Everyone's gone green

Slavoj Žižek on the dangers of ecological utopianism

Last night Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher and subject of a New Statesman profile last month, delivered a lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on ecology. Not one to shy away from theorising on any subject, Žižek tackled the environment and the ideology surrounding the contemporary debate on the politics of climate change with characteristic panache. Speaking with almost nervous energy, he covered areas as diverse as animal documentaries, psychoanalysis under Hitler, the latest Bond movie and Hegel's theory of nature.

Žižek warned of the dangers of "naturalising" nature, positing the natural world as some utopia to which we can return in balanced harmony. Nature, he says, is itself is not a balanced system, insofar as it is a set of contingent systems adapting to survive amidst various catastrophes and changing circumstances. That is not to say that we should disregard the dangers of climate change. On the contrary, despite the fact that the current global climate crisis has been caused by the structure of the particular economic system of one subset of one species, the crisis has the potential to affect the very basis of life on earth for the majority of species. Humans have become, for the first time, a geological force capable of changing the global temperatures that sustain life on Earth.

So what is to be done? We should not, Žižek thinks, set limits on development following the policy of "sustainable development," often used as an excuse for business as usual. One of his concerns is the arbitrariness of the limits imposed by politicians and scientists alike. Žižek commented that we can no more set a quantifiable limit on safe climate change than we can quantify what constitutes holocaust denial.

Although the vast majority of scientists now agree that climate change poses a serious threat, the unknowns are too great to have a good degree of certainty as to the likely outcome. This is the difficulty for Žižek of free choice. Regardless of how predetermined our destinies are, we are condemned to live as if we are free. We have to choose, and yet the body of knowledge on which we draw is limited; the evidence available points to a range of catastrophic outcomes, but we cannot know for sure (until it is too late) which particular outcome will occur.

Given this, Žižek insists that we cannot look on the bright side of climate change for new opportunities to adapt. He argues that we must resist the normalisation of climate change, whereby what is first experienced as impossible and unthinkable becomes real and is accepted as part of every day life (for example, the re-emergence of the far right in mainstream politics, or the normalisation of torture in Guantanamo). In the case of the environment, damaging consequences of climate change have first been denied by governments and businesses, then accepted as part of business as usual.

Drawing on Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, an analysis of how governments and corporations have historically systematically exploited the trauma of nations or communities following man-made or natural catastrophes (the coup against Allende in Chile, the Iraq war, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina or the Indian Ocean Tsunami), Žižek warns that the international shock of global warming could present vast new opportunities for exploitation. Now there are discussions about the new opportunities opening up as a result of global warming, and not those we should be exploring, such as green energy production. Rather, oil extraction companies look upon the clearing away of Artic summer ice as a new dawn in drilling, as vast areas of oil-rich ocean floor are exposed for the first time.

Žižek argues that, whilst it is true that the climate crisis is a universal problem -- one that affects all humanity regardless of social position or wealth, as well as the majority of all species -- and so cannot be reduced simply to a crisis of capitalism, it would be a mistake to attempt to address the environmental issue independently of its cause, namely, the global capitalist economic framework. In this sense, ecology is not the solution, as this often puts aside political differences for the "greater good" of the environment. Instead, we should deal with the specific problem of global capitalism, thereby addressing the climate crisis.

In many ways, this resonates with Tim Jackson's essay in the New Statesman Copenhagen supplement earlier this year -- the economic system contains within it the seeds of its (and all of our) destruction: capitalist economies depend on economic growth, and economic growth is unsustainable in a finite ecological system.

So what of Žižek's communist solution? John Gray is right to say in a recent review that Žižek overlooks the lack of public or political appetite for communism in his latest book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce where he (perhaps predictably) advocates his brand of Leninism as the answer to the current combination of encroaching corporatism, environmental catastrophe and financial collapse. And insofar as Žižek is an activist, he fails, as the activist must engage with actually existing conditions. However, as intellectual, Žižek fulfils his role; as he himself identifies, his task as an intellectual is not to answer questions, but to correct how they are formulated.

As such, Žižek offers great insight to the those on the left who may feel dismayed at the co-opting of the environmental agenda by diverse conservative political (and corporate) forces. Žižek rightly identifies the global economic capitalist framework as responsible for both the financial and the climate crises, and poses a choice: we can put aside political differences to attempt to tackle impending climatic doom (with the inevitable resurgence of capitalist crisis under business as usual), or we can face the driving force of the crisis head on.

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.