Published by the New Internationalist, 2017
Swinging in the Wind
Facing up to the reality of the climate emergency (which, as I write, the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Glasgow is elaborately failing to do) has to mean embracing transformative adaptation. Starting from the recognition that it is too late to prevent serious climate-driven disasters, although we might still avert catastrophe, and that it is also too late to try to cope just by changes premised on preserving existing patterns of life in the global North, the adaptation which we so urgently need must now be radical and systemic. It must, as basic criteria of adequacy to the situation, be a matter not just of dramatically cutting carbon emissions and insisting that remaining fossil fuels are left in the ground; it also requires building resilience into everything we do, ensuring local food security instead of relying on increasingly vulnerable global supply chains, indeed re-localising not just food production but as much economic activity as possible, and all the time working with nature and not against it, managing retreat instead of trying to erect walls and pursuing widespread restoration and re-wilding in the same spirit.
Now it is just a blunt fact, though still widely shirked as such (witness the UN Conference), that none of this will be possible without people in the currently carbon-intensive North flying, driving and generally moving around a great deal less, eating much less meat and pursuing strictly no-growth trajectories in relation to construction, infrastructure development, general production and consumption. And none of that will happen just through change led by individuals, companies or even Jeff Bezos; it will require directive social and economic interventions across the board by those in possession of state power – carbon rationing, air-miles rationing, meat rationing, social ownership of unused land for food and a citizens’ income to cushion inevitable dislocation. It will require, that is, not just encouragement but enforcement of far-reaching changes across the whole sphere of life. In fact, talking about transformative adaptation is really a way of talking about a revolution without actually having to say that uncomfortable word, which may explain why it has recently become so popular in green activist circles. For plainly enough, changes of that order in patterns of working, habits, expectations and general arrangements will necessarily effect a wholesale turn-around (that is, a ‘revolution’) in present living; but by avoiding the term itself, we can avoid, or at least postpone, considering whether they must also involve revolutionary political methods – in particular, deliberate subversion of established state institutions by a combative minority as a prelude to seizing control. We can thereby go on hoping to accomplish this desperately-needed turn-around entirely by democratic persuasion and with majority support.
But when you look around – when you face up to the reality of the response to climate emergency, when you look for instance at people coming out of the Covid-19 nightmare (as they perhaps wishfully think), shrugging off by and large the irksome demands for responsibility and community solidarity which the pandemic brought with it and eagerly rushing to book their holiday flights, how robustly can such hope be maintained? When you pass, as back in the day one sometimes couldn’t help passing, through a huge international airport like Heathrow or Schiphol, and reflect that this whole mighty edifice of indulgence and the deep foundations of unquestioned assumption on which it is reared, will just have to be swept away – or when you observe meetings like the UN Conference and register that this painfully-negotiated incremental fudging is the best our current political regime can offer – what prospects do there seem to be for majority-endorsed transformation in the lifestyles of Western consumer society?
That might seem to be prompting for the sardonic reply ‘Not a lot’, but the interest of Leo Barasi’s book is that, without blinking these awkward facts, he treats it as a genuinely open question. In answer to it he identifies what he calls ‘the swings’ (on the analogy of ‘swing voters’). These are, broadly, people who accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change but are nevertheless not strongly motivated to do anything much about it. Such people turn out to be surprisingly numerous. On the basis of surveys conducted in Britain, Australia and the US just before his book came out in 2017, they actually constituted about 60% of the population, while on the one hand committed activists and on the other hand sceptics (including deniers and the merely ignorant) each amounted to about 20% respectively. Interviews showed that people in his ‘swings’ group typically “understand that climate change is caused by humans and will be a problem unless it is addressed. Yet they have little interest in the issue and often say they would oppose measures that would cut emissions” (p.45). This position, he observes, isn’t reasonably to be labelled climate denial; instead he christens it ‘climate apathy’ – something equally challenging, but calling for a different sort of response.
