Capitalism is nothing if not a sophisticated ordering operation of a given population: a secular religion with a theological belief in markets and their myriad disciplinary methods. Capital’s ability to constantly create and re-create itself wipes away the trauma and memory of disaster. Tradition under capitalism is constantly being reinvented to suit new languages of accumulation and dispossession, and accumulation by dispossession. In our view, conversations around oil, global warming, and crisis are potentially very dangerous when they are defined by capital and the state because, ultimately, they reveal a particular faith: a faith in a capitalist paradigm of beautiful destruction. From the perspective of capital, global warming is seen as an opportunity that should be faithfully exploited.
Walter Benjamin often described capitalism as religion. In a 1921 essay, he wrote that “Capitalism is entirely without precedent, in that it is a religion which offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction. It is the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation.” It’s difficult not to think of such an apocalyptic vision of capitalism as simultaneously one of religion and destruction, and how this idea reveals the antagonistic relationship between capital and the other-than-human world. We’re intrigued by the idea of change as a kind of tradition. Wrapped in the history of modernity, beyond the desire for newness, is the reflex of progress that holds so much of history in contempt. Any history that doesn’t fit with capitalist narratives is cast as an obstruction, a blockage to the flow of the new, to be discarded and forgotten.
Presenting capitalism and development as the only possible form of progressive social ordering is a move toward closure in thinking about change. Today, what is being presented, at least in the narrow frame of the Global North, is that there is no modernity other than a capitalist one. Theorizing an ecological future requires a rupture between capitalism and modernity. The challenge is to construct new ideas of change while reimagining what we talk about when we talk about tradition, especially when we (and we mean that in the general “we,” but more pressingly in the particular—i.e., the two of us) carry so many contradictory, confusing, and often revanchist traditions with us.
Among the most central narratives of capital is exploitation, a close cousin of domination. We get a clearer glimpse of an ecological future when the classical Marxist rendition of exploitation is extended beyond human relations. As Glen Coulthard articulated: “We have to extend our concern with exploitation of labor to other-than-human communities. Exploitation is an instrumental relation to the other. It’s a condition that views all other things as existing for our consumption and gain. The main problem with exploitation is a lack of consideration of others as agents themselves, and a corresponding lack of informed consent to the power relations that affect them.”
Understanding the exploitation of labor—the extraction of surplus value from human bodies—is foundational to understanding capitalism. It is necessary but insufficient for understanding the task of ecology. Coulthard continues: “Marxists tend to focus too much on accumulation, too much on the body and labor: it’s too anthropocentric an understanding, in my view. In presenting class struggle as universal struggle, it is very parochial because we have to face the larger ecological life sphere that we all live within.” Extending our understanding of exploitation opens up a wider set of political possibilities and can help us think through global warming to larger ecological questions:
What if we start to think about exploitation that doesn’t just happen to labor? What is exploitation? Decisions made over another without their substantive input or consent. It’s the extraction from another without a consideration of them, or our ethical relationship to them as such. They’re just instrumental—just a means to an end. We have a language of exploitation that needs to be stripped of its narrower definition in the anthropocentric Marxist sense. The alternative would be nonexploitative, nondominating relationships governed by ethical relationships to the other. Others being comrades, conationals, neighbors and crucially, in a wider sense, other-than-human relations. Exploitation gives us a language that crosses political and anthropocentric ideas.
Reaching past narrow definitions of exploitation to consider the other-than-human world allows us to speak of domination more broadly. It opens us up to what nonexploitative, nondominating relationships might require politically, but it also demands alternatives. How can we deploy existing languages and understandings of exploitation to build new definitions of ecology? One route to answering that question that we are especially fond of is Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s speculative invocation of Alexandre Kojeve’s use of the term la dolce vita or douceur de vivre—the sweetness of living, the good life, or the sweet life.
These ideas describe what he argues is a common attitude in Spain, Italy, and southern Europe that is qualitatively different from the Protestant work ethic of northern European countries. Agamben claims this attitude describes a wholly different relationship to the future, a recovery of time, a resistance to capitalism, and the preservation of a significant way of living: the capacity to define life as something outside of work. He notes that the ongoing, recurring, and deepening economic crises in Europe are being used as instruments of rule, but might be better thought of as one rendition of the sweetness of life resisting discipline.
Our point here is not to argue for or against Agamben’s thesis per se, but that his articulation of a different way of being in the world is a particularly relevant rupture. Just its invocation is a powerful claim. It is these ruptures in capitalist certainties that are so critical: articulating alternative possible relationships to each other, to other species, to the land, and to the future.
Every alternative to the logics of domination, every practiced alternative worldview constructs the outlines of potential new modern traditions that are called for today and the possibilities for constructing new kinds of freedom. In a time when even the unconscious is being colonized by capital, radical articulations of change become indispensable acts of resistance. For the past century, capitalism has ingested Marxism and let out a satisfying burp. For some, there is no crisis today; for them, the world can happily go on as it is.
Capital, in its own narrative construction, has historically solved its ecological problems by counting the other-than-human world as externalities, mere objects for our use. For many, freedom is nothing more than the freeing of capital from constraints—but any progressive renovation of the idea of freedom has to be affirmative: a freedom to, not a freedom from. Ecology has to speak to all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances, as a change that can be materially exercised in the concrete world by masses of people.
The challenge of global warming often feels overwhelming and disorienting, and confuses traditional political cartographies. We’re faced with a dismaying constellation of political responses ranging from straight denial to geo-engineering to authoritarian state solutions to consumerist pressure to state-led transitionalism to supranationalism to relocalization—and so much else. The existing categories of responses are neither exclusive nor exhaustive, and most people occupy multiple positions at once: we all often believe many discordant things simultaneously. There are often real gaps between where our beliefs lie and our actions land. Positions and solutions are liquid; they tend to overlap and bleed into one another, and move across boundaries.
The vast majority of global warming scholarship, however, marginalizes or ignores the politics of land, its historical trajectory and its practical consequences. We are convinced that linking the domination of people to the domination of land and the other-than-human world is a key to grasping an ecological future. We would go even further to suggest that any robust ecological discourses have to start with decolonization and thoroughly renovated land politics. The right question here might be: “How do our relationships with land inform and order the way humans conduct relationships with each other and other-than-human beings?”
New modern traditions today need to define freedom through equality, through differentiation and complexity, through a relationship with land and other-than-human beings. In so doing, we can recover a reconstituted understanding of what the sweetness of living might mean today. This is our starting point for grappling with ecology, but as we embarked on this project we weren’t entirely sure what that might mean to our everyday lives. We want to search further: beyond our keyboards, beyond our familiar milieus and tidy consensual nods. We want to think about global warming and the possibility of an ecological future in conversation with people who have very different politics from our own. We want to find definitions of ecology that place land at its center.
This is an edited extract from ‘Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale‘, published by MIT Press.