keeper of a global archive, the last man on earth, shows a video montage of the lives of six real people living in 2008 who are in different ways affected by, or implicated in, global climate change. The Archivist wonders: “what state of mind were we in, to face extinction and simply shrug it off?” The answer is, of course, that we were stupid. The film is hip and engaging, using wry humor and edgy music to call viewers to act before it is too late. It led to the creation of the “10:10” campaign, which has convinced hundreds of thousands of individuals and institutions in the UK to pledge to cut their carbon emissions by ten per cent per year. The campaign’s website appeals for members with the argument that “politicians have so far failed to do what needs to be done, so it’s time for ordinary people to step in and show that we’re ready to defend our children’s futures. It’s now or never for the climate.” 10:10 lists ten simple ways to cut carbon, advice for the kind of individual lifestyle changes (for example, “drive less, don’t waste water,” and so on) that the environmental movement has been espousing since the 1970s. But this time the message is slick and well marketed, with celebrity endorsements and jewelry to wear as a statement of having taken the pledge. One could make an interesting study of the introduction of personal pledge-taking to environmental politics, but what prompts the discussion in this essay is that the campaign vows to stay out of politics. One of its “ten tenets” reads, “10:10 is a campaign for immediate reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and should not be used to push any other moral, social or political agenda.” And, worryingly, the word “citizen” is nowhere to be found.
As The Age of Stupid and the 10:10 campaign seem to illustrate, the climate crisis is changing the nature of environmentalism in the UK, and arguably in other parts of the affluent world. Although climate change may be a complex political issue, its command of the global agenda and its apocalyptic framing in the dominant discourse are symptomatic of what some European theorists call “the post-political condition” (Rancière 2001; Žižek 2002; Mouffe 2005). It is a condition, felt acutely in the West, that has been brought about by decades of neoliberal hegemony where manufactured agreement on economic, ecological, and political issues has led to the replacement of democratic politics by expert administration and consensual governance. The space of the political, where fundamental questions can be debated, such as “how should we live?,” has been narrowed in the name of solving urgent problems with the best available policies and minimal dissent. British theorist Erik Swyngedouw has applied the post-political thesis to the issue of climate change and offers some persuasive arguments for why we ought to be concerned, not only by the extreme weather and ecological disasters that climate change is bringing, but also by its implications for democratic debate about the future of human–nature relations on the planet.
In this essay, I consider what a post-political analysis of climate change might mean for feminist green politics. I argue that it prompts some specifically ecofeminist questions about the rise of climate change to the top of the global environmental agenda and about the scope for political action within this new hegemonic frame. In particular, I consider the implications for ecofeminism of what Swyngedouw calls a depoliticizing climate consensus that appears to erase social difference, to cast nature as an external threat to be endured, and to replace democratic public debate with expert administration and individual behavior change. So, on top of recognizing the impacts of climate change on the world’s vulnerable people, the majority of whom are women, racialized, and poor, we should also pause to wonder how it might challenge ecofeminism: what hope is there for radical political theories and social movements in times like these?
The discussion has three parts. First, I explain how the post-political condition can be used as a theoretical framework for understanding climate change. Here I summarize Swyngedouw’s recent work, because he has explored this approach more than any other theorist to date (Swyngedouw 2010; 2011). His analysis does not include references to feminist theories or politics, however, so, in part two, I consider what might be the strategic, epistemological, and normative implications for feminist green politics of the dominant climate narrative. In the final part of the essay, I consider how an agonistic project of feminist ecological citizenship might be deployed as a means of resistance to the homogenizing discourse of climate crisis in this post-political “age of stupid.”
Climate Change and the Post-Political Condition
In “Apocalypse Forever? Post-political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change,” Swyngedouw identifies the conjuncture of two phenomena: the construction of global climate consensus and the “increasing evacuation of the proper political from the public terrain” (Swyngedouw 2010, 214). The latter is the subject of concern for a number of European philosophers, such as Slavoj Žižek, Chantal Mouffe, and Jacques Rancière, who have written of a gradual process of depoliticization that has resulted in a post-political condition in the affluent world. These theorists define “the political” as a space of contestation through which citizens enact “the right to dissent, the right to argue against a particular consensus, the right to engage in antagonistic relations, the right to be alternative” (Kythreotis 2012, 549). The loss of this space and these rights calls into question the very existence of political democracy; this is a dangerous situation that requires urgent attention. It is important to understand that these theorists have not given up on politics, but rather their deep commitment to the political leads them to lament its erosion under neoliberalism. In my view, the value of the concept of “post-politics” is its ability to provoke debate and to reinvigorate ideas of resistance and citizenship.
The driving force behind the depoliticization process, the post-political analysis goes, is the “hegemonic grip that neoliberal ideas have over public affairs” (Catney and Doyle 2011, 178). In particular, the economic reasoning of neoliberalism, as expressed by such institutions as the World Bank and the IMF, makes good governance synonymous with arrangements that maximize efficient policy solutions while minimizing obstacles to their implementation. Dissent interferes with the free running of markets; the capitalist market economy is the foundation of socioeconomic order and individual freedom. Governing has become all about promoting consensus so that policy processes can be left to experts and bureaucrats. Citizens may be invited into governance processes via participatory mechanisms (for example, stakeholder consultations), but these are meant to manufacture popular consent to decisions that serve the interests of an elite minority rather than to promote democracy (Catney and Doyle 2011). Swyngedouw quotes Žižek to explain that “the ultimate sign of post-politics in all Western countries is the growth of a managerial approach to government: government is reconceived as a managerial function, deprived of its proper political dimension” (Swyngedouw 2011, 266). When the aim of management is to avoid making decisions that cause social unrest, compromise and expert administration are central. And this amounts to the end of politics (Rancière 2001).
