We are the Climate

2 April, 2012

 The fabrication of Affects Against Ecology

Jade Lindgaard

Air-conditioned stadiums in Qatar for the football World Cup. A UN climate summit held in a resort that has devastated the Mexican coast. Plans for an airport on an artificial island near the Maldives, with another already under construction on agricultural land in France. Still to come: drilling for oil in the tar sands of Madagascar. Facebook’s new server farm will be powered by a coal-fired generator, and the energy needs of the most famous social network may soon exceed those of many developing countries. Nearly every day a new plan is hatched that will consume massive amounts of useless or dirty energy, auguring further costs down the road. The list of horrors could go on forever.

How can this be? In December 2009, the movers and shakers of this world met in Copenhagen and promised to do everything they could to stem global warming. It’s now nearly fifteen years since the IPCC published its report establishing, beyond reasonable scientific doubt, the role of human greenhouse gas emissions in climate change. The human and natural risks for the biosphere caused by rising temperatures are of deep concern to far more people than just climatologists and militant ecologists: the Red Cross and the UN food rights rapporteur are also alarmed, as are insurance companies who are calculating the massive sums they may have to pay out in compensation for victims of a climate spinning out of balance. As for the Earth, in a very recent study researchers inform us that it will take more than a thousand years to erase the traces of a century of CO2 emissions.

Given the general state of alert as to the disastrous consequences of global warming, you would expect emissions of greenhouse gases to be as sparing as possible. Letting the Paris-Dakar rally go ahead for the 33rd consecutive year, or travelling to Mexico or the Dominican Republic (a favourite destination for French travellers in 2010) for Christmas, should be as unthinkable as organising a world summit on human rights in countries that still practice slavery, or as making the reinstatement of child labour the central plank of a plan to revive the economy. The petroleum company Exxon should not be reaping record profits thanks to the considerable rise in its barrel output, as it did in 2010. This orgy of fossil fuel use is a daily event, and we are all implicated in it.

The situation has become so crazy and so dangerous that it is not farfetched to imagine that in 50 or 100 years from now associations of climate victims will be demanding the banning of Tintin – Land of Black Gold, or Kerouac’s On the Road, or that tour operators’ catalogues will be hidden away in the dark recesses of national libraries reserved for “corrupting” literature, just as others have argued that the word “nigger” should be expunged from Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The yawning gap between what we know about the state of our climate and the threat that it represents to the daily lives of millions of people, on the one hand, and the behaviour of our societies on the other, is one of the most significant phenomena of the early 21st Century. It reveals an adversarial relationship towards scientific knowledge that seems paradoxical in our technophile age. We prioritise fields of knowledge: some are immediately taken up by governments and decision-makers, who set about putting them into practice (witness the explosion of new information technologies, the development of medical research and nanotechnologies), while others are left by the wayside. This is the case with much of what we know about nature: the loss of biodi-versity, the exhaustion of natural resources, climate disorder—even as the data continues to pile up, governments talk about it, and sometimes devise policies to deal with it, but these responses are so feeble that they are all but irrelevant.

Our collective acquiescence to a situation that is objectively untenable has not come about by chance. It is the product of the failure of the whole system of thought and action that, for twenty years now, has been constructing the climate as a political object (the Kyoto Protocol, the UN Convention on Climate Change, climate summits, IPCC, etc.). In spite of the many virtuous declarations of intent on the part of heads of state and captains of industry, climate as a common global cause is now suffering serious defeat.

The reasons for this failure lie not only in our modes of political representation, in the state of play between geopolitical forces and the powerful lobbying of climate change sceptics. They are also linked to ways of life and individual desires. The damage done to nature is not just the result of the globalised economic system and productivism; it is the outcome of a whole economy of affects, constructed by the ideals of growth and progress of the prosperous post-war decades, by advertising, individualism, and the forgetting of the question of need in favour of the exponential search for pleasure, by the denial of the politics of limits. We’re not just dependent on CO2, we are addicted to it. It has become consubstantial with us. We love it for the feeling of freedom that it gives us and for the reassuring alienation in which it confines us. It has created new pleasures of warmth and light which we can no longer do without. Winter now ushers in cases of seasonal depression, of grey-sky blues. In blocks of flats, the central heating is set high, that being the supposedly consensual criterion of individual comfort. More and more swimming pools lie alongside individual houses, like a promise of summer and relaxation. Every Sunday night, the feeder roads linking our major cities to the motorways are clogged with traffic returning from the weekend—a moment so much a part of our habits that it has inspired the name of a French radio programme, “Sunday Return.”1 For their Christmas holidays, many European tourists fly out “to the sun” in Mexico, Egypt, Tunisia or the West Indies–a must for the overstrained worker. It is both a sensorial system and the backdrop for an entire imaginary world; the lights of the giant luminous screens in Shanghai now fascinate the Western gaze just as the neons of Broadway once attracted European emigrants. Whereas Hell always used to be synonymous with sweltering torment, it would seem that the temperature in today’s Hollywoodian apocalypses (2012, The Road, etc.) is getting lower and lower. I’m willing to bet that if climate change meant that things would get colder rather than hotter, the average American and European would feel far more concerned. Countless times I have heard people say, “I don’t like being cold, I’m in favour of global warming.” This is, unfortunately, more than just a joke. Carbon dioxide is such an addiction that it now even has its reformed junkies, “born again” believers like Nicolas Hulot,2 who base their ecological discourse on repentance, on a virulent critique of their past way of life.

