We live in an age of dystopias on demand. Whether it’s Black Mirror, The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale, there is no limit to satiating our desires for dark, apocalyptic visions of the future. Unfortunately the scariest experience does not involve the world of the imaginary; it just requires reading the latest climate science.
In one such piece in July 2017, New York Magazine managed to pull together all the possible worst-case climate scenarios in a longread called “The Uninhabitable Earth.” Through interviews with climate scientists, it painted a world of bacterial plagues escaping from melting ice, devastating droughts and floods so frequent they are just called “weather,” and biblical-like tableaus of entire nations on the move. The piece is bleaker than the darkest of sci-fi, because there is no way of dismissing it as fiction.
Facing our fears of climate crisis is one of the biggest challenges we face as activists. Not a week goes by without warnings of an “ice apocalypse” or a “point of no return.” We are bombarded with bleak visions of the future. And it’s a challenge that we continue to struggle with — one we have mainly filled with demands for action. For a long time, the answer was to provide easy actions that people could take so they could feel empowered. But it was soon evident that no amount of energy-saving lightbulbs was going to halt the capitalist juggernaut. Now the answer, from the left at least, is that we must confront capitalism to overcome climate change. Yet this can hardly be described as an easy win, or likely to allay our fears of a dangerous future.
In the anxious void, we have often not engaged or challenged the visions of the future described by climate scientists or environmentalists. And I don’t mean questioning the science, but assessing their expectations of humanity’s response to those climate impacts. Do they accurately describe how people behave in the face of disaster? Do they countenance the idea that people might respond in a way that doesn’t fit the model of the dystopian dog-eat-dog world? Is it possible that their expectations actually serve the purpose of those determined to repress alternative futures?
I started wondering about this after studying military and corporate strategies for dealing with climate change impacts whose apocalyptic language often mirrors that of the New York Magazine piece. In 2007, the Pentagon produced its report, Age of Consequences, that looked at varying scenarios for climate change based on different temperature increases. Its mid-level scenario predicted that nations around the world would be “overwhelmed by the scale of change and pernicious challenges, such as pandemic disease.” It also warned that “armed conflict between nations over resources, such as the Nile and its tributaries, is likely and nuclear war is possible. The social consequences range from increased religious fervor to outright chaos.” A year later, the oil giant Shell released a report, Scramble and Blueprint, that forecast a similar Malthusian scramble for resources.
What is striking about all these forecasts of the future is the overwhelming sense of powerlessness that they provoke. This is partly a result of the fear-based narratives that, as behavioral science research has shown, tend to engender hopelessness. But it’s also a result of completely ignoring the political structures in which climate change impacts occur, as well as the potential for people to remake those systems.
Rather like a Hollywood disaster movie, such scenarios treat climate change as an all-encompassing dark threat on the horizon that threatens us all, where no one is culpable for what happens next and where no one can truly prepare for and change its impacts. Their sketches of a future in which millions starve from increased temperatures, for example, ignore the reality that the present highly concentrated global system of food production and distribution generates more than enough to eat, yet still leaves 815 million people hungry tonight. They similarly ignore how a radical restructuring of our global food regime could provide a much more resilient and effective system for producing and fairly distributing the necessities of life during a time of escalating climate instability.
In short, the climate futures they describe obscure the fact that the impact of climate change will ultimately not be determined by levels of CO2, but by structures of power. In other words, the exact impact of a climate disaster will depend on political decisions, economic wealth and social systems.
SYRIA: A CLIMATE WAR?
Syria’s civil war today is a salutary example of the dangers of envisioning climate futures without consideration of power. In recent years, it has become highly fashionable to describe Syria as a “climate war” and a sign of the conflicts we might expect. The narrative is that extreme drought in the mid-2000s, caused by climate change, forced the migration of farmers, herders and other rural dwellers to the major cities of Damascus and Homs, putting massive pressure on these cities’ infrastructure and creating competition for jobs. This then laid the seeds for unrest, instability and ultimately civil war. This story — with varying degrees of nuance — was widely adopted from the US military to Friends of the Earth.
Besides the fact that there is very little evidence to back up the hypothesis, many mainstream accounts conveniently ignore factors such as the role of the Syrian government’s neoliberal economic policies in creating social divisions. But the biggest problem is that this explanation diverts attention away from how Assad chose to respond to that unrest, which of course was massive repression of initially peaceful protests that led many groups to turn to violence.
Climate change will undoubtedly have a destabilizing influence on food production, water availability and human livelihoods, but whether any of this transforms into conflict will depend on how political structures respond. An extensive recent study of eleven conflicts in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Sahel confirmed this, showing that rather than climate change, it was the way that governments responded both politically and economically to social and environmental crises, and the lack of democratic participation, that generated conflict.
