8 minutes on the climate crisis-July 2019
Updated: Aug 9, 2019
Thank you for inviting me here this evening.
I’d like to start with an observation.
This is the third time in the last six months that I have been asked to talk on a panel about the climate crisis. And on each of those occasions the other panellists have almost exclusively been from either the energy industry or from an academic discipline concerned with “rigorously innovating” us away from the brink.
I don’t intent to spend the eight minutes I’ve been allocated detailing exactly why this might be indicative of some sort of problem. Although one might reasonably ask how long we can go on pretending that an ideology can function simultaneously as both the sickness and the cure.
Instead, I’m going to work on the assumption that a lot of technical ground will be covered by the other three speakers, and use that as an opportunity to put a few other things on the table.
The type of ideas I’m thinking of here are things like care, grief, desire and joy. And I’m raising them this evening because – much like the communities impacted most viscerally by climate change – they are too often absent from the debate as it is conducted in contexts such as these.
In doing so, I suppose I’m asking us to consider what it would mean to change the terms of the tonight’s discussion. To turn our focus away from ‘fixing’ the climate crisis, and ask instead how its magnitude might force us to re-examine the epistemological basis from which we are undertaking our work.
In short, what if, just for a few minutes, we stopped asking what do we know? and what is to be done? and instead asked in what ways do we know? and what does our knowing serve?
If these questions seem a little obtuse, they really shouldn’t. Because while we of course need to radically and rapidly untether ourselves from our existing economic paradigm, we also desperately need to cease our unthinking and reflexive tendency to see capitalist rationality as the totalising framework through which we quantify both the scale of the climate crisis and the acceptable parameters of our response.
To do so isn’t to sidestep or obscure the very real structural reforms that we all know need to happen. Rather, it is to recognise that the economic model as currently constituted doesn’t only organise capital ( and with it, nature), it also and in more complex ways, organises the subjectivities and intersubjectivities of those who live, work, love and die within it.
The climate crisis compels us to step outside of these limitations, both collectively and on an individual level. The prevailing ‘common sense’ of the existing social and economic settlements has been stripped of its explanatory and descriptive power and as a result we find ourselves in a moment of profound disarticulation, being asked to make a concerted raid on what was previously thought of as unsayable and undoable.
That is a big task, and I worry that were we to fall back on a set ideas that reflexively privilege empiricism, impact and innovation to the ultimate exclusion of the affective, the embodied, the divined and the epiphanic, we will be all too liable to fail.
Because in constraining ourselves by only using the dominant epistemological tools we have to hand, we risk obscuring the true scale of what faces us, which requires transformation at the level of the body, the spirit and the imagination.
Even in contexts such as this evening, we should be unafraid to say that we must think, speak and build new worlds into being. Worlds which centre care, vulnerability, desire and a dedication to preserving democracy in its deepest sense – as the will, systems and means by which someone can alter the conditions of their existence.
We’ll need the other things too; the politics, the economics, the technologies; I don’t doubt that for a second. All I am saying is that we need to think deeply about the governing logic that runs like a dark seam through all of these systems and work tirelessly to undermine it where necessary and repurpose it where useful, including when it comes to our own instincts, habits and disciplinary conventions.
In that spirit, I’m going to use the last thirty seconds to break with convention and say a little bit about how the climate crisis has made me feel over the last few months and years. And I hope you will take it in the spirit in which it is intended. Trust me, it is as embarrassing to say as it is to hear.
Most of all I am frightened. And I am unsure how best to live in a world in which the future has been foreclosed. I am frightened that I will not be brave enough to live truthfully, despite having every incentive to do so. I am frightened that you can only save the things that you love and that maybe I’m not sure exactly how you come to love things in the first place. I’m worried that our cowardice (my cowardice) will mean we would rather die in the presence of the familiar than live in the presence of the unknown.
And I am angry. Some days I feel it in the muscles across my shoulders and my back. Sometimes I wake in the night and wonder what more I could be doing. I try hard to remember that darkness is not only a place of danger and fear, but that it can also be a place of freedom, of unknowing and of potential. But more often that not, I fail.
And yet. And yet…
Despite all of this, there is work to do. And it is work that is worth doing regardless of what the ultimate outcome is. Because that is what it means to proceed collectively in the face of all of this. That is what it means to proceed with care, and, in those occasional moments when the glimpse of a better future reveals itself, perhaps even with hope.
Genuinely, thank you for listening.