The planetary crisis is a new stage in human history, sometimes described as the Anthropocene. The material and ecological conditions of human life have been altered to such an extent that our traditional political categories are now no longer fit for purpose. Territorial sovereignty, private property, unlimited growth, risk management, democratic legitimacy – all of these concepts were produced within a political imagination that assumed the world was stable, unchangeable and blessed with unlimited resources. Global politics is now dealing with the collapse of these assumptions.
The link between political and ecological agency is changing at a rate that would have been very difficult to foresee. The modern political utopia took for granted the possibility of a harmonious relationship between social engineering and world-making – the quest for political autonomy and the construction of a safer and more productive world were understood to go hand-in-hand. But the idea that civil society is built through the recognition of its needs and internal struggles – all underpinned by the permanent extension of productivity – is now under doubt. Capitalism has brought with it ecological insensitivity, inefficient modes of production, and the intervention of vested interests in the circulation of scientific knowledge. These have pushed the planet to the limits of stability. The idea of an “infinite frontier” now belongs to the past. This doesn’t mean that history is “over”, that “the end of the world is nigh”. Rather, it means that we have no choice but to rethink our modern repertoire of categories and political skills. Making our own history has to take on a different meaning.
Attempts to construct entirely new political categories – wherein, for example, personhood is conferred on nature – have enjoyed some theoretical attention, but have clearly moved to the fringes of discourse. Notions like “planetary stewardship” (articulated by Kenneth Boulding in the 1960s) that introduced a sense of the sublime into the ecological challenge, sound almost quaint. Similarly, the development of a global environmental consciousness that would provide a strong collective superego and basis for the acceptance of material limitations seems equally old-fashioned. Current climate talk is all about the authority of international law and diplomacy, about the equilibrium between market and state intervention, about the power of taxes and public mobilizations. It is about trade and industrial policies, technological innovation, and class interests in decarbonation.
The symbiotic society (i.e., the idea of a pure harmony between mankind and nature) envisioned at the time of the first global alarms, and more generally the counter-cultural roots of political ecology, are no longer part of the discussion. These days, the debate has shifted toward the trade-off between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions, the need for development without exceeding the global carbon budget. We don’t have time to reinvent our ethical and political categories, so we have to make do with an intellectual and practical legacy that we know is partly obsolete. The one decisive advantage of this approach is that it is ready to hand.
We don’t have time to reinvent our ethical and political categories, so we have to make do with an intellectual and practical legacy that we know is partly obsolete.
Planetary time runs faster than political time, and our inability to keep pace with ecological change leads to makeshift inventions that both inherit from the past while introducing new developments. Political tinkering prevails. The crisis is too big to be entirely grasped by commonsensical holocenic notions (i.e. those forged during the previous geological period characterised by relative environmental stability), but it moves so fast that we find ourselves framing it by analogies with past experiences (usually wars).
Too often, ecologists have assumed that the recognition of the climate catastrophe, combined with the invocation of nature as a fundamental good, would be sufficient to set in motion a process of reconstruction of social subjectivities and institutional frameworks. Meanwhile, political liberals have settled on an empirico-normative terrain that is far too restricted and far too insensitive to history: reflections on the extension of fundamental rights within the framework of pluralist liberal democracies still play a prominent role in the discourse; the balance between personal rights and social rights, freedom and equality, remain at the heart of political philosophy; and theory is focused on whether certain democratic demands lead to social disintegration, or if the paradigm of Human Rights still has emancipatory potential. Why, after all, should the history of emancipation, the self-construction of a rights-based society, the exorcism of violence, and the glorious testimony of resistance to domination all be reformulated simply because the dustbins are overflowing and there is less snow in the Alps?
It is not only that mainstream political philosophy is not sufficiently interested in the ecological question, but rather that it has allowed itself to be locked into presuppositions linked to a very singular ecological context that it has involuntarily universalized. This context is that of the post-1945 period, when presuppositions of unlimited growth and productivity gains were essential to peace and democratic stability. This has been wonderfully shown by Stefan Eich in a recent interpretation of Rawls as a thinker of the “theodicy of growth”: the idea that basic conditions for social justice are provided by an unencumbered march toward material development. Contemporary political theories have portrayed the democratic space as perpetually under threat of internal contradictions (individualism, fragmentation, the return of authoritarianism), whereas the most serious threat in fact comes from external contradictions (e.g., pollution, the collapse of the biosphere, the social distribution of ecological risks) and the attempt of the global elite to hide the consequences of these contradictions. It is not that democracy is unable to contain the enemies it has explicitly set itself, but that it has been taken by surprise by a new enemy, hitherto mistaken for a friend: the theodicy of growth.
