Catastrophism: A Climate Justice Activist’s Perspective

Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth

By Harold Lavender
New Socialist Webzine- Canada
January 17th, 2014

Images and talk of catastrophes are pervasive in today’s world.

Much discussion of the subject ignores issues of social justice and is not very favourable to a left-wing perspective. Yet the spectre of catastrophic climate change haunts the future.

Climate change is wreaking destruction on many, is getting worse and poses a potential threat to life on the planet. This raises many serious questions about how the Left should respond.

I read one recent effort to discuss these issues, Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth. This is a short and very thought-provoking collection of essays that has generated both praise in some circles and criticism in others.

In her introduction, Sasha Lilley writes “Catastophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber — if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.”

The book is written as a critique of many different forms off catastrophic ideas and politics. Eddie Yuen’s essay deals with catastrophism within the environmental movement. James Davis writes about catastrophism and the Right. Sasha Lilley writes about catastrophic politics on the Left. David McNally uses a critique of popular culture as a means to explore capitalism and the catastrophes of everyday life. Doug Henwood contributes a forward, “Dystopia is for Losers.”

Davis offers a useful exploration of different types of right-wing catastrophism. He shows how these ideas have helped generate a climate for draconian state responses, including tighter border controls and a growing “security state.”

Eddie Yuen acknowledges that we are in “what is unquestionably genuinely a catastrophic moment in human and planetary history.” He adds “of all the forms of catastrophic discourse on offer, the collapse of ecological systems is unique in that it is definitely verified by a consensus within the scientific community… In addition to the well-known crisis of climate change, leading scientists have listed eight other planetary boundaries that must not be crossed if the earth is to remain habitable for humans and many other species.”

This raises the huge question of how we can rapidly change the direction of human society. Yuen and other authors in the book chose to intervene at the level of how we think about and communicate a vision of transformation that will inspire people. For Yuen, “the foundational problematic of this book is the question of politicization: what narrative strategies are most likely to generate effective and radical social movements?”

Yuen’s chapter is a detailed critique of the way mainstream and some radical environmentalists have fallen into catastrophic discourses. These are not helpful and often hinder efforts to build a mass movement. He argues that liberatory politics do not flow out of dire predictions of disaster even in the cases where they may well be accurate.

Catastrophism relies heavily on fear, which can often be paralyzing and lead to inaction. The politics of fear do not serve the long term interests of the Left, since they can all to easily be captured and manipulated by right-wing racist anti-immigrant nationalist forces.

While some on the pro-corporate right continue to deny or greatly minimize climate change, other mainstream environmentalists acknowledge the problems but offer woefully inadequate solutions. These range from future technological fixes to inadequate injunctions for green consumption.

Meanwhile contemporary capitalism has shown a real capacity to exploit disasters and use them to implement its agenda, which includes increasingly brutal forms of austerity and authoritarianism.

Yuen directly challenges primitivist notions that have arisen within some radical sectors of the green and anarchist movements. These see the collapse of civilization as inevitable and something to be welcomed. However, his piece doesn’t critically examine discourses about “civilization” which can be very problematic in the light of colonialism, imperialism and a history of barbaric wars fought in the name of civilization) or fully examine what is worth preserving and not preserving from the industrial capitalist world we live in.

Yuen seeks to make a positive appeal to community and solidarity, suggesting that  through organizing against climate apartheid and the enclosure and commodification of nature we can create compassionate, egalitarian and radical movements that can bring a new world into being.

In her chapter, Sasha Lilley offers a very wide-ranging critique of left-wing catastrophism (primarily covering Marxism and anarchism). She frames things in a dense and boundary pushing way I haven’t thought about in my many years as a socialist and activist. I partially agree with what she writes. I agree with Lilley in rejecting both  mechanically determinist approaches – like those that predict the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism followed by revolution — and voluntarist approaches that assume that people can change society regardless of the objective conditions.

Lilley cites and criticizes a lengthy list of groups that believed that degraded conditions and intensified state repression would create better conditions. She shows how heightening the contradictions can just as easily lead to defeat as victory.

However, her sweeping generalization approach tends to ignore the specifics of each situation.  I believe the ways groups act in the world are very much shaped by context and I am quite reticent to pass broad judgment on decisions which have been stripped of their context. I am not convinced a schema about catastrophism is the most useful way to understand history and what it can and can’t teach us.

David McNally’s contribution does not seem to directly connect to the question of  ecological catastrophe raised by Eddie Yuen. But he does include important points about the nature of popular uprisings. In his essay McNally writes, “However extraordinary a popular uprising may be, it is nonetheless a product of decidedly mundane activity — strikes, demonstrations, meetings, speeches, leaflets, occupations. The apocalyptic scenario, in which a complete collapse of social organization ushers in  a tumultuous upheaval, is ultimately a mystical rather than a political one. It is much more helpful to think about revolution as a dramatic convergence of real practices of rebellion and resistance that, in their intersection, acquire a qualitatively new form.”

The Limits of Critique

Catastrophism is a dense and engaging book which is well worth reading. The framework of what this short book seeks to address is clearly defined. Within that framework, the book works quite well. If one is reading the book primarily for a critique this is more than enough. However, our reactions to a book are influenced by what we are looking for. I didn’t find the book fully or adequately dealt with the questions that most concern me as an activist currently working in the climate justice movement. The framework of the book leaves out too much that is highly relevant to the issues raised.