How might we understand climate change through this post-political lens? Doing so requires acceptance of a constructivist analysis of climate change, seeing it as a “normatively charged” social construction where the scientific facts about climate change are “facts for social purposes” (Nicholas Onuf in Pettinger 2007, xiv). This analysis uncovers the interests and power relations operating behind an issue that, on the surface, appears to be highly politicized. Swyngedouw lists four key characteristics or symptoms to explain how the social construction of climate change can be presented as a process of depoliticization. First, there is widespread consensus that the global climate crisis is real, an imminent threat to the future of human civilization, and that it requires radical changes in how we live. It is “a consensus that is now largely shared by most political elites from a variety of positions, business leaders, activists, and the scientific community. The few remaining sceptics are increasingly marginalized as either maverick hardliners or conservative bullies” (Swyngedouw2010, 215). If there is legitimate disagreement, then it is primarily about which technologies to use, how to implement adaptation policies, and what arrangements provide the most effective policing. Although there may be competing interpretations of, and uncertainty about, the scientific data, there is little serious debate about the framing of the crisis itself or about the kinds of socio-ecological futures that might result from climate policy.
Second, the climate crisis is increasingly presented as a threat to humanity as a whole, as a “universal humanitarian threat” in which “we are all potential victims” (Swyngedouw 2011, 268). In 2009 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that, “amid all our difficulties,” we must remember that climate change is “the one true existential threat to our planet” (UN Press Release 2009; my emphasis). Even though there are competing framings of climate change, some of which foreground global divisions and disparities between colonizing and colonized people in the global North and South (the discourse of ecological debt and of “common but differentiated responsibilities” are good examples), the rhetoric of common existential threat suggests that material and ideological differences between people are well-nigh irrelevant in the face of natural forces beyond our control. It says that, when we are all in the same leaking boat careening toward the apocalypse, there is no space, time, or need for politics. Swyngedouw argues that this universalizing discourse currently drowns out the rest.
Third, scientific experts present climate change as a crisis that requires immediate action, predominantly in the form of governance-beyond-the-state. National political processes and international negotiations have proven to be too slow and cumbersome to deal with urgent needs: what is needed is decentered, participatory governance that rests on “self-management… and controlled self-disciplining, under the aegis of a non-disputed liberal-capitalist order” (Swyngedouw 2011, 270). So, rather than operate in the public spaces of politics, individuals are admonished to accept personal responsibility for reducing CO2 emissions. Through a neoliberal, disciplining process that some have called “responsibilization” (Rose 1999), we pledge to change our behavior rather than question the global and local asymmetries and inequities that create, sustain, and legalize institutional forms of environmental exploitation.
The fourth sign that the dominant framing of climate change is post-political, according to Swyngedouw, can be found in the power of scientific discourse not only to define the problem itself but also how we ought to relate to the natural world. Here I will sidestep the philosophical debate about whether there is such a thing as “nature” and how discursive constructions and the material facts presented by the natural sciences may or may not be related (but see Morton 2007). The main issue for the post-political thesis is that dominant climate narratives have fear as a central trope, which leads to a profoundly depoliticized imaginary. Swyngedouw writes: “apocalyptic imaginaries are extraordinarily powerful in disavowing or displacing social conflict and antagonisms. As such, apocalyptic imaginations foreclose a proper political framing” (Swyngedouw 2011, 263). Dystopian and apocalyptic narratives of natural disasters, chronic resource shortages, global pandemics and perpetual war—such as those shown vividly in The Age of Stupid—help to create acceptance of the need for extreme measures and radical policies (for example, on population growth). These narratives are not merely the stuff of science fiction: further examples can be found in the communications of UN conferences and grassroots organizations. One could look, for example, at the opening ceremony of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, which included Please Save the World, a video depicting a child’s nightmare about climate change, or at the publications of the Transition Town Movement, which is founded on predictions of civilizational collapse (Smith 2011). It has been argued that levels of public concern about climate change have declined in the US as a result of “apocalypse fatigue” (Nordhaus and Shellenberger 2008). Not only do apocalyptic climate narratives create a sense of emergency, they also cast the human–nature relationship as one of antagonism and conflict, where nature is threatening and out of control, and where societies must prepare themselves to withstand its wrath (Doyle and Chaturveydi 2010). Although Swyngedouw does not make this point, I would argue that this narrative gives rise to the concept of “climate resilience” that now pervades UN and NGO discourse. There has been a gradual policy shift from mitigation to resilience, which can be read as prioritizing the protection of people from climate-related disasters over the protection of the environment from human-related disasters of contamination, extraction, and extinction. As such, the dominant framing of climate change has produced a depoliticizing view of nature as the enemy, which can only serve to reduce further the political potential of environmentalism as a social movement that is dedicated to remedying destructive human–nature relations.