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Reply to “The Myth of ‘Environmental Catastrophism’”

Eddie Yuen is a contributor to Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, edited by Sasha Lilley (PM Press, 2012). He teaches in the Urban Studies Department at the San Francisco Art Institute, and is the co-editor, with Daniel Burton-Rose and George Katsiaficas, of Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches from a Global Movement (Soft Skull Press, 2002). Ian Angus is editor of the online journal Climate & Capitalism. He is co-author of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis (Haymarket, 2011), and editor of The Global Fight for Climate Justice (Fernwood, 2010).

Ian Angus constructs a strawperson in his article “The Myth of ‘Environmental Catastrophism (MR, September 2013), which discusses Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, which consists of essays by myself, as well as Sasha Lilley, David McNally, and James Davis.

The book is concerned with the political uses of catastrophe and whether actual catastrophes or catastrophic rhetoric can spur people to action. At the heart of Catastrophism is the question of politicization. My essay, which Angus primarily focuses upon, looks at the indisputably catastrophic and urgent devastation of the environment­—from global warming to ocean acidification to the biodiversity crisis and beyond—and asks why environmental movements in the global North have not been effective at moving people to action by simply evoking the calamity of the situation. My contention is that the disjunction between the severity of the catastrophe and the inadequate solutions offered by mainstream environmentalism often leads to a politics of fear that is paralyzing rather than radicalizing.

In my piece, I examine a study which found that awareness of climate crisis does not necessarily lead to increased political engagement. My explanation for the findings of this study is that “by pairing catastrophic predictions with glaringly inadequate solutions, the (majority of) scientific and environmental communities have offered little to inspire mobilization.” The proof of this claim is not to be found in social science surveys, but in the absence of a climate movement that is in any way adequate to addressing the crisis at hand. While I acknowledge the tremendous efforts of a myriad of environmental movements globally, I regret that I do not share Angus’s optimism about the current state of climate politics. In the United States in 2011, both the Occupy movement and the political campaigns of both major parties scarcely mentioned the climate crisis. While I participated in the former and disdained the latter, it is significant that it is possible to not foreground the climate crisis in any political discussion in the current era. Since reference to environmental apocalypse is ubiquitous, as is witnessed by every other movie or TV show, the political invisibility of climate crisis, even on the left, must be explained.

Strangely, Angus misses my central problematic of politicization and faults me for various positions that I don’t, in fact, hold. He is wrong in his assertion that I, in any way, advocate not talking about environmental crisis. I find it bewildering that Angus reads this into the piece. Most readers have understood that I was criticizing mainstream power-neutral and class-blind environmental arguments. Even more erroneous is his contention that I in any way oppose environmental activism (I have previously co-edited a volume on social movements). I hope that curious readers will read the text and judge for themselves whether it is ambiguous on this point. All I can say is that I have never held the position that environmental crisis should not be talked about and acted upon urgently.

On the contrary, I argue that the environmental crisis is all too real and that red/greens need to intervene in environmental discourse and action in particular ways. I advocate addressing the environmental crisis in power-cognizant, historically grounded, and class-conscious ways that can shape and inform action to halt and reverse capitalism’s inveterate environmental destruction. My critique of environmental catastrophism is a critique of undifferentiated environmental politics that prematurely invoke “humanity” while ignoring gender, race, imperial, and class differences. Beware of plutocrats speaking of spaceship earth.

Angus also criticizes my essay for not covering ground that it never set out to cover, such as surveying contemporary environmental and social justice movements. My intentionally brief chapter of this intentionally brief book is not such an inventory.

The book takes stock of the various versions of apocalypse on offer with an eye towards placing them in a broader ideological context. My essay is a critique of the ideological assumptions of undifferentiated catastrophist politics in the global north. Environmental catastrophism is unique in that it addresses a genuine catastrophe which is well under way. But absent radical politics, mainstream environmental catastrophism is very likely to be mobilized by economic and national elites to reinforce existing inequalities and expand enclosures, commodification, and militarization.