Most of the contributors focus primarily on the importance of narratives. They argue strongly in favour of narratives that generate hope and against catastrophic narratives that inspire fear.
Yuen see narratives as key to politicization.  Questions of how we think and communicate our ideas are quite important. However, for me Yuen’s approach seems a bit reductionist.  There is no single formula for how people politicize and people don’t all politicize in the same ways. I see radicalization as the result of the intersection of multiple factors (including ideas, historical memory, the lived experiences of oppression , witnessing global injustice and environmental destruction , the living laboratory of self-organization and collective actionand resistance, spaces for dissent and organizing, the creation of an alternative culture, the state of movements of resistance, inspiring examples of action, and the lessons of victories and defeats).

A key underlying factor is the belief that another world is possible. This requires a vision that can see beyond the constricted present and the lack of alternatives to neo-liberalism. But a radical movement also requires some practical methods to advance towards its goals – otherwise many people will deradicalize and drop out when impasses are reached.

Yuen and other authors are faced with a very difficult situation in the US and the Canadian state. The state of mass politics, social atomization and lack of broad public understanding of climate change issues create an unfavourable overall context (although  there is ongoing grassroots organizing, often localized).

Yuen clearly acknowledges that the work of environmental activists and the growth of the climate justice movement create hope. However, this is a completely undeveloped side note to the book. This is unfortunate. I think a case study of the climate justice movement and its potential to fundamentally transform the way we collectively understand and act would have greatly added to the book.

The authors do a very good job of explaining what approaches they reject. But it is much harder to decipher what they are in favour of. They have many often brilliant insights that could contribute to the development of alternatives. However, such ideas are presented in a manner which is completely buried and submerged within a critique. I would have found it much easier to understand the perspective(s) of the book if some of the ideas had been developed and elaborated upon in a separate chapter on alternatives.

What Action?

We live in perilous times in which what to do is not self-evident. Yuen shows how the failed approaches of the mainstream environmental movement can turn people away. This is particularly true if issues of social justice are ignored or if the voices of people who bear the worst consequences of the environmental crisis are ignored or marginalized.

However, we need to respond to the climate crisis directly. What can be said with certainty is that the less that is done collectively at a global level now, the more widespread and catastrophic the consequences will be in the future.

The book doesn’t directly address this problem. But it is clear that the root of the problem is that way too much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse  gases are being put into the atmosphere, completely destabilizing climate patterns on which ecosystems and life forms depend and triggering feedback mechanisms (such as the melting of permafrost) that will release even more greenhouse gases. There is no viable alternative to climate change other than a rapid process of reducing these emissions and transitioning to alternative forms of energy.

The antidote to pessimism and fatalism is effective mass human action. But what makes action effective? Strategy plays a key role.

If one believes that the capitalist system is the root cause of the ecological crisis and many other ills then it needs to be abolished. It won’t collapse of its own accord and a process of disintegration is more likely to have devastating consequences than lead to a better world.

However, abolishing capitalism seems extraordinarily far-fetched and remote for most of us who live in non-revolutionary times. So it is important to develop a transitional  and even immediate set of goals and objectives.

For example, one could take on the huge capitalist fossil fuel and extractive industries (including their transmission systems). These companies do untold damage to the earth and have sometimes generated intense opposition from local communities who experience the damage they cause but only receive a few tiny crumbs of benefits from developments that generate huge profits for the owners. Campaigns around these industries intermingle issues of solidarity, social justice and protecting the earth.

In many places, including where I live, indigenous people are defending their lands against resource extraction projects and playing an essential role in the environmental justice movement. Our movements need to stand in full solidarity with defenders of the land and their struggles against the colonialist Canadian state.

In becoming involved in a movement it is important to survey the terrain for resistance.
Strategically we may wish to align with other progressive forces on the Left. However, this can be very difficult. Around the world social democratic parties have capitulated to neo-liberalism and in large measure Green parties have adapted to and made similar accommodations. The workers’ movement and unions are strategically important. However, too often they are missing in action from major environmental struggles. Union leaders often seek to defend their members’ immediate interest in jobs (sometimes falsely understood or portrayed as being in opposition to environmental protection) and fail to promote a larger social and environmental justice agenda.

Struggles against austerity can also unfold in ways completely apart from environmental justice concerns. However, there is an underlying connection in that austerity policies promote all sorts of wrong spending choices which harm people and other living things.

However, certain specific issues – such as pipeline building in British Columbia — open a space to reach far more people.  In engaging in a specific campaign, such as to ban fracking, one may find common cause with unlikely allies coming from very different places.

It is very possible to agree with people around specific goals while disagreeing with them about wider political agendas and ideology. For me, the idea of — to use old left language — the united front or unity in action is central to the process of mass movement building.

In any major movement radicals face the dangers of sectarianism and also of absorption into the agenda of others which we don’t share. There is much to disagree with in the mainstream environmental movement. As a result there is a temptation to not work with them. This can mean refusing to participate in the broader movement at all or going off in a completely separate corner. If one rejects this temptation one has to deal with agendas which one disagrees with: green capitalism and the prominent role of environmental NGOs which seek to dominate the field, often using left-wing environmental activists simply as foot soldiers.

It is impossible to navigate these problems as an isolated individual. One requires the aid of organizations with common purpose. Working together, people are better able to balance the different imperatives of having very firm and uncompromising long-term goals and the capacity to connect to people’s lived experience and create broader networks and alliances which can alter the course of events that is creating ecological catastrophe.
Harold Lavender is a member of Rising Tide Vancouver Coast Salish Territories and an editor of New Socialist Webzine.

Back to Sasha Lilley’s Author Page | Back to David McNally’s Author Page | Back to Eddie Yuen’s Author Page | Back to James Davis’s Author Page