Does environmentalism destroy the world?

openDemocracy and Resurgence launch the Dictionary of Ethical Politics to explore how our political concepts can cope with the end of the limitless
openDemocracy and the ecology magasine, Resurgence have teemed up to build, wiki-style, the Dictionary of Ethical Politics because our political concepts will need to change to reflect the end of the limitless. The dictionary will try to collect reflections on what these changes might need to be. I very much hope you will get involved.

The need to reshape our understanding of the world to make it both habitable and comprehensible can be seen in the failure of COP15. After all its recriminations, the diplomatic intrigue of a badly-managed summit, the question of whether it was America or China, verifiability or North-South transfers that is most to blame ... beyond all that is the sheer enormous reality that the world's scientific and policy elite came together to show to the watching world that "the American way of life" is not negotiable, be it for America and Europe enjoying it or the billions aspiring to it.

It was Bush-father who said that the "American way of life is not negotiable" at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. His son's spokesman, Ari Fleisher, sacralised this sentiment at the 10th anniversary Earth Summit claiming that the "American way of life is blessed". And Copenhagen, in a sense, has been the final piece of the ritual. As Hugo Chavez quipped in addressing the assembled negotiators: "If the climate had been a bank, it would have been saved already".The environmental constraint simply does not fit into the world we have built in the way that the bank does.

There were three groups of participants at Copenhagen: the experts, negotiators, policy wonks; the political leaders; and the "eco-natives", the youthful NGO movements that acted as Greek chorus to the drama.

The first are the high priests of a global community of knowledge who basically agree on a diagnosis of the planet's greatest threat and have a largely technocratic approach to its solution. Their world is full of ratios and relations: increase energy per capita, reduce emissions per capita; 350ppms for a 2 degree cap for a 1m rise in sea levels; extend CDM, agree on REDD, make environmental North South transfers equal to xx% of MDG commitments for aid; imagine the military and environmental research budgets swapped around ... everything in this world can be turned into everything else through some flux. Indeed, the end of the limitless world can be turned into a boon through Green stimuli and jobs. The political transformations that climate change requires are seen as obstacles to the implementation of solutions that are clear for the priests to see in the models.

The politicians, whether democratically representative or not, stand for their nations' interests. They are the here and now of the world. The environment gets a look-in to the national interest in the rich North, especially when it dove-tails with energy security ... it dominates few agendas - Tuvalu and other small island nations made a mark because sea-level rise is an existential threat. But for all the posturing in the plenary of Venezuela or Sudan, Chavez and Bashir are not about to sequester their own carbon for the good of humanity. That is simply not where their national interest is.

The youthful NGO movements have been born into environmentalism. When the mother of one of them was asked what her Climate Action-bound son thought about the climategate emails, I heard her report his charming but chilling response: "we don't care about the science. This is about changing the world." But will they change the world? What does it mean to do so?

Bush-father's position is the starting point for Alain Finkielkraut in last week's discussion on France Culture's Réplique. Finkielkraut brings the poet and philosopher Michel Deguy and scientist André Lebeau - onetime head of France's metereological office - into conversation about what has to change in order for humanity to actually face up to its resource-constrained, climate-affecting future. The scientist and the philosopher agree on the surface diagnostic - resource limits, population growth, income inequalities - but they disagree deeply on how this will change.

Lebeau is no techno-optimist, but he has a technocratic approach: we are close to a Malthusian limit of food, water and other resources; we need to educate women to contain population; we need to reduce inequalities in order to make less energy intensive life-styles acceptable ... Lebeau's position is square in the center of the consensus from the epistemic community of expert environmentalists. It is a community that has grown in the idiom of science, and problems relate to quantities and these become policy variables. In a way, Lebeau represents the world of experts and negotiators - not politicians - who were assembled at Copenhagen.

