“Many activists enjoy climate change”

7 July, 2022
Potography by Li-An Lim on Unsplash.com

“It’s a climate paradox. There’s a widespread and broadly shared consensus about the climate as a real danger. However, despite the mobilization of all kinds of social, technical and institutional mechanisms, climate change continues apace.” That was the starting point of the seminar given by Erik Swyngedouw Professor of Human Geography at the University of Manchester, for the Urban Transformation and Global Change Seminar Series organized by TURBA Lab on the last 14th of June.

Titled “Enjoying Climate Change: Jouissance as a Political Factor“, his argument is based on the idea that “critical knowledge does not in itself translate into a transformational action”, to quote the philosopher Keti Chukhrov. This is evidenced by the fact that, despite the consensus, greenhouse gas emissions increased by 65% between 1990 and 2018. Or as the climatologist Kevin Anderson summarized it: “We’ve delivered three decades of abject failure. A litany of technocratic fraud has marked climate policy.”

“Enjoyment” as a political factor

According to Swyngedouw, a key factor that helps explain part of what is happening is what the philosopher and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan called jouissance (joy, enjoyment). It is a kind of “agony that is enjoyed”, which various thinkers, including Zizek, have discussed as being an important factor in politics. “I’m neither a psychologist nor a psychoanalyst, but the concept provides an explanation for what’s happening,” said Swyngedouw.

On the one hand, there are those who “enjoy” the destruction of nature and who, according to the geographer, is exemplified in the Republican campaign featuring Sarah Palin which adopted the slogan: “Drill, baby, drill”. These are people who derive satisfaction from flouting the political and scientific consensus, who feel “excessive and often self-destructive” pleasure. They are people like those who are leading the “Rolling coal” movement, who adapt their vehicles to make them more polluting, and who in the words of the political scientist Jodi Dean, “break the rules for the sake of the rules.” In this case, they break the clean air laws for the sake of the rules of a white, masculine, chauvinistic America, and they enjoy their destructive act.

On the other hand, there are – and this is the more controversial and provocative thesis – those who try to fight against climate change and who experience it not only as a threat to the world but also ‘enjoy’ it, in a certain sense. Swyngedouw includes many activists in this category, such as Al Gore and Greta Thunberg, and says they suffer from a cognitive dissonance that arises from a fetishistic denial of the reality of the situation. The real key, which is the socio-technical and political-economic class mechanisms that govern the climate system, is replaced with a fetishized object on which everything else is based: CO2, greenhouse gases. Swyngedouw said that this insufficient fetish conceals the fact that “there is no desire for a different socio-ecological order” and that the “symptoms” are even enjoyed in the process. This enjoyment revolves around CO2 (in recycling, in “shame over flying”) in a painful and strangely satisfying way, which according to Jodi Dean, “makes us feel more alive, and more in tune with what makes life worth living.”

Photography Callum Shaw on Unsplash.com

According to Swyngedouw, many activists constantly talk about changes in habits and lifestyles, but without changing the (individualist and neoliberal) socio-symbolic order that drives climate change in the first place. Indeed, they enable it because it is a watered-down movement that does not pose any real threat.

At this point he stopped, paused and then shouted to the audience: well, they may have some effect, but who thinks it will be significant?

(No one raised their hand, although later in the debate, several people argued that those movements did have value).

For Swyngedouw, these movements also contain a danger, that of nostalgia. “When Greta Thunberg says that her dreams and her childhood have been stolen, she is referring to something we had and which we have lost – an Arcadia. But that never existed, it’s a fantasy.”

For this reason, one of his conclusions on how to act is that we must radically abandon this idyllic idea of nature, and avoid what in his opinion is a reality: environmentalism is the new opium of the people. We must change the narrative, move away from “little objects of fetishism”, such as CO2, and strive for a real change in the socio-economic system. We must move away from the fantasy of a dystopian future to accept that the collapse has already occurred, and that new policies can emerge from its ruins.

Or as he wrote in an article a few years ago: “our theoretical gaze and political passions have to shift from a concern with the environment per se to a concern and passion for the construction of a different politics.”

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