Dr. Rene Suša is a coauthor with members of the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures collective, of a chapter in the forthcoming book on Deep Adaptation, which is now available for advance purchase. In this guest blog, he explores how desires for innocence and “normality” can make us cause even more harm in the long term, as societies are disrupted due to environmental change.
Slightly over a year ago, our collective Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures was invited to contribute a chapter to the Deep Adaptation: Navigating Realities of Climate Chaos book, edited by Jem Bendell and Rupert Read. Our writing focused on the subject of mapping different responses to climate change and potential climate collapse. At that time, we mapped four main groups of responses (romantic, revolutionary, rational, reactionary) that we were able to observe in our work with various social justice movements, sustainability initiatives, policy makers, advocates and activists, mostly in the global North. We did not, and still do not, consider this mapping as exhaustive of all possibilities, deterministic or fixed, but rather as a provisional tool that helped us outline some of the prevailing (problematic) patterns that we were able to observe in the four main groups of responses to climate change, identify some key absences and disavowals, and mobilise further conversations and reflections. One of the main reasons why we engage with this topic, is, because in our work with various (mostly Indigenous) communities in the global South, as well as with marginalized communities in the North, we have been noticing that it is often them and their immediate surroundings that suffer the most direct and gravest consequences of our denials, inconsideration, irresponsibility and self-centredness.
In our research and everyday engagement with different climate-related movements and initiatives, we noted that each of these four (Northern) groups of responses has a different understanding of and relationship with climate change and with the potential social and climate collapse. For example, we found that romantic responses emphasise the role and importance of individual self-realisation and self-expression, based on an idealised notion of an inherently good, virtuous and just humanity, as well as intentional community building and pre-packaged solutions. We found the romantic approaches to be the most prevalent in initiatives and communities that share a strong commitment to developing and nurturing locally-oriented sustainable practices that seek to create micro-utopias that are often based on idealized imaginaries of the (simpler, less stressful, more sustainable) past as well as on strong desires for absolution from complicity in systemic harm. With often idealistic readings of the past and emphasizing redemptive narratives of their members’ sustainability efforts (towards reduced and more ethical consumption), the majority of these initiatives does not engage in-depth with systemic violences outside of the negative aspects of global capitalism on their personal lives (diminished wellbeing). They often lack an in-depth analysis of the complexities of global and historical power relations and downplay the magnitude (and impact) of potential social and climate collapse.
In contrast to local and past-oriented focus of romantic approaches to climate change, the initiatives that claim revolutionary potential and momentum see themselves as speaking either as legitimate representatives of various oppressed groups or as legitimate representatives of the universalised notion of “the people”, seeking to guarantee a better future for the marginalized groups. Targeting either the existing political structures or specific large polluters (big corporations) or both, we found these movements to exhibit a deeper and more complex systemic critiques than the romantic approaches, but still found them to be largely operating from desires for personal innocence and virtue that seek fulfilment through externalisations and projections of responsibility (exclusively) onto others, specifically onto those in positions of power or others considered insufficiently “woke”. Revolutionary movements are more inclined to take seriously the possibility of climate collapse, however their strong investments in effectiveness of personal and collective empowerment and their belief in the “power of the people” usually prevent them from reflecting more deeply on their own implication in systemic harm. In their drive to amass public support, revolutionary movements sometimes (strategically) downplay the magnitude of the climate crisis and over-estimate their own transformative potential.
The third, rationalist, group of responses that we were able to map, emphasises critical thinking and a need for more and better analysis that would lead to better informed decisions. This group of responses places its faith in the power of rational deliberation (either as individuals, collectives or humanity at large) to either (adequately) prepare us for the impending collapse or to give us the required tools to avert it. There are at least two (mainstream) strands of the rationalist approaches, both of which emphasise the importance of informed analysis and scientific data for development of practical collective measures, yet these two strands differ significantly in their over-arching goals. The first (mainstream) strand focuses on mitigating or assuaging the effects of climate change through measures that resemble a large-scale, state- and business-supported version of romantic approaches that seeks to avert (or ignore) the possibility of climate collapse. Measures related to carbon trading schemes, financial incentives for “green” technologies and other state and business-led “sustainable” economy initiatives that invariably deliver too little too late are considered under this group. The second, much less visible and much less numerous, strand of rationalist responses, operates from the assumption that climate collapse is unavoidable and seeks to develop measures of mitigating crises and adapting gradually to the post-collapse world. In a way, these two strands could not be more different from each other. But their respective difference lies more in their understanding of the depth of the problem (potential reality of social and climate collapse) than in the suggested way of how we should go on about things. Both strands place their faith in the rational deliberative capacities of the modern Cartesian subject, who is considered to be self-transparent, self-reflexive and responding in predictable, rational ways. Rationalist approaches (especially the second strand) tend to operate less from desires for personal virtue and innocence, and to ignore personal complicity less than romantic and revolutionary approaches. However, the depth of environmental or climate-related reflection is not necessarily complemented with corresponding depth of critical (self)reflection along the other lines of modernity’s constitutive violences.