All political philosophy deals with symbolic exchange, that is to say, what we do with the surplus of time and power that comes with the domestication of nature, and how we distribute it. In this regard, political philosophy is integral to a movement of history understood as a progressive emancipation from limits – it defines its object beyond the constraints of subsistence, beyond necessity. From this point of view, ecological concerns seem to take us back to immediate questions of subsistence. But there is a major difference between the Malthusian and neo-Darwinian obsession with subsistence, and the idea that our collective relationship to resources, territories, and scientific knowledge is political. Planetary politics forces us to retrace the often forgotten link between subsistence, territoriality, science, and the normative sphere carried and developed by those who usually do not work in the fields and do not engage physically with the world.
In a 1990 article in Le Debat called “Sous l’amour de la nature, la haine des hommes”, French historian Marcel Gauchet wrote that behind the love for nature lies the hatred of mankind. This brutal statement at least has the merit of clarity. It explicitly states a shared assumption of liberal and socialist philosophies: that there is an incommensurability between the concerns of political thought and the consequences of technology (which are at best a matter for engineers, and at worst a travesty of the democratic ideal). In the contemporary intellectual and political realm, few would say (or dare to say) that ecology is a manoeuvre conceived to undermine the democratic process – yet we have not fully accepted the opposite idea, that the planetary and the political have the same empirical and normative extension.
The incommensurability between “authentic” political thought and ecological concerns can no longer be defended. Nevertheless, the divide between the two has yet to be bridged. Ecology often falls back into vitalism or biophilia (i.e. an uncritical adoration of all living things), while political philosophy struggles to understand how modern democratic societies can engage at the planetary level without simply adapting pre-existing rules to a new object (for example, with the idea of corporate environmental responsibility). Another strategy (no more convincing in my opinion) consists in critiquing progressive philosophies, and more or less validating the warnings formulated in the past by counter-revolutionaries: that material progress could only be synonymous with the dissolution of the community, the loss of social cohesion, and abandonment to the impersonal forces of technology. In this view, the only possible response to the crisis would be the reactivation of a political naturalism that assimilates ecological constraints to authoritarian and conservative principles of government. The fear of a resurgence of authoritarianism would thus be validated and would take with it any attempt to construct the ecological problem in a critical continuity with emancipatory thought.
The incommensurability between “authentic” political thought and ecological concerns can no longer be defended.
It may be impossible to keep politics and ecology apart, but building a bridge will require a lot of intellectual risk-taking. Classical environmentalism’s attempts at de-politicization were a way to deal with this issue. The task of saving the planet was seen to lie beyond the labour-capital issue, beyond class structure, beyond any form of organized politics or interests: survival being at stake, the only thing we have to do is to “listen to the science” and “think about the kids”. All this was a way to escape the difficulties of politics. The same can be said of some current attempts at re-politicizing ecology. Capitalism is inextricably connected to the breaking of planetary boundaries, but the mass struggle to overcome the rule of the market is also vastly dependent on carbon. Whether we think about the material welfare made possible by post-war productivity politics or about the affinity between mass democracy and fossil infrastructures, we have to accept the idea that the history and intellectual structure of the socialist counter-movement is a by-product of technological modernity, and that this historical background still constrains the prospects of a post-carbon progressive coalition. Just as there is no spontaneous alignment between the fight against capitalist domination and the emancipation from carbon-intensive modes of production and modes of living, there is likewise no immediate alignment between international security and de-carbonization.
The politicization of ecology means that social struggles, coalitions of interests, power structures, and democratic legitimacy are moving quickly – and not necessarily in the right direction.
Let us try to map out the various possibilities that open up with the full politicization of the planetary. My intention is not to give an exhaustive view of what future politics will look like, but, borrowing from Kant, to “orient ourselves in thinking”. Hence the use of a compass rather than a typology. This compass displays four elementary oppositions. Each of them represents a polarity that structures the political stakes in modern societies, and each of them is challenged by contemporary planetary politics.
