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Nancy Fraser on the ubiquity of climate politics

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In Cannibal Capitalism: How Our System Is Devouring Democracy, Care, and the Planet—and What We Can Do About It the legendary radical philosopher Nancy Fraser gives a trenchant look at contemporary capitalism’s insatiable appetite - and a rallying cry for everyone who wants to stop it from devouring our world.

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Climate politics has moved to center stage. Even as pockets of denialism persist, political actors of multiple hues are turning green. A new generation of activist youth is insisting we face the mortal threat posed by global warming. Chastising elders for stealing their future, these militants claim the right and responsibility to take all necessary steps to save the planet. At the same time, movements for degrowth are gaining strength. Convinced that consumerist lifestyles are driving us into the abyss, they seek a transformation of ways of living. Likewise, indigenous communities, North and South, win expanded support for struggles only lately recognized as ecological. Long engaged in the defense of their habitats, livelihoods, and ways of life from colonial invasion and corporate extractivism, they find new allies today among those seeking non-instrumental ways of relating to nature. Feminists, too, are infusing new urgency into long-held ecological concerns. Positing psycho-historical links between gynophobia and contempt for the earth, they advocate forms of life that sustain reproduction— both social and natural. Meanwhile, a new wave of anti-racist activism includes environmental injustice among its targets. Adopting an expansive view of what it means to “defund the police,” the Movement for Black Lives demands a massive redirection of resources to communities of color, in part to clean up toxic deposits that ravage health. 

Even social democrats, lately complicit with or demoralized by neoliberalism, are finding new life in climate politics. Reinventing themselves as proponents of a Green New Deal, they aim to recoup lost working-class support by linking the shift to renewable energy with high-paying union jobs. Not to be left out, strands of right-wing populism are also greening. Embracing eco-national chauvinism, they propose to preserve “their own” green spaces and natural resources by excluding (racialized) “others.” Forces in the Global South are also engaged on several fronts. While some claim a “right to development,” insisting that the burden of mitigation should fall on Northern powers that have been spewing greenhouse gases for two hundred years, others advocate commoning or a social and solidary economy, while still others, donning the environmentalist mantle, utilize neoliberal carbon-offset schemes to enclose lands, dispossess those who live from them, and capture new forms of monopoly rent. Lest we forget, finally, corporate and financial interests have skin in the game. Profiting handsomely from booming speculation in eco-commodities, they are invested, not just economically but politically, in ensuring the global climate regime remains market centered and capital friendly.

Ecopolitics, in a word, has become ubiquitous. No longer the exclusive property of stand-alone environmental movements, climate change now appears as a pressing matter on which every political actor must take a stand. Incorporated into a slew of competing agendas, the issue is variously inflected according to the differing commitments with which it keeps company. The result is a roiling dissensus beneath a superficial consensus. On the one hand, growing numbers of people now view global warming as a threat to life as we know it on planet Earth. On the other hand, they do not share a common view of the societal forces that drive that process—nor of the societal changes required to stop it. They agree (more or less) on the science but disagree (more than less) on the politics. 

In reality, the terms “agree” and “disagree” are too pallid to capture the true situation. Present-day ecopolitics unfolds within, and is marked by, an epochal crisis. It is a crisis of ecology, to be sure, but also one of economy, society, politics, and public health—that is, a general crisis whose effects metastasize everywhere, shaking confidence in established worldviews and ruling elites. The result is a crisis of hegemony —and a wilding of public space. No longer tamed by a ruling common sense that forecloses out-of-the-box options, the political sphere is now the site of a frantic search not just for better policies, but for new political projects and ways of living. Gathering well before the COVID-19 outbreak, but greatly intensified by it, this unsettled atmosphere permeates ecopolitics, which perforce unfolds within it. Climate dissensus is fraught, accordingly, not “only” because the fate of the earth hangs in the balance, nor “only” because time is short, but also because the political climate, too, is wracked by turbulence.

In this situation, safeguarding the planet requires building a counter hegemony. What is needed, in other words, is to resolve the present cacophony of opinion into an ecopolitical common sense that can orient a broadly shared project of transformation. Certainly, such a common sense must cut through the mass of conflicting views and identify exactly what in society must be changed to stop global warming—effectively linking the authoritative findings of climate science to an equally authoritative account of the sociohistorical drivers of climate change. To become counter hegemonic, however, a new common sense must transcend the “merely environmental.” Addressing the full extent of our general crisis, it must connect its ecological diagnosis to other vital concerns, including livelihood insecurity and the denial of labor rights; public disinvestment from social reproduction and the chronic undervaluation of carework; ethno-racial-imperial oppression and gender and sex domination; dispossession, expulsion, and exclusion of migrants; and militarization, political authoritarianism, and police brutality. Clearly, these concerns are intertwined with and exacerbated by climate change. 

But the new common sense must avoid reductive “ecologism.” Far from treating global warming as a trump card that overrides everything else, it must trace that threat to underlying societal dynamics that also drive other strands of the present crisis. Only by addressing all major facets of this crisis, “environmental” and “non-environmental” alike, and by disclosing the connections among them, can we envision a counterhegemonic bloc that backs a common project and possesses the political left to pursue it effectively.