In the smoggy depths of the Industrial Revolution, Marx wrote that “mankind… sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve”. A lot has changed since then. Thanks to that revolution and its fossil-guzzling mutations, our tasks are bigger and more frightening than ever before. But we have not ceased to set them for ourselves. For those who still had faith in elite multilateralism, Cop26 was tasked with solving climate change and has – by its own admission – failed. At the very least, the problem has been deferred to 2022, when governments are supposed to reconvene in Egypt with sufficiently drastic emissions targets to keep global heating below 1.5°C. In the intervening year, the task will only get harder, as economies bouncing back from Covid-19 spew out “revenge emissions” – the bleak flipside of any pandemic-induced blips in the trend line.
Countless other deadlines have come and gone. Climate activists and NGOs are becoming more reluctant to deploy time-bound warnings about “last chances” or “five years left to save the world”, for such an approach carries increasingly obvious downsides. What happens when the deadline for salvation passes? Like millenarian preachers on mountaintops, they risk being left standing there, arms raised, eyes closed, with the birds still chirping and the wind still blowing, as the faithful dissipate sheepishly back to their old lives.
“Catastrophe is not something that awaits us,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his sprawling interwar Arcades Project, “it is that which has already come to pass.” Every day that things have not already been transformed is a kind of apocalypse – not only will the effects of inaction be registered, in time, in a shockwave of disruption and destruction across our part of the world, but it is already being experienced in devastating ways in the Global South.
Hence the demands at Cop26 – largely spurned – of delegations from the climate front lines, that rich countries pay reparations for climate-induced “loss and damage”. Cop26’s final, humiliating compromise was to replace a “phase out” of coal with “phase down” at the request of India and China – and it was those countries that took the blame in much of the Western press. But these countries, still recovering from centuries of plunder by the West, are merely trying to catch up economically, in a sink-or-swim global economy where there is little real distinction between catching up and surviving. If their economies do not stand on their own terms, they will risk total absorption back into those geopolitical hierarchies dominated by the Global North from which they have spent so long battling for independence.
That global inequality was embedded in the summit from the start, as prospective delegates from the Global South, already at the back of the queue for Covid-19 vaccines, struggled against their own ongoing pandemic as well as travel restrictions and accommodation shortages. How can “mankind” solve the tasks set for it when there is no single “mankind” to do so? There are still three worlds, at the very least – those with real, world-making wealth and power; those still struggling for a fair share; and those who are now being written off entirely – and the first group is wholly responsible for what happened at Cop26.
This is a moral outrage, of course, but it is fundamentally a practical problem, a political void caused by the interplay of two inextricable forces that roared into being through the Industrial Revolution. The first is uneven development, in which countries like Britain, which had a head start on global capitalism, were able to lock other parts of the world into a state of exploitation and underdevelopment. The latter were forced to build their capitalist economies around our needs and strengths rather than their own. The second force, the political side of the process, is the proliferation of nation state self-interest as the most practical means of overcoming underdevelopment and asserting one’s own interests in a competitive world. The result is an uneven, combined and segmented global catastrophe, in which solving climate change means going against the riptide of world history itself.
Humanity’s greatest collective challenge is no unifier, because it affects some earlier, and harder, than others; those at the front of the development queue can see the catastrophe coming, and instead of taking responsibility for our role in its making, our governments are bolstering national borders and increasing military expenditure in the inadmissible hope that we can weather the storm even as millions elsewhere don’t. The writer Amitav Ghosh calls this “the politics of the armed lifeboat”.
For those countries making their way up the queue, like India and China, the ability to manoeuvre through the crisis on their own terms is endangered by the kind of disruptive structural transformation that emissions reductions demand. It could be argued that China is also exploiting its development status – upper-middle rather than high income, in World Bank terms – to shirk greater responsibility for the emissions on which its boom has been built. But the post-industrial Global North, still gorging itself on fossil fuels, is luxuriating over its own transition at a tantric pace – why should the leaders in the south bear the immense political risks of a green revolution if ours won’t? The activist and theorist Andreas Malm describes climate change as a “revolutionary problem without a revolutionary subject” – yet even where “reformist” solutions like Cop26 are concerned, it is also a global problem that lacks a global subject. Inequality at this scale, written by history into the structure of global capitalism, breeds an immobilising bad faith.
How do you combat bad faith? What is the thing, or the subject, or the demand, that can replace it? I suspect it has something to do with promises. Bad faith results from a bad promise. For over a century, the world has been promised “development”, and the only model of development that was ultimately permitted was – and is – capitalist, fossil-fuelled and extractive. That model pledges – and always fails – to bring equality and recognition to nation states and individuals alike who work hard for it. But it is also competitive, and it conceals another, darker promise: après moi, le déluge – the armed lifeboat gambit that motivates the US, Europe and perhaps now India and China too.
Is there a good promise that can underpin good faith? Something that can inspire real action, and provoke things that have hitherto appeared, in a world of bad promises, as unpalatable sacrifices? I think there is, and if you looked beyond the Green and Blue Zones at Cop26 – the dead zones – it was everywhere. It was there on the picket lines, where dozens of activists from climate groups and tenants’ unions entangled their causes with those of striking bin and rail workers. It was there throughout the protests and fringe events, where indigenous peoples worked and marched alongside not just young climate strikers but ordinary Glaswegians on their first ever demonstration. There was something miraculous about these encounters: a moment of startling recognition against terrible odds, and against the cynicism on display at Cop26, of an old promise kept. That promise is solidarity, the one thing – among all the other slogans like equality, justice and freedom – that capitalism has never truly managed to peel away from socialism.
Catastrophe and its allies make it easy to believe that such solidarity is impossible, or naive, or merely a front for more cynical interests. But the future of humanity now depends on our ability to create the conditions in which new and bigger miracles of solidarity can emerge and metastasise, and in doing so upend the imagination. This will not happen all at once, across a divided world. It is more likely to occur through what Aaron Bastani calls “prototype politics”: sudden, unilateral pivots at the level of real political power in a particular place, inspiring copycat actions elsewhere. In other words, a miracle where it really matters – where everyone can see it.
At some point in the next few years, even as the crisis intensifies, is it really unimaginable that the forces of solidarity will claim a nation state for themselves, and find themselves confronted by the full repressive force of fossil capital’s joyride towards the abyss? It has happened before: embryonic socialist states have burst on to the scene across the world and been crushed into authoritarianism and poverty by the hostility and sabotage of the rich and powerful. But the shift from Cold War to Hot Planet may yet revolutionise the conflict between new world and old. Any fresh breakaways from the system would have to plausibly shift the question of solidarity from one of geopolitical allegiance into a pivot-point for humanity as a whole: which side are you on? Our miracle or their catastrophe? The task humankind sets itself now has a certain circularity to it: to prove to ourselves, despite all our fragmentation and confusion, that we are still here, setting ourselves tasks to solve. But someone, somewhere, has to go first.