And why might such a substantial majority of people meet the climate threat, of all threats, with apathy, of all reactions? Here we reach the core of Barasi’s case, which is that this arises from the way in which the threat is characteristically presented by climate activists (as, by the same token, does incredulity at apathy as a response). People react in this way for perfectly understandable reasons, he claims, important among them being the apparently distant nature (spatially and temporally) of the threat. Like it or not, he says, and especially in the context of new populist nationalisms in the West – the attitudinal surges productive of such phenomena as Trump and Johnson – most people are much more concerned with immediate pressures on themselves than with sufferings in far countries or of other species or even of not-yet-existent humans. Then there is the difficulty which an unreflective majority must find in grasping the significance of a crisis presented in terms of scientific arguments about small-number increases in temperature; when IPCC reports make a pother about the difference between 1.5 and 2degC, it’s easy for those not really into the science to think “Is that all?” On top of that, people’s own direct experience is never of climate but always of weather and its consequences, and you need a good bit of information and capacity for interpretation to get from the particular storm or drought to the underlying situation.
Even more controversially, perhaps, Barasi notes as an apathy-generator for his swings the fairly strong association of climate concern and activism with left-wing politics. This can be a significant turn-off for a majority who don’t share, or who even recoil from, that stance. If you aren’t already persuaded of the need for drastic action, massive intervention by governments and the reining back of global capitalism can easily sound, from this perspective, like rhetoric designed to conceal socialist intentions for which the climate crisis is essentially a pretext.
Barasi’s claim is that these factors nevertheless can be altered, both in terms of presentation and (in the case of the first) also by the increasing incidence of adverse consequences impacting the global North itself and which can already be powerfully identified with warming. The point about the swings is that they can be swung, and he assumes, plausibly enough, that this is a pre-requisite for tackling the emergency.
“Disastrous warming is close to inevitable unless many people, particularly those in rich countries, are prepared to accept sacrifices”, he says (p.7), and for these “…public support is vital” (p.9), for “even if governments set ambitious targets without engaging the public, meeting those targets…will only be possible with public support” (p.65).
But to target the swings, he correspondingly emphasises, there would need to be a conscious and deliberate change in the way climate activists put their case. Crudely (rather more so, indeed, than he allows himself to put it, but this is what he means), they should stop banging on about polar bears and 1.5 degrees, shed all the baggage of irrelevantly modish preoccupation (the gender issues, the tendentious egalitarianism, the litany of putative ‘rights’…) and focus the message overwhelmingly on more immediately graspable threats. In the case of Britain that would mean concentrating on the prospects of far more flooding, heat waves killing the elderly, pandemics caused by ecosystem stress and zoonotic spill-over becoming routine, the NHS collapsing, and a refugee crisis dwarfing all our current difficulties – while insisting at the same time that it is not too late to prepare ourselves for riding out this storm, doing which will require energies of collaboration of a kind which Britain used, when pushed, to be able to fall back on. Such a pitch would certainly be less exalting than appeals to justice and altruism relying upon general scientific literacy, but the stakes are too high, he argues, for us to ignore how much more pragmatic it might be as a way of reaching the majority who need to be moved from apathy towards action.
How might one evaluate this argument? Empirically speaking, relevant evidence over the four years since the book’s publication seems fairly mixed. Climate-driven threats have certainly gained in immediacy in the right places (bush fires in Australia, flooding in Europe, heat domes in North America…), and perhaps in response some mainstream political figures like Biden are now appearing to accept in public statements the causation of these events by anthropogenic warming. The media, too, including even those in the pockets of robber capitalists, are now making these connections more readily. Non-Left, non-scary, non-XR-type figures like Attenborough have gained greater prominence. The proportion of ‘swings’ seems at least to be holding up – a recent Guardian notes, apropos of public concern around COP26, that “in the UK, Ipsos Mori found that 80% of people think the climate crisis is a global emergency, with the same proportion blaming human activity”; similarly, a BBC poll conducted in thirty-one countries showed 56% supporting stronger government action on climate (The Guardian, 1.11.21 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/01/cop26-polling-data-is-overwhelming-people-want-leaders-to-act). But on the other hand, it is certainly far from apparent that this expressed concern has yet started to produce any significant shift in the willingness of Barasi’s ‘swings’ to support truly effective remedial action. The clear failure to ‘build back better’ in legislative or lifestyle terms after the pandemic is a significant marker here. Not only is there the rush back to recreational flying which I mentioned earlier, but the Global Carbon Project even suggests that emissions from coal and gas may jump this year by more than they fell in 2020 (see https://jacksonlab.stanford.edu/sites/g/files/sbiybj15141/f/friedlingstein_et_al._2020_essd.pdf) And a survey published to coincide with the COP finds that, while citizens globally are more alarmed by the climate crisis than they used to be, “few are willing to make significant lifestyle changes” (The Guardian, 8.11.21, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/07/few-willing-to-change-lifestyle-climate-survey).
