Refusing Survival: What Happens If We Don’t Save the World From Climate Change?

by Nicholas Beuret

12 November 2017


It’s ok. You can say it. Everyone else seems to be saying it now anyway. It might even make you feel better.

It’s too late. Just as we were all getting to grips with climate change, the sixth mass extinction, super storms and all the other end-of-the-world scientific prophecies – just as that ‘oh shit, I’d better take this stuff seriously’ feeling had finally sunk in – it turns out we missed our moment. The catastrophe is already here.

There were all those years of warnings, of ‘10 years before it’s too late’ and those ‘100 month’ campaigns. But that was then. For what seemed like a decade there was an annual event – the COP or ‘Conference of Parties’ to the UN climate change agreement, the big global climate change negotiations between the world’s governments – that was ‘our final chance’ that we never took. Every year it was the ‘last shot’, until now, when we can say, well, that’s it then. We’re set for 2°C of average global warming, bar the intervention of some fantastical technological miracle (or some volcanic activity or a meteor hitting just the right number of power stations or the White House).

2°C is bad. All those hurricanes and floods and droughts? That’s 1°C. 2°C will really fuck shit up. And 2°C is the least of what we can expect. Even if all the governments around the world do their very best and deliver on their climate change promises – the ones they made at the last big COP in Paris in 2015 – we are looking at a 4°C world by the end of the century (if not before).

We are officially post-countdown. We’ve missed our last chance at stopping dangerous climate change. We are over the threshold, and the realisation is not just creeping in but rapidly becoming common sense.

Even the word crisis is in crisis.

Crisis doesn’t quite cover it. Crises are things you recover from. Hell, they are ‘opportunities for (personal) growth and development’. Crisis is the engine of economic growth and innovation, the core of government strategy and the basis of revolutionary hope.

There’s no going back with climate change. It has a long recovery time – 10,000 years, give or take. This means that once it’s changed, you (and your kids and grandkids) will be stuck with it.

To be fair, the feeling that it’s too late to stop dangerous climate change has been building for a long time. It started out as a sense of foreboding amongst environmentalists and scientists, a creeping sense of doom and despair. As the various governmental meetings went by, and activist campaigns came and went, the professional optimism of NGO campaigners waned. This loss of hope was matched by a growing body of catastrophic film and literature, mapping out fears of climate catastrophe in apocalyptic technicolor, giant tsunamis and Mad Max leathers.

From being a marginal concern, one that many people until recently took to be an over-exaggeration or doom-mongering bid for more funding or press coverage, the feeling that it’s too late has rapidly become the common ground of contemporary politics. Not only the ground of government policy and military doctrine, but of everyday politics and basic common sense. Everybody knows.

You can see it in the increasing number of newspaper and magazine articles about living with climate change, about managing anxiety and despair, about ‘facing up to things’. True, there are those who talk up sci-fi fantasies of heroic technological interventions like geoengineering. But there is a distinct sense that no one really believes them.

This lack of faith in a technological solution to the current crisis isn’t because we all know that big business and government aren’t interested in properly sorting things out. Well, it is partially that. But the problem runs much deeper. Something has changed with climate change. There has been a much more profound crisis of faith. We just don’t believe in progress anymore. Not really. We don’t even really think Corbyn will sort it all out. There is nothing that will ‘solve’ climate change, or at least nothing that seems to be politically realistic. All that we have left to choose from are least bad outcomes.

The climate change negotiations taking place in Bonn this month, COP23, are an opportunity to take stock of what the emergence of problems without realistic solutions means politically. As something that has no politically realistic solution, climate change marks a fundamental transformation of not only politics but common sense, one that is having profound effects on everything from business practices to military planning to lifestyle choices.

The politics of containment.

Governments proceed by crisis. Each revolt, each economic splutter and financial crash, each conflict or war creates a political response. Out of these crises come new policies or regulations, new alliances between political actors (from politicians and business ‘leaders’ to trade unions and media barons), novel ideas or ways of seeing the world as well as entirely new ways of managing populations, nations, the global economy and even life itself. These new modes of government are never total, and there are always competing visions, plans, alliances and techniques. But we can map power by looking at the rise and fall of different kinds of government.

The specific character of a crisis plays a significant role in shaping what form these new politics take. Climate change is a terminal crisis. Not terminal as in ‘we’re all dead’, but terminal as in it can’t be fixed. Once we hit 2°C, there’s no going back in our lifetimes. It can’t be solved. There are only ‘less bad outcomes’ – we can’t fix it, but we can figure out how to minimize the harm or contain the damage. The politics that has emerged through everything from NGO and activist campaigns to military doctrine and government policy is the politics of containment.

