André Alves/ Float ︎

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Environmental catastrophism

From the biblical apocalypse to the end of Maia’s calendar, humanity has always been obsessed with the narrative of the end of the world, but it seems like we’ve been overdoing it lately; an interest that seems to be potentialized by the tsunami of bad news brought by the pandemic. many of us became addicted to doomscrolling. The act of consuming a big amount of negative news at once. it’s as if we've been addicted to catastrophism.

Even though a lot of people still do not believe in the climate emergency, perhaps the biggest win of negationism is its capacity of making many of those who believe in the climate crisis end up “accepting” that nothing can be done. As if a catastrophe was inevitable. for a context that demands urgent moves, nothing can be so perverse as to encourage you to do nothing.

As Michael E Mann affirms, one of the most influential scientists in the climate discussion and also author of the optimist The New Climate War, the catastrophic perspective is one of our biggest enemies in the climate struggle, a threat as dangerous as denial. to Mann, “inactivists know that if people believe there is nothing they can do, they will be driven to disengagement”. It’s as if the narrative of “it’s too late” would transform good intentions and the desire for a change in disappointment and despair.  

Through the psychoanalysis lenses, humans are equally capable of destroying and of loving, eros and thanatos, death drive (the stagnation nirvana) and life drive (seeking for movement). if we often seek to alleviate conflict and even deny fear, there are still those who replace fear from the outside with the exaggeration of inner anguish. The threats become so great that they anabolize our children's complexes, making us even more defenseless, lost, anguished and helpless. we feel poor with nothing to do.

historically, to manipulate depressed individuals is always easier than trying to control the busy ones. here the climate crisis and the pandemic are meeting again: the negationist actions and irresponsible leaderships in the pandemic took us into devastating consequences that became quite evident. besides promoting a context of revaluation of science.

however, we live in a specific time in history in which it becomes harder to deny the climate changes because people can see them manifesting in real time before their eyes. it doesn’t matter if you’re a dreamer, catastrophist or terraplanist, in fact the planet doesn’t look great.

new climate dilemmas

In a sea of negative news, 2021 started with a positive wave in the climate crisis, a move caused by the bills of measures and affirmative actions to the environment of the Biden government, in the USA, which surprised even the environmentalists. Even so, many question whether the proposed changes will be lasting, since we live in an eternal groundhog day in which we walk 3 houses and then return 2 (or 6?) to the climate board.

As Elizabeth Kolbert declared in a recent interview, many specialists have said that the current global political system is not capable of acting in the velocity needed to reverse the environmental damage and its consequences - and the last 30 years are a depressing proof of that. In this scenario, uninspiring options remain: geoengineering and technological solutions such as “darken the sun”; carbon dictatorships in which sanctions would flirt with authoritarianism; nuclear energy as one of the only ways to end fossil fuels. or letting everything go to collapse. 

In every way, a feeling that we have passed the point of reversibility is in the air, we turn us into a species without precedents: nobody has ever done a damage the size humans did. For many, the core of the problem lies with leaders (as usual) and their insistence on continuing to try to solve a complex problem with the same system that brought us here, neoliberal capitalism. The climate crisis is also a crisis of leadership and ideology.

“Our thought was reduced to this: essentially an analysis and neoliberal criticism of the neoliberal situation. it’s the structure of the feeling in our time; we can’t think of anything beyond economic terms, our ethics must be quantified and evaluated by the effects that our actions have on GDP. it is said that this is the only thing that people can agree on. although those who say this are often economists.” — Kim Stanley Robinson in “ministry for the future

The increase in the frequency of droughts, floods, heat waves and mass migration will challenge us to operate new mentalities. first, environmental issues will become the center of debates on politics, relations and consumption; the environment will no longer be an issue to be part of all issues. Thus, we will have to use a new vocabulary, in which 3 expressions will be fundamental: environmental justice, climatic violence and climatic suffering.

Environmental justice is a relatively old concept, but ironically urgent. It’s a way of treating global warming as an ethical, political and social problem. It’s evident that political and economic decisions affect people of different genders, ethnicities and income disproportionately. If individuals and societies are benefited and harmed by the climate crisis in unequal ways, who should be held responsible and penalized?

Climatic violence is a product of this unbalanced equation, usually the result of a collision between extreme climate conditions and precarious social realities. All of this enhances more radical reactions. on the one hand, poverty, neglect of the state and abandonment make realities more violent. On the other hand, Greenpeace's pacifist attitude gives way to Extinction Rebellion's radical civil disobedience.

It’s a scenario in which definitions such as “environmental crimes” also require updates. Who is more criminal: individuals who profit from the exploitation of fossil fuels or individuals who bomb coal plants and oil platforms to “nip it in the bud”? What is more violent in this context?

It’s obvious that the suffering produced by these changes is also essential in the discussion. For a long time, the negationist and/or more neoliberal wing preached that environmental disasters are part of evolution, concluding that human beings are capable of adapting. The question is which humans will be forced to adapt, how and with what resources? Millionaire homes can burn in California, but a fire in India or Brazil is sure to affect the fragile social structure of more people.

As scientist Katharine Hayhoe said in an excellent interview with CNN about the responses to the Texas blizzards, there is 1) mitigation: emission reduction; 2) adaptation: alteration of systems; and 3) suffering. In the face of the climate crisis, society chooses one of these 3 options. But the truth is that, especially for poor and/or non-white individuals, society continues to opt for suffering.

In this scenario, a more complex question arises: who should lead the changes - or the decision-making - should not be the ones who suffer the most?

André is a writer, consultant and researcher at @floatvibes, a hub of culture, behavior and strategy.