The first axis, universalism/realism, indicates that the politicization of the planet goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of a global, total entity, which transcends the divergence of interests between national jurisdictions, and which can be invoked to construct a new image of the universal. This is how post-war liberal environmentalism was conceived (first within the UN, then the UNFCCC and the COPs). The interdependence of the elements of the global eco-system makes it necessary to have governing bodies capable of overcoming the anarchy of international relations, and to safeguard the common good against unilateral interests. Conversely, one might think that planetary universalism is only an idealistic abstraction, and that the only political bodies with real power are those that happen to act in their own interest. This, for example, is illustrated by the economic and commercial competition between China and the United States (and, to a lesser extent, the EU) to conquer the energy transition markets and profits, but also by the political egoism that prevails when the poor countries most affected by disasters call for international solidarity.
The second axis, exclusive/inclusive, concerns class politics in times of climate crisis. If one accepts that the de-carbonisation of the economy represents a heavy cost/investment, one needs to think of the social groups that will have to bear it. This potential burden on private (and public) wealth and budgetary capacity adds up to the pre-existing reality of environmental inequalities; we know that exposure to environmental risks and disasters are aggravated for the most fragile social groups, due to socio-economic dynamics that make environmental quality a social privilege. One of the current challenges for green politics is therefore to compensate for these inequalities through economic policies that protect the most fragile groups, or to make them beneficiaries of a transformed organization of production and work. The first axis was essentially geopolitical, the second is sociological.
The third axis, science/decision, concerns the nature of the procedures mobilized to fight against the climate crisis. On the one hand, there is “science”, an indispensable source of information and knowledge, as well as a source of legitimation for political intervention. Science is involved in the construction of a project to redefine human productivity through the development of new energy systems (for instance, wind and solar), new forms of energy distribution (smart grids), and perhaps even techniques destined to capture atmospheric carbon (geo-engineering). An important feature of science-based action is that it claims to dissolve the conflicts of interest and the tragedy of the future: science is presented as a problem-eliminating capacity. Against this view, it might be argued that new technologies can only mitigate the problem, and that therefore political decisions will be needed: decisions that arbitrate between conflicting interests, that do not guarantee a win-win outcome, that are immersed in the climate dilemma rather than seeking to get rid of it.
An important feature of science-based action is that it claims to dissolve the conflicts of interest and the tragedy of the future.
Finally, an axis can be drawn that contrasts top-down and bottom-up processes. This axis concerns the link between climate and democracy. As already mentioned, one of the most pressing issues in green politics is the building of coalitions that converge on the elimination of fossil fuels and exert beneficial pressure on power structures. But in the context of neoliberalism and the erosion of democratic norms, the very idea of mass politics becomes problematic since political elites often escape the majority rule. At the same time, one may wonder whether the construction of planetary policies is taking the form of a “revolution without a revolutionary” (as Daniela Gabor has recently put it). We are witnessing the emergence of a progressive elite that seeks to define the framework of a green neo-Keynesianism by redefining the rules of finance, central banking, and international trade, with the support of key professions such as engineers, lawyers, scientists, and some industrial elites. Irrespective of whether this sense of responsibility among elites is grounded in fear or pure interest, this remains a potential for political transformation that goes beyond the green elite itself. The issue here is to understand how the link between the majority and the minority in power is likely to be transformed in the context of the global crisis.
Of course, it is possible to take the middle ground on each of these axes. With regard to the first, China’s realist attitude on climate issues – i.e. the Chinese Communist Party’s desire to pursue its interest and maintain its internal ideological hegemony by anticipating the energy transition – can be seen as having universal significance simply because of the gross weight of greenhouse gas emissions for which it is responsible. We can similarly envisage intermediate positions between science and decision, between collective will and elite mobilization. The horizontal axis, on the other hand, seems to command a position that maximizes the inclusive, and therefore just, character of the transition, but many political strategies are developing to insulate dominant interests from the subversive potential of climate policies.
This compass is more of a heuristic tool than a definitive theoretical synthesis. However, it allows us to understand that all the major political dilemmas that structure modern societies are likely to be exacerbated by the climate crisis. From geopolitical equilibrium to democratic institutions, from the sources of legitimacy for action to redistribution policies, all these questions that might at first sight seem to be disconnected from the ecological question have been turned upside down by the current planetary event.
Pierre Charbonnier is a French philosopher, a teacher at Sciences Po in Paris, and currently a research fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). He is the author of Affluence and Freedom: An Environmental History of Political Ideas which was published last year in English by Polity.