The situation is dire – the social philosopher pulls no punches on this account
Andreas Malm's new book warns we are heading 'into cataclysmic climate change'
As a social philosopher, it’s not surprising that Andreas Malm insists upon theory’s relevance in grasping how climate change is transforming the “human condition,” a term popularised by fellow theoretician Hannah Arendt. His endeavour is to clarify how global warming is altering the way we think about ourselves and our world, and its implications for the prospect of humankind’s survival.
Although theory is Malm’s medium, he is not an ivory tower recluse. Ultimately, he asks how, in light of our life-threatening conundrum, we can resist the dystopic, worst-case scenarios that intellectuals have come to conclude are inevitable. His treatise is about the meta-fight over how to fight climate change and, at the very least, minimise the losses.
The situation is dire – Malm pulls no punches on this account. Most scientists admit that halting the planet’s warming to “just” 2ºC is illusory. Two summers ago, the temperature in Basra hit 54°C, and this record will probably fall soon as temperatures climb. As the top threshold rises to 3°C or 5°C, or even 8°C, we face a future that is much harsher and punishing than the present, or one that is simply unliveable for many species, including our own, perhaps.
Vast portions of the earth and its natural populations, including homo sapiens, will perish if temperatures climb to 8°C. Among human beings, those first and most affected are the global poor – those who have contributed least to the crisis. Indeed, everything is at stake in our battle against the impact of two centuries of burning fossil fuels.
The recent discourses around global warming and the fate of mankind have been skewed by cynical post-modernist, system-internal observers, argues Malm, who teaches human ecology at Lund University, Sweden.
These types, argues Malm, among them intellectuals, literati, even activists, are incapable of imagining the defeat of the forces responsible for our fossil-fuel addicted economies in the first place.
In fact, they chalk it all up to discourse. Then they either throw up their arms in despair or hope against all reason that the expansion of renewable energies alone can slow the planet’s rising temperatures and “stabilise” the earth’s environment. And then there are those like United States President Donald Trump, who want to earn a dollar from it.
The postmodern condition plays right into this court. If ours is a world that exists only in the present, then neither the past nor the future is relevant, just the “now”.
Time is abolished, which inhibits comprehending the historical sources of phenomena such as climate change, just as it does thinking a few years or a generation ahead.
Nature is basically moot, too, when attention is at every moment directed into computer and TV screens in timeless spaces. When the external world is obscured by digital media, climate change and biocide are easily ignored or outrightly denied.
But postmodernity, he argues is now being confronted with its antithesis, which might prevail – or be subsumed by it. Malm calls this “the warming condition”.
The past, in terms of two centuries of fossil fuel combustion and ruthless exploitation of nature, is roaring back onto the stage – and into consciousness. Against the backdrop of temperatures rising across decades, the future too is now acutely present as we strive to brake and head off the worst consequences of climate change.
As for nature, it can no longer be shut out by the omnipresent screen. It is making itself heard after centuries of post-Enlightenment abuse. In contrast to post-traumatic stress disorder, the illness of our generations is a “pre-traumatic” condition, in which people fear the extreme future that they feel powerless to alter. “When climate change seeps into consciousness,” argues Malm, “it brings with it a realisation that more and worse is coming.”
Malm sees this new consciousness most conspicuously in the wave of dystopian films and novels on the market. Elsewhere the reality of the impending disaster has entered discourses and politics more slowly.
How, asks Malm, can you explain why citizens and politicos obsess on small numbers of foreign nationals crossing nation-state borders rather than a process that could extinguish civilisation as we know it? An unpleasant but feasible scenario: the far right itself successfully exploits angst about global warming just as effectively as it has migration.
Indeed, the warming condition’s dislodging of post-modernity, if indeed that happens, by no means portends a rush to the barricades to halt global warming. Fear of the future could trigger fear that there is no future at all.
He argues that it is entirely possible to draw the wrong conclusions from the new zeitgeist. And there are those who do: by claiming that mankind as such – our civilisations from the beginnings of industrialisation – are at fault for environmental degradation.
For Malm, the agent of climate change is much more specific, namely neo-liberal capitalism, which he argues birthed the fossil fuel industry in the first place and continues to rely on it for the cheap energy it needs for profit.
In fact, oil and gas are only two of nature’s offerings that industrialists since the 19th century have treated as commodities for the sole purpose of business. They see the entire natural world solely as something for their class to exploit and discard when finished. Malm quotes the former CEO of ExxonMobil and former US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson: “My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, that’s what I want to do.” It could also be the maxim of the Trump administration.
Malm, much like the Canadian globalisation critic Naomi Klein, argues for the complete dismantlement of the fossil fuel economy – indeed its destruction.
Why capitalism couldn’t run just as well on renewable energies is something Malm doesn’t explain, at least in this book. Nevertheless, what’s called for now, he says, is a resolute demolition crew to take down the petrochemical-addicted system.
Indeed, nothing less than revolution will save us, concludes Malm on a militant note: “The only salubrious thing about the election of Donald Trump is that it dispels the last lingering illusions that anything else other than organised collective resistance has a fighting chance of pushing the world anywhere else than headfirst, at maximum speed, into cataclysmic climate change.”
This fighting chance preludes a clear-eyed recognition of the real adversary.