The dominant logic of the recent past was neoliberalism. And while it is still there, marketizing everything within reach, it’s no longer the main game in town. At its heart, neoliberalism was a pervasive market logic. It meant subjecting everything to the rational cost-benefit analysis of financial calculus. It was (and is) a profoundly individualized way of thinking and governing, one that while lauding the heroic entrepreneurial individual organized the global economy around ever-fewer powerful corporations and fabulously wealthy billionaires. It was the logic of the market at the service of a global oligarchy.

Containment is what happens when neoliberalism meets an exhausted world – ruined ecologies, chaotic climate, anxious and exhausted populations on the constant edge of withdrawal or revolt. Buried under the anxiety and burst speculative bubbles, neoliberalism promises a chance to win. To make it big. To game the system. It’s a logic of aspiration.

Climate change (and all the other assorted ecological crises of the present) ends all that. There is less money to go around, fewer chances. There is no bright future. The future is a storm surge. A category 5 hurricane. A drought and food crisis. There are no aspirations on a dead planet.

Surviving the future.

“The ultimate objective […] is to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.” – UNFCCC

So much for that. If that was the aim of the COP, then what could we say it is now? The main aim of the COP is to manage the current moment through a series of compromises around the interests of nation-states and big business. The way of managing that is through ‘politically realistic’ compromises, i.e. by figuring out how to minimise the threat posed to the existing global economy and the position of the world’s most powerful by climate change. Never mind that people have been subjected to the slow violence of various ecological crises, including climate change, in the Global South for decades, and that these same people will continue to be thrown under the bus by the COP negotiations.

Because the COP starts with the interests of the wealthy and powerful, with the negotiating positions of powerful nations and billionaires, there is little chance of reaching an agreement to end both capitalism and fossil fuel use or of working towards remaking the world in an ecologically sound and socially just way. The rich and powerful will protect their interests. That’s just political realism. And it means that doing what’s scientifically and politically necessary will never even be considered at the COP. What we’ll see – and are seeing – is the emergence of armed life boat politics in the Global North coupled with some ‘investment’ and financial handouts for some countries in the Global South.

The politics of the least bad outcome ensures the interests of the powerful are protected, and that the people and governments of the Global South don’t disrupt what’s left of the global economy. The aim then of this politics is to contain the damage that climate change will bring: not solve it, but minimise it, largely by sacrificing large swathes of territory and huge numbers of people.

We can see the logic of containment at work beyond climate change: from migration (fortress Europe) and so-called ‘workfare’ to political events like Brexit and electoral campaigns to everyday life. We all try to make the best out of crap choices.

This doesn’t mean everybody experiences the current moment in the same way. Not everyone has the same set of bad choices; race, gender, class (just to start) all work to produce a profoundly uneven world, where some people still have more hope than others. But more than this, there are still some people with enough power, wealth and privilege to experience the current moment as one where there is still hope for a ‘better’ future (or at least a comfortable one). But for an increasing number of people, the majority, this is not what life looks like.

Living like this, contained and making the least bad choices, is surviving. It’s thinking and feeling like everything is reduced to survival, to getting just the minimum of what you need, most of the time not getting everything you need let alone want, and not thinking that life will ever be more than just surviving. Survival doesn’t just make us all very anxious – it makes us easier to manage. Living with reduced expectations often means letting go of hopes, dreams and, crucially, demands for more.

Salvaging something from the present.

How can we resist the politics of containment, and the common sense of making the least bad choices? Maybe there is something to be said for letting go of the world we have. If the world, politics and our economic system is broken beyond repair, and if there are only least bad choices at this point, then perhaps the time has come for more radical approaches to climate change. If the state, capitalism, the family, our desires and needs are all damaged, all ruined, then the question is one of salvage. What can we salvage from the current moment? What happens if we don’t try to save what we have, but just move onto the question of what we do now? What if we make politics about building a different world in the still smoking ruins of the present? Not about who gets into parliament, or what policies which government or corporation adopt, but based on thinking about what we want life to be like?

We have missed our moment, and if we stick to working with the political and economic systems we have, then we really do only have less bad choices. But if we start with the idea that the world is beyond repair, then it creates a space for a politics of salvage. Salvage politics is about taking what we need and putting it to use for us. It’s a politics focused on social reproduction, and not seizing state power or fixing the economy. It’s not about retreat, but about refusing to participate. It is about taking what we need from those who have it – from the small oligarchy that effectively manage the world – and doing the hard work of making another world.

Nicholas Beuret is a lecturer at the University of Essex. His research focuses on climate change, work and the transition to a low carbon economy.

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