In the case of Syria, people fleeing the country in the wake of the civil war faced new levels of vulnerability and suffering as refugees. And again, it wasn’t the weather but the European Union’s hostile border regime that caused the worst impacts. With almost no safe legal routes to Europe, desperate refugees were forced to risk life and limb to migrate. This has led to a horrific death toll,with European policymakers effectively agreeing to turn the Mediterranean into a graveyard to supposedly discourage others. Given that migration is likely to be a critical form of adaptation in the future, the failure by the world’s richest countries to deal justly with existing refugees or even to abide by international human rights laws, is a disturbing precedent.
Meanwhile, ten countries outside of the European Union, accounting for less than 2.5 percent of world GDP, have taken in more than half of the world’s refugees, showing that economic resources are not the fundamental determination of social support and solidarity.
SECURITY FOR WHOM?
Of course a storytelling that removes politics from the picture serves a purpose, as it strengthens the position of those in power and denies our collective agency to remake the world in a different image. The Pentagon and EU security strategies, developed from these doomsday scenarios, have deemed climate change a “threat multiplier” that will exacerbate conflicts, terrorism and instability. Through the lens of national security, they never question the unjust structuring of power relations that led to the climate crisis. Instead, their plans are about how to protect this unjust order from the instability it has created.
The storytelling in their war-gaming scenarios turns the victims into an amorphous mass, normally quiescent but at the time of climate change potentially restive and a threat. The victims of climate change become “threats” — causes of likely instability and conflict or mass migrations that could overwhelm the borders of the world’s richest countries. This further compounds the profound injustice at the heart of climate change that those who contributed the least to causing the crisis will suffer the most. Now, with a “security” response to climate change, the victims face an additional injustice, treated now as threats, to be managed, controlled or eliminated. This tendency looks set to consolidate an existing disturbing global trend in which governments already “treat protest as at best an inconvenience to be controlled or discouraged, and at worst a threat to be extinguished.”
By contrast, a storytelling that did consider power relations would turn very quickly to the existing structural causes of climate change. It would show how the United States’ vast imperial war machine makes it the world’s single largest organizational user of petroleum, and how just 90 corporations are responsible for two-thirds of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It would articulate how a just response to climate change would be impossible without tackling these underlying causes. Instead, by predicting scarcity and promising security at a time of chaos, corporate power remains unchallenged and the world’s bloated militaries can win even more funding to secure an unjust world order.
It should be no surprise to anyone that military-led climate security strategies are the only vestige of climate policy that has survived under the Trump regime. Trump is merely continuing a dominant dynamic of US policy that has emphasized control of climate change impacts rather than undertaking real solutions based on ambitious, radical reductions of greenhouse gases.
BEYOND LEFT CATASTROPHISM
The left have not been immune to these cultural currents of disempowering doomsaying. There are plenty of leftist and environmentalist writers who seem to relish the catastrophe that approaches us. Take this quote by US journalist Chris Hedges, for example: “We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.” The quote not only is nihilistic in its outlook, it is misanthropic in its view of humanity.
The authors of Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth show how many of these authors draw on either a Malthusian politics (long an affliction of some environmentalists) or a structural-determinist ideology that sees doomsday scenarios as evidence of the impending collapse of capitalism. “Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber — if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous,” writes Sasha Lilley.
On the other side of the coin, many environmentalists have sometimes shied away from discussing climate futures all together. This may have been because of fears of looking honestly at the future, or more often because it implicitly suggested defeat from the more urgent task of preventing worsening climate change. However, in so doing, we have left the terrain of the future in the hands of the climate dystopians. The truth is that we cannot avoid facing climate futures, because they are already unfolding now. We can see some of the consequences vividly on our TV screens, such as the hurricanes that swept the Caribbean this summer, or Iran registering a world record-shattering 54 degree Celsius heat wave. But a great deal also happens silently and out of sight, such as the gradual impact that increased heat is having on food production, particularly in tropical areas.
Everything we can do to reduce emissions now — climate mitigation — will reduce how negative the consequences will be. However, we also need to advance a clear radical agenda on how to cope with the inevitable climate change that is already “locked in,” drawing attention to issues of redistribution of wealth and resources that will be so critical to responding justly. This is where an anti-capitalist and anti-militarist critique is even more relevant, because transnational corporations, whose very raison d’être is profit and plunder, and the military and police, whose raison d’être is to protect the current system, are the last institutions any sane person would trust to justly manage climate change impacts. It is why movements, such as the Movement for Black Lives, that challenge state violence and demand that police forces are either accountable or replaced, are so important to support. After all, the ever-more militarized police will be mobilized disproportionately against marginalized communities — as they have always been — in order to protect wealth and property during times of climate instability.