The fourth group of mapped responses, the reactionary, perceive the potential climate collapse as a serious and imminent threat to their livelihoods and personal safety. Similar to romantic responses, they are usually focused on small-scale (personal) survival techniques that would enable people to “weather” the coming collapse, often in enclosed and – depending on the context – heavily protected, even militarised locations. Although the emphasis on security and protection of personal property sets them apart from romantic approaches, future developments may lead to a convergence of these two approaches. Driven by fears of scarcity and desires for continuity and control, the adherents of the reactionary group tend to manipulate fears and rationalise the protection of property, security and entitlements at all costs. The spectrum of reactionary responses is very broad, and although currently the securitized (militarized) reactionary responses occupy a margin in climate-related discussions and actions, the multiplicative effects of economic, social, environmental and mental health crises may gradually change that. Surprisingly, of the four groups, we could even argue that the reactionary group takes the reality of potential social and climate collapse the most seriously, while the other three groups (romantic, revolutionary, and the first strand of rationalist responses) all operate from a certain level of denial of the magnitude of the problem. If this is indeed the case, then it is possible to speculate that as the level of awareness of climate collapse increases, people might be drawn to more and more violent and self-centred patterns of behavior. This may (or should not) come as surprising news to most people, but it does lead us to question how ready we are to face our own (internal) shadows once we give up on (unrealistic and harmful) hope in the continuity of the kind of world that we have been socialized into.
The starting point of our analysis, described in more detail in the chapter, is a set of four denials that are constitutive of modernity: the denial of complicity in harm, the denial of entanglement (that we are part of the world around us), the denial of unsustainability and the denial of the size, magnitude and complexity of our current social and ecological predicament . Engaging in depth with the four denials requires the “end of the world as we know it” and therefore it is unsurprising that we (as modern humans) are unequipped to do it. The denials of complicity in systemic harm and (ironically)of entanglement are particularly difficult for those in the climate movement. For example, most people want to see themselves as connected with the waters, the forests, the whales, the sun and the moon, but not the weapons, the toxins, and the ecocides and genocides that are required for the comforts and securities of our modern existence. However, if we refuse to look into those and especially, into the unacknowledged and harmful desires that fuel and deepen our denials, we are bound to replicate the same kind of problematic, irresponsible and violent behaviour that got us into the mess we are currently in.
Our chapter in the book concludes with a rough sketch of something we very tentatively referred to as “rehab” approaches to climate change and denial. Rather than offering a ready-made solution to our current global predicament, these approaches invite us to dive deeper into the problem. A key difference between the four approaches presented above, and the rehab approaches, is that the rehab seeks to explore ways how to wean us off the neurophysiological (neurochemical) addictions and attachments to our current (modern/colonial) unsustainable habits of being. Grounded in a wide spectrum of different Indigenous cosmologies that although diverse, do not share modernity’s ontological foundation of separability, these approaches seek to re-orient and re-structure our desires away from historically inherited problematic and harmful patterns. In other words, rather than considering our current situation as resulting from technological ineptitude (energy-inefficient technology) or mis-directed thinking (based on wrong or insufficient information), they see it as a symptom of a harmful, socially transmitted habit of being, in which we are brought up as self-centred (narcissistic) individuals that have lost their sense of entanglement with the wider planetary metabolism.
Since our socialized desires and the resulting behavioral and thinking patterns can be considered to be hard-wired into our neural networks and their corresponding neurochemical reward mechanisms, their proposition is that we not only have to change our “software” (our thinking and doing) but also our “hardware” – the ways in which our bodies allow us to think and act. In other words, these approaches are inviting us to de-tox from our harmful addictions to socially sanctioned and infantilizing self-centred reward-seeking behaviour. Put differently, they are inviting us to de-naturalize the ways in which we sense ourselves inhabiting our bodies and the world around us, so that we can, perhaps, one day be ready to assist with the birth of a world that is not a mere messed-up continuation of the existing one.
More ideas from the GTDF network on deep adaptation are summarised here.
The following blogs are also relevant to the matter of social justice in the face of societal disruption and collapse.
How can we hold space for each other to explore the kind of issues highlighted by the GTDF, and thereby reduce harm in the face of disruption and collapse? The approaches to facilitation for deep adaptation are shared in this Occasional Paper by Dr. Jem Bendell and Katie Carr MA.