Politicization is a more complex process than simply presenting the “correct line” to the masses. It is my hope and expectation that environmental and climate justice movements will expand and deepen in the upcoming years. But in my view, as the crisis deepens neoliberal environmentalism, in increasingly malevolent right-wing, Malthusian, and nationalist versions, can also be expected to grow and entrench racial, colonial, and gendered power relations. Moral condemnations of capitalism are important, but strategic assessments of the effects of undifferentiated catastrophist language are even more so. Galvanizing more people to action will mean talking about and challenging the ways in which environmental catastrophe makes some groups of people more vulnerable to harm than others.

A Reply to Eddie Yuen

I’m pleased that Eddie Yuen has responded to my criticisms of his essay. The left can only gain from frank discussion of our differences.

Since he raises it as a particular concern, I will begin by saying that the issue is not whether Eddie Yuen favors environmental activism, but whether his approach may hinder the effort. Nor is the issue whether radicals should do more than just explain the science and effects of climate change: obviously we must, and I said so clearly in my article. If, as he now suggests, Yuen was simply saying that describing the environmental crisis is not sufficient, I would not have objected. But his essay said much more than that.

What my article primarily challenged was his sweeping attack on what he insists on calling “environmental catastrophism,” in a book whose express purpose is to argue that “catastrophic politics can backfire on leftists and radical environmentalists,” and “is an approach destined for the blind alley.”

I argued that the label “catastrophism” is inaccurate and divisive, that Yuen misunderstands the state of public opinion and of the environmental movement, and above all that he is wrong “to blame environmentalists for sabotaging environmentalism.”

Unfortunately, his response ignores most of what I wrote, and misrepresents his own essay.

In his essay, Yuen did not just “examine a study which found that awareness of climate crisis does not necessarily lead to increased political engagement.” He claimed the study “shows that once convinced of apoc­alyptic scenarios, many Americans become more apathetic.” He repeated that claim with a reference to geographer Cindi Katz’s 1993 statement that “a politics of fearultimately breeds hopelessness.”

And just in case we missed the point, Sasha Lilley emphasized it again when she summarized Yuen’s argument in the book’s Introduction: “The evidence suggeststhat increasingly urgent appeals about fixed ecological tipping points typically fall on deaf ears or result in greater apathy.”

My article showed that the only study Yuen cites does not show any such thing, and that other more credible studies show the opposite. Now, when his evidence has been discredited, he dismisses as irrelevant the “social science surveys” that he introduced in the first place. He forgets that his entire argument rested on that study’s purported results. Only on that basis could he argue that “the politics of failure have failed” so a new “narrative strategy” is needed. His argument was built on sand.

Nor did Yuen simply say that the environmental movement has “offered little to inspire mobilization.” His much harsher claim was that by trying to alert the public to the extraordinary dangers posed by climate change—that is what he means by “environmental catastrophism”—scientists and environmental activists are promoting reactionary policies and strengthening the ruling class. As he now warns, “environmental catastrophism is very likely to be mobilized by economic and national elites to reinforce existing inequalities and expand enclosures, commodification, and militarization.”

Fear that the ruling class will co-opt our movements is perhaps the most debilitating of common leftist neuroses. Yuen’s essay and response display clear symptoms of that malady—and of the related delusion that by introducing some other “narrative strategy” we can inoculate listeners against ruling class ideology and “inspire mobilization.”

That is why his failure to discuss contemporary environmental justice movements is a significant omission. Those experiences show that growing awareness of the planetary emergency has not caused apathy or strengthened the right, but is actually promoting a global radical opposition to reactionary policies and authoritarian solutions.

That is what the ruling class fears. That’s why, contrary to Yuen’s repeated warnings, no significant section of the ruling class is using “environmental catastrophism” to promote reactionary policies. In fact (as last year’s U.S. election illustrated) our rulers are making extraordinary efforts to suppress awareness that any crisis exists, either by completely denying the existence of human-caused climate change, or by denying that urgent and radical measures are needed to stop it.

In my article I wrote that radicals must “work with everyone who is willing to confront any aspect of the crisis, from people who still have illusions about capitalism to convinced revolutionaries.” Similarly, in the same issue of Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster wrote that building an “ecological popular front” is of paramount importance for the left.

A key part of that effort is giving active support to the scientists and activists who are trying to break through the capitalist conspiracy of silence on the climate crisis. If we instead denounce those key allies as “catastrophists”—an insult they’ve heard many times from reactionary climate science deniers—we will only isolate ourselves and weaken one of the most important movements of our time.

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