Deguy, on the other hand, believes that too much environmentalism kills the world. Not that he is a techno-optimist or an anti-warmist. His point is that the world - the humanly inhabited world, the world such as it makes sense to live in - is constructed metaphorically, poetically and culturally rather than through the equations of the technocrat. And unprecedented changes in the environment - in our relationship to the earth - will require correspondingly unprecedented changes in consciousness - in how we see and build a meaningful world. Deguy reminds us that for Patocka, it was WW1 that was unprecedented and required a re-invention of humanity; for many - including Deguy and Finkielkraut - the unprecedented comes from WW2, the Shoah and Hiroshima. And now we face another unprecedented change required to the world: that which comes from the rebellion of the earth. When the unprecedented happens, there is a sense that it is too little to say that "consciousness" changes. More than that changes: our understanding of the world, our place in it, the meanings of words... Making that change, for Deguy, is cultural, not scientific work. It is not essentially a work of understanding by uncovering, but of recovering and reshaping the world's significance after an unprecedented confrontation.

But human consciousness changed in adjustment to the actual events of WW1 and WW2. One might go back further - the Lisbon earthquake had to actually happen before Voltaire could deny the possibility of the environment being the creation of a benevolent God. That change of consciousness led to God's disappearance from our world. But at Copenhagen, something new was being tried: a pre-emptive transformation, one not brought about by an angry, earth-shaking planet (Lisbon); one not emerging out of a history suddenly visible as both man-made and out-of-control (the traumas of the 20th Century). When it comes to ecology, there is little yet for us - especially us in the rich, overdeveloped world - to grasp as indication of the unprecedented change of our impact on the environment. The Maldives may have experienced a democratic transformation based on the prospective existential threat posed by the climate, but it took that much. Humanity took over the world from God after Lisbon, and at Copenhagen was trying to pre-empt its own demise. So the problem of changing consciousness is compounded by the fact that we are having to reshape consciousness in an unprecedentedly forward-looking and constructed way.

When most of us are pressed for an opinion on the environment, we evince pessimism. Even those with endless reserves of techno-optimism, like Bjorn Lomborg, had to be more pessimistic about water, air quality and public health than climate change in his "Copenhagen Consensus". Yet, despite our pessimism, our collective attitude is one of denial. For Deguy, this is because we have become consumers down to the essence of our being. If something exists, it can be consumed. Our understanding of ourselves is one of beings that live under limitlessness - the virtualisation of ourselves online; our search for immortality through the postponement of death; our addiction to debt ... The American way of life moved from non-negotiability to being sacred precisely when environmental constraints looked as though they might actually negotiate it away.

Deguy's view of humanity's construction of the world provides a hint of why Lebeau's environmentalism failed at Copenhagen. Even if there are narrow epistemic communities that have understood the enormity of the diagnostic for the planet, the world - in Deguy's sense - has to be rebuilt and made habitable once again before those communities hold political sway. The politicians at Copenhagen, the ones who could not come to an agreement, really were the representatives of nations that still live in an unlimited world. Maybe it is not surprising that this is the world view that triumphed in Copenhangen. It is, for the most part, still our world, because the radical change of consciousness that limitation implies has not yet happened on any scale.

Copenhagen teaches us that we cannot hope for elites to lead the world through change: the kind of change implied is not the sort of thing that can be technocratically led. But is there any way to change the world before an angry planet changes it for us? It is unlikely that humanity has ever been through a profound transformation prospectively before - this is an important part of the unprecedented in our current turn. If it is going to happen at all, it will be through a thorough change of understanding reflected, amongst other places, through changes in the meanings of words. The words we use everyday will need to acquire new layers of connotations and implications for how the world makes sense to us. This is a part of the work that the Dictionary of Ethical Politics hopes to do.

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com

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The Dictionary of Ethical Politics works on a modified wiki principle. Entries are authored. You are welcome to register as an author and join authors and thinkers like David Korten Van Jones or Caroline Lucas in crafting your own entries. These will be post-moderated. Registered users can edit entries, but are asked not to make substantive changes to the original entries. If you want to add an alternative definition, or a development of the definition shown, please do so below the existing entry. You can also launch into a discussion on the discussion pages. We will produce a book version of the dictionary during 2010. For any information or guidance, please contact the dictionary's editor, Charles Shaw.