Climate Change and “We”

Capitalism refuses to slow down, creating the conditions for climate collapse. How do we take political responsibility for our future?

Stan Goff

I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness,

And all its cities were pulled down.

–Jeremiah 4:25


Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories.

–Amilcar Cabral


“We” did not do something terrible to the earth, whereupon the earth is now retaliating against “us.” “Nature bats last,” is evocatively useful as a response to the arrogance of Man Conquers Nature, but this statement and its presuppositions participate in the same deception that got “us” here in the first place—here being on the cusp of biospheric catastrophe and its inevitable accompaniment by (likely violent) social collapse.


There are three problems with this conceit: the generalized “we” makes a Haitian peasant as responsible for climate destabilization as a fossil energy executive; “Humans” doing things to the earth reiterates the nature-society duality (and the conquest of Nature trope that resides safely therein); and it conceals the specific social order that led “us” into this terrible impasse—capitalism.


Geographer and sociologist Jason W. Moore has helped to popularize the clumsy term Capitalocene as a replacement for the Anthropocene for this very reason. Climate catastrophe is not caused by humans per se, who have been afoot for almost 200,000 years. This catastrophic world-system gestates around 1492, inside the womb of New World settler colonialism.


All that said, there is no linguistic escape hatch that allows us to say, “We are not responsible for this emergency.” When one person shits in the pool, everyone has to get out. But there is no “outside” for this pool.


Moore’s idiom is Marxist, but his description of this conundrum is apt and useful. He calls it the double-internality. In Capitalism in the Web of Life, he emphasizes the pool without an outside. Everything is in nature, because there is no Nature apart from everything that obeys the laws of nature, which is, well, everything we can know as creatures existing wholly within matter, space, and time. The double-internality Moore describes can be represented almost as a formula: capitalism is in nature, and nature is in capitalism. Or as Moore puts it more arrestingly, “Capitalism is not an economic system; it is not a social system; it is a way of organizing nature.”


Nature is not just nature; it’s historical nature. Humanity, as a history-making species, is inside nature and nature is inside that historical process, as two mutually constituting features of the same dynamic. Capitalism is a contingent interpenetration of nature and history founded on the epochal shift from land-based economy to money-based economy. What makes capitalism as a world-system unique and uniquely disruptive is the increasing velocity of this dynamicthe restless speed of capitalist enclosure, extraction, exploitation, pollution, transportation, production, destruction, and abandonment.


What has capitalism, this unique nature-history configuration, done to our climate? When we reconstruct the history of recent climate destabilization and attempt to locate its causes, we land immediately on the burning of fossil hydrocarbons. We know that capitalism—speaking very generally—relies on a three-percent compounded annual “growth” rate, a euphemism for profit sufficient to maintain the lifestyles of capitalists and to continually expand capital. This imperative to grow compels the calculations and activities of capitalists. Thus, the extraction and exploitation of limited, natural resources are unfortuante “side effects” necessary to growth of profits.


This is, importantly, a temporal phenomenon. It is an imperative to recapitalizeto plow money back into an enterprise through cycle after cycleis driven by credit/debt on the one hand (relation to finance capital) and competitive markets (relation to competitors) on the other. Because “growth” (expansion) is therein compounded, “growth” necessitates actual material acceleration. Everything has to happen faster. Extraction of resources must be accelerated. The burning of fuels must be accelerated. The commodification of the commons must be accelerated. The rate of desire-production propaganda must be accelerated. The dumping of “externalities” must be accelerated.


The two main accelerators for capital are (1) fossil fuels for speed of commons destruction, production, and transit (material) and (2) general-purpose money to accelerate exchange (semiotic). Material relations are mediated by semiotic exchanges. The faster we exchange on the market, using the “sign” of disembodied value (general purpose money), the faster we use fossil energy.


Now we are confronted with an end-game death spiral, in which this acceleration has transformed high finance into serial asset bubbles and destroyed the climate stability and biodiversity that are the basis of our continued existence. Our own cooperation (and complicity) is secured by our generalized dependency on money.


The relation between capital and climate change is only complicated because we—speaking now of a real we that would be you and me—have to climb through Himalayas of economic dogma to find this simple truth. That very dogma is now crumbling as quickly as the myth of progress that propelled us through the twentieth century, over tens of millions of bodies, and dropped us here at the end of one world and the beginning of an ever more lifeless and terrifying one. That old world  is in its death throes, and much still remains to be lost.


Jean Bertrand-Aristide, before he was ousted a second time from the Haitian presidency by US coups, told the Haitian people that he wanted to lift them “from misery to poverty.” This is analogous to our own situation. The world is headed toward something akin to Haiti writ large–Hobbesian survival on an exhausted and degraded landscape. There are no good options, only less bad ones. Whatever socialism is going to be, it has to aim at slowing way down. As Jorge Reichmann once said, “El socialismo puede llegar solo en bicicleta.” If socialism comes, it’ll have to be on a bicycle.


The terrible irony here is that the near-certain catastrophe of financial collapse may well force such a slowdown, but, once again, on the backs of the world’s most vulnerable. Our best case scenario, assuming that we could cease burning fossil hydrocarbons today and contain the knock-on effects over the next thirty to fifty years, is to revolutionize governance and subdue state power in the service of an epochal paradigm-shift.


At this juncture, no entity other than the state has the capacity, in terms of investment and power, to address the scale of the crisis. But that power can only be wielded for the people and the earth if the state is pressured by popular struggle and collective action. This presents a major question about the relationship of popular, democratic struggle to the transformation of the state and its priorities, one that admits of many stratetgic possibilities. The one non-negotiable is direct confrontation with capitalist power. But even with a state forced by the demos to act, this will not be a “return to normal”that possibility has been irrevocably lostbut a world-scale effort to stop wanton destruction and attenuate damage.


This is a challenge for all of us. It is a special challenge to Christians—the we with whom I speak now, who may find in The Bias Magazine a glimmer of hope for radical Christian politics. How will we navigate in this new world full of fear and violence and sorrow with fewer and fewer of our familiar signposts? Part of that has to be passing through our grief at what has been lost. Part of that has to be grim determination. Part of that is returning to the basics: the world is redeemed by one thing onlylove. We have to grieve together, struggle together, and most of all . . . love one another. We are the people of the cross and the open tomb.


Stan Goff is an anti-war activist and author. Most recently, he has published Tough Gynes: Violent Women in Film as Honorary Men with Cascade Books, as well as Borderlines: Reflections on War, Sex and the Church (Cascade)He also writes at Medium.



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