As the environmental activist Tim DeChristopher has argued, “when things get ugly, and access to resources becomes difficult, we want to have trust that those making decisions will act justly, and not just favor the strong. … We need to start working now on putting in place power structures that share our values as we enter difficult times.”
GLOBAL JUSTICE: THE ONLY SOLUTION
There is considerable evidence that putting more democratic power structures in place will not only ensure a more just response, but also prove to be more resilient to climate change impacts. Research on communities coping with climate change shows that those that maximize participation and inclusion are far more likely to provide the flexibility, creativity and collective strength to cope with fast, multiple changes and stresses. By contrast, unequal societies are far less resilient as they lack interpersonal trust and have weak social bonds, which make collective organizing all the more difficult. In addition, there is growing evidence that gender equity is particularly important for finding peaceful resolutions to resource challenges.
The historical evidence from past weather-related or natural disasters suggests that crises and disasters, far from prompting a dystopian scramble for resources as suggested by military planners, are far more likely to prompt outpourings of support, solidarity and creative community-building efforts. Rebecca Solnit, inA Paradise Built in Hell, examining five major natural disasters in the twentieth century, recovers amazing stories of people without resources undertaking heroic efforts to protect vulnerable neighbors, developing brilliant collective systems to rebuild communities, and most surprisingly of all finding joy as they weave new meaningful relationships amidst disaster.
In fact, she shows how many disasters lead to the building of “mini-utopias” by those most affected. The panic and fear is mainly expressed by elites who assume that the majority are dangerous and a threat to them, evidenced by the media scaremongering of “looting” that appears in the wake of every disaster. Of course, recognizing this does not mean welcoming disasters with their deadly tolls and the disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable. But we can certainly welcome the revolutionary human spirit that emerges in such situations. “If paradise now arises in hell,” says Rebecca Solnit, “it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.”
A belief that communities are best suited to finding their own solutions to the crises and disasters that unfold from climate change means that we can start with a far more empowering and proactive approach to climate disruption, embedded in values of solidarity rather than security. We can learn from Cuba, where highly organized local civil defense committees, backed by central government resources and communications, remain constantly mobilized and prepared for extreme weather. When hurricanes batter the Caribbean nation, as they do with ever greater frequency and ferocity, they ensure that the most vulnerable are kept safe and in the aftermath mobilize the whole community to house the affected and rebuild their homes. When the impoverished country confronted its most powerful hurricane ever, Hurricane Irma in 2017, ten people died — in contrast to its far richer neighbor, the United States, where the same hurricane, although weaker in terms of wind speed, killed over 70.
In the US, an alliance of grassroots community organizations is seeking to implement a similar community-driven response to climate change preparation. It is led by grassroots community justice groups on the front-lines of climate change, such as the multi-racial Gulf South Rising movement that brings together African-American cooperative workers with Vietnamese fisher folk on the Gulf Coast. They argue that just climate resilience will only emerge if cities go beyond consultations and vulnerability assessments to identifying the root systemic causes of vulnerability and embracing leadership and solutions from those communities most likely to suffer climate impacts.
Taj James, a leader within the alliance, says true community resilience is built when there is a “shared collective sense of understanding of where that community is trying to go, and a sense of ownership and agency, … [including the support] of other communities that are working towards their own self-determination, and understanding of limits of the bioregion in which they are operating.”
WALKING TOGETHER, QUESTIONING
None of this is to suggest that the future is rosy or that we can put aside our fears. We need honesty and transparency to move forward. An honest assessment shows that climate destabilization over the coming decades will be incredibly disruptive of the environment on which we depend. It will be a formidable challenge to overcome the entrenched powers that will use this moment to build a militarized eco-apartheid. We also know it will be very costly for the millions of people, disproportionately in the Global South, who will face the most severe consequences. This means learning how to deal with the very real and quite rational emotions of fear and anxiety while unravelling the structures and ideologies that have appropriated that fear.
However, a starting point must be to oppose the disempowering visions of the future laid out for us, whether by military planners or environmentalists. We must reclaim our agency over the future, knowing that the climate crisis has exposed more starkly than ever before the larger crisis of capitalism and imperial power. And that therefore this is a critical opportunity to change direction, both to prevent a worsening climate crisis and to better respond to its impacts. It will require an articulation of a politics that consistently confronts capital and military might, and that looks to return power of all kinds to people. None of this provides guarantees of a better future, but it does kindle hope, which as the late John Berger once said is “a form of energy, and very frequently that energy is strongest in circumstances that are very dark.”