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.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.