In the battle to act on Climate Change there are those who are determined to act now, there are the skeptics, and there is the majority.
One of the greatest paradoxes is that while the majority agree in principle with the struggle, they remain withdrawn from it in practice. Why?
“Save the Planet”: a simple yet impractical slogan
The catch-phrase that has captured the imagination of a generation of green warriors relies on several concepts that are ultimately holding back the much larger silent majority. Far from cries to halt industry and to abort our consumption-based mode of existence, the drop-off point for many would-be activists intervenes at the foundation of the argument.
It isn’t the planet that needs saving
The first caveat is simple enough. The planet itself has suffered worse traumas than the current one, and it is by no means threatened by human activity. In fact, what might require saving is the conditions which have prevailed on the planet in the past millennia. The planet and life will prevail long after these conditions have changed – albeit in a different form than the one we currently know.
At bottom, saying “save the planet” or “save the polar bears” acts as a screen: it shelters the true stakes involved in the battle which are nothing less than ensuring that future generations may live as the previous ones have in the past. In doing so, it avoids one of the essential debates brought up by climate change: the rights of future generations and the mechanisms to account for their claim to equal conditions of existence in present-day democracies.
More perniciously, the slogan places the planet between ourselves and our actions, undercutting the little agency there is to be claimed in the battle against Climate Change.
The impossibility of acting
Whether it’s “Save the planet” or “Act on climate change”, Green slogans are underpinned by a level of agency that most of us are unable to recognize (be it because it simply doesn’t exist or not).
Broadly speaking the crisis intervenes at a moment of post-enlightenment blues. The traumas of the Twentieth Century have eroded humanity’s conviction that it may act decisively towards good. This baggage is nowhere more of a burden than on the issue of Climate Change.
Moreover, the spread of responsibility for a phenomenon like Climate Change over so many generations (most of which were unsuspecting of the damage they were causing) undercuts the very notion of causality. With so many smoking guns clouding our view of cause and effect, it isn’t merely the ability to attribute the blame that is in question. Our ability to recognize agency at the scale of the individual is also seriously undermined.
With so much of the rhetoric of Green activists relying on agency and so little of it being witnessed by the majority, it is hardly surprising that the fence remains the most popular camp in the issue.
The ethics of Waiting for Godot
In a sense the situation in the eyes of the silent majority resembles that depicted in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Vladimir and Estragon, the main characters of the play, find themselves in a universe devoid of causality.
In the absence of any concrete cause and effect, the characters have no guiding principles for their actions. A situation which resonates with the despair of post-war Europe, but also provides a powerful allegory for the present conundrum surrounding Climate Change.
Estragon: Yes, let’s go.
[They do not move]
The challenge ahead, purely from a conceptual point of view, is to reinstate causality so as to confer agency to the actors on the stage. Without it, even a passive act like that of waiting is unfeasible, let alone the active steps that are required to act on the destruction of our species’ habitat.
Forging a new agency
Before even acting on the problem itself, the creation of a wider base of support appears an essential prerequisite. And one that will be conditioned by the obvious yet problematic notions of causality and agency.
The chain of cause and effect culminating in Climate Change is based essentially on scientific jargon. Remaining true to this chain of events, political discourse needs to be able to communicate these facts in a way that is socially empowering. In the present state, the foundations of the causality employed to describe the event of Climate Change are so sprawled out that they appear to be annihilating the notion of cause and effect with regard to the biosphere.
It is necessary that the perception of events should give individuals some grip on the chain of natural events in order for us to move past merely understanding how we got here and towards changing our behavior at the individual scale. In a way, it is necessary to acknowledge “I am in this mess” before we can assert “we are all in this mess together”. Should this attempt be successful, the agency Green activists have prematurely claimed will become a reality and we can then ask “what do we do to get out of this mess”.
Far from the scientific discourse, political discourse surrounding Climate Change needs to relate events at a human scale and in so doing forge the agency that will be required to regain the ability to act decisively and to rebuild the hope of acting for a good outcome.