Thursday, November 8, 2007

"Beyond the Climate Crisis" by Eileen Crist

"If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star."

Excerpted from "A Ritual to Read to Each Other, by William Stafford

Some of my thinking on plunder in the previous post has been expanded and inspired by an article I've read, written by a good friend of mine, Eileen Crist, who teaches Environmental Studies at Virginia Tech. I thought this essay was so lucid I asked if I could summarize some of her ideas on the blog. She said yes, so here goes.

Now that climate change has been transformed from a hypothesis into a fact and become a focus of urgent, worst-case scenarios with the potential for large-scale societal collapse, it gets star-billing as "the most urgent environmental problem of our time," "more dangerous than anything we have ever faced."

My friend argues that framing climate change in such a manner merits being challenged; for one thing because it implies that the solutions are those that directly address the problem and therefore lie in the realm of improved technologies and global treaties. Second, it detracts attention from other predicaments by claiming the limelight for itself, marginalizing other facets such as species extinction, which unlike climate change, is not perceived as a direct threat or survival risk to humans.

By focusing on climate change, Eileen argues, the root causes of the ecological crisis as a whole go unaddressed: i.e. "destructive patterns of production, trade, extraction, land-use, waste proliferation, and consumption, coupled with population." Climate change, Eileen feels, is not the root problem. The root problem is "a sprawling civilization that is destroying the biosphere." But this part goes unquestioned and unexamined.

"Industrial-consumer civilization," she writes, "has entrenched a form of life that admits virtually no limits to its expansiveness with, and perceived entitlement to, the entire planet. But questioning this civilization is by and large side-stepped in climate change discourse, with its single-minded quest for a global warming techo-fix."

Her point: techno-fixes attempt to deal with symptoms, while leaving unmolested the forms of social organization that are causing the crisis. And here's the kicker: climate change is then viewed as a danger to the "culprit," namely, our way of life. We end up trying to save the very thing that is causing our demise. We are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Global warming, she says, is delivering its blow on an already profoundly wounded natural world. It is more a mirror than a driver.

Then there are the apocalyptic narratives of climate change that align neatly with prophetic claims in the Old and New Testaments, and have merged with religious fundamentalist visions of rising seas, raging wildfires, and rampant disease. In certain circles, climate change may even be encouraged as hastening the "Rapture," which of course has nothing to say about the suffering of nonhuman species.

Bottom line, according to Eileen, is that we are unwilling to question or limit consumer society, or to give up our sense of entitlement to, and assumption of dominance over, nature.

Eileen does not accept that the momentum of present trends is inevitable. She is, to her eternal credit, much less fatalistic than I am. In fact, she warns against fatalism, as being a mindset that fosters compliance to the very trends it deplores, by a kind of looping action (read self-fulfilling prophesy). Fatalism, she concludes, may even be the most potent form of ideology in existence, because it discourages deep questioning and dismisses the possibility of revolutionary action. And it allows consumer society to be taken as a given.

I may be fatalistic, but I can't be accused of refusing to question deeply. Thanks, Eileen, for a wonderful paper.

Eileen's paper is titled "Beyond the Climate Crisis: A Critique of Climate Change Discourse" and is scheduled to be published in Telos, a social-theory magazine, December 2007.

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