From such ambiguous empirical data we might turn to scrutinising the argument conceptually, and here the key issue is clearly the concept of apathy. By this Barasi doesn’t mean anything pathological (anomie, accidie or the like), he just means good old apathy, something not radically distinct from how you feel after Sunday lunch about what needs doing in the garden – the insurmountable reluctance to get off your backside which is quite compatible with real concern for the state of the garden, and even with the recognition that ideally you ought to be out there. In the climate context, apathy is that same kind of motivational stasis in respect of transformative changes to Northern lifestyles, changes which one can see do ideally need to be made, but…A corollary of the concept is that this apathetic stasis is envisaged as inertial: people are at rest because not motivated to move, but they could be so motivated if what he has indicated as the right kinds of pressure were brought to bear - his whole analysis being to the effect that it is only because the concerns which activists have habitually tried to stimulate do not really generate any motivational momentum, that the swings have not in any significant measure swung.
But what if the condition of majority stasis should be diagnosed not as apathy in respect of necessary changes, but instead as addiction to the continuation of what needs to be changed? This is something which, having regard to the prospect of change, might look sufficiently like apathy to be mistaken for it, but crucially we should in that case be confronted not with an inertial but with a locked stasis – a situation where any kind of incitement to move simply further embeds reluctance to do so. For the condition of the addict is not that he just isn’t all that arsed about changing, but that however much he may want to, he can’t change, because he has such a pressing need that the very idea of ceasing to meet it actually intensifies it.
Why should one see the majority’s relation to consumerism on the model of addiction rather than of apathy in the face of necessary transformation? An addiction meets a real need not with a genuine satisfier of that need, which for a variety of reasons may not be available, but with a substitute satisfier which only temporarily satisfies and on repeated inputs of which the sufferer then becomes dependent. The resulting dependency can be chemical-somatic, as with addictive substances, but it can also be psychological –“Addiction tricks people by sending them after things that can never meet their needs in the long run”, as Jenny Svanberg puts it in The Psychology of Addiction (London: Routledge, 2018, p.2). A soul is in fact the only kind of thing which can contain an inherently unfillable hole, because only in a soul can consciousness of a need go with and be reinforced by consciousness of the inadequacy of a substitute satisfier, so that attempts to fill the hole merely deepen it. I have recently suggested elsewhere (https://www.greenhousethinktank.org/falter.html) that for the unreflective majority in our kind of society, the relevant genuine (and desperate) need is for meaning and purpose in life; this is unmet – that is, genuine satisfiers are absent – for various cultural reasons (the decline of religious framings, the widespread substitution for genuine art of passive forms of entertainment…) which prevent that majority from grasping intuitively the creative life-dependence out of which meaning is shaped; and the substitute satisfiers are commodities, with the capitalist dynamic of constant restless change and ‘improvement’ providing an ersatz purposiveness in the form of competitive commodity acquisition.
Importantly, such addiction does not have to be seen as operative only at the individual level. There can be collective conditions which meet the criteria for being addictions, and indeed the kind of attachment to commodity consumerism which could be driving climate emergency must have a strong collective dimension, since it stems from what are essentially cultural deficiencies – the helpless human inadequacy of the common-sense now available to ordinary people, the hole-in-the-collective-soul which constantly pushes not only individual but much group behaviour into capture by unsatisfactory substitutes.
The full working out of that sketch is for another place. But if the majority’s relation to consumerism of the kind which is ultimately driving climate emergency is indeed one of addiction, rather than merely of apathy in the face of uncomfortable change, then the premises for Barasi’s proposed shift of activist emphasis cease to obtain. Not only do his statistics, and more recent confirmatory ones, become suspect (an addict may persistently express a desire to be free of his dependence without that desire’s having any predictive value at all as regards attempts to free himself), but such a changed appeal may even come to be counter-productive: being presented with a credibly imminent existential threat to his security of supply is much more likely to strengthen an addict’s resistance to its removal than to shift him away from his addiction.
At all events it is clearly going to be important to keep Barasi’s own analysis and the predictions which it entails carefully under review as things develop over the utterly vital next few years. For if his swing-able majority turns out, whether for empirical or conceptual reasons, to show no signs of swinging in very short order, then green activists are surely going to have to reconsider the prospect not just of revolutionary change, but of revolutionary methods.