Ever since the industrial revolution, we have not only been dependent on fossil fuels and their emissions of greenhouse gas; we have become attached to them in a way that is beyond what is reasonable, indeed, beyond rationality. By means of a continually revived bond of emotional dependence and constantly renewed choices, climate is inscribed within us, in our spirit and in our flesh. We are the climate. In this Anthropocene age, in which, for the first time, human activities are causing profound changes in the natural environment, climate is the product of our daily actions but at the same time it is what “produces” us and shapes us, because it lies at the heart of a whole sensorial system and mindset. The climate question is not just the burden of Western Man and the capitalist individual: it is a fundamental problem of how we relate to ourselves.

On the one hand we have our tastes and desires (the pleasure of a journey in the tropical sun, or of a weekend car trip); on the other the economic, social, and cultural system in which these things flourish: the permanent incitement to seek new tastes, new sensations, the endless hunt for lower prices, the promise of getting our money’s worth and luxury for all, the importance of quotidian comfort in a world of precarious jobs and a crumbling welfare state. This factory of affects has been created in opposition to ecology: by its distancing of nature and seasonal rhythms (the rise of mass distribution and permanent availability) and erasure of geographical distance (the explosion of fast transport by road and air, the globalisation of trade), by the culture of the ready-prepared and automatic that makes us forget skills and lose our taste for cultural autonomy. To actually repair a washing machine, a coffee maker, a television, or a computer has become an embarrassment. It’s easier and cheaper to simply replace an appliance than to get it mended.

There are, to be sure, legitimate reasons for this constitution of the self against ecology. During the decades of post-war prosperity, the mechanisation of life, urbanisation, and great transport and energy infrastructure projects went hand in hand with a higher standard of living, starting with the emancipation of women, whose domestic working time was reduced by the introduction of the washing machine and the dish-washer. The extension of paid leave democratised holidays. In short, our consumption of energy—and therefore of CO2—became the hallmark of social progress, and it’s not so easy for us to abandon that legacy.

The issue cannot be reduced to a matter of individual feeling. For at the same time as this economy of desires, this factory of affects, plays against ecology, the climate also accompanies a social system. This is not new: the history of the environment teaches us that at least since the 18th Century, climate has been a moral and political category, and not a strictly meteorological question. Historically, the notion of “environment” was conceived of as an ensemble comprising scientific knowledge and controversies. This social dimension of climate faded, however, in the second half of the 20th Century, as the “hard” climate sciences (physics, geophysics, oceanography, ecology, palaeoclimatology) were consolidated.

Today—and this is not the least of the paradoxes—we find ourselves in need of de-ecologising the climate, of denaturalising it so as to restore its full social dimension. For the effects of climate change are very real. It’s not just a matter of imagination and feeling; climate change is also a creator of inequalities, of geopolitical tensions, of economic competition.

What a political conundrum! For climate is constantly changing scale: an individual, personal question, it is also global, perhaps the first phenomenon to be global in this way, since it connects the fates of all humans, together, and to the rest of the bio-sphere. It is, you might say, globally intimate. What can be done with this strange, hybrid entity, at once a meteorological reality, a moral category, a personal experience, and a social construct? Is it any surprise that public discourse has struggled, and continues to struggle, to make this reality plain on a par with what is at stake? We need to change our relation to politics, leaving behind the paradigm of class struggle since solving the problem may at times entail struggling against ourselves.
The question of ways of life, of individual responsibility in climate disorder, has become taboo in political debate on climate. It’s the same in the private sphere. I’ve chosen to stop taking the plane for leisure and, holidays excepted, to take it as little as possible. I haven’t been to the United States for ten years. I have never been to China. These are the constraints I put on myself in striving for an ecological way of life. They are small sacrifices. I don’t have a car—a car is the last thing I want. I take the train, public transport, and get about town by bike. I avoid hypermarkets for my shopping and buy my vegetables from a small farmer near Paris. As I do so I note that it’s almost impossible to talk about these choices with people who don’t live this way. The discussion soon gets of out control. Hackles are raised high on both sides. These are touchy subjects. I always get accused of trying to make other people feel guilty, and I accuse them more or less overtly of egotism.

How can we take up this discussion where we left off? We need to avoid the pitfall of guilt-inducing in order to explain the importance of individual behaviour in matters of ecology, even if its effects are invisible. We need to bring out the underestimated links between the personal and the political, and to alert people to the great difficulty of responding to the climate crisis as long as our societies are organised as they are today. Above all, we must realise that we breathe, dream and desire CO2. It is the invisible, yet central actor of our economy of affects.

Who, in the end, is the “subject” of climate? What climatic struggles do we face? How can we articulate individual behaviour and collective fate? Is it still possible to speak of social transformation, emancipation, and revolution in climate struggles? A whole grammar of collective action needs to be reinvented.


1. Les retours de dimanche.
2. The presenter of Ushuaïa, a TV programme involving adventures in spectacular natural settings, who since 2007 has been trying to build a political career as an ecologist.