The Greatest Error in the Climate Crisis Discourse

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Extinction Rebellion activists take part in a demonstration against 'Greenwashing' near the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Wednesday.

The more urgent and existential the discussion surrounding the climate becomes, and the more it is mired in the swamp of empty verbiage of grand pronouncements of targets 30 years in the future, the clearer it becomes that the greatest error in this fight until now is the blind fantasy that salvation will come from “the decision-makers,” “the regulator” and politics.

Until such time as the climate crisis becomes a story with the power to appeal to ordinary citizens, a story that is relevant to this time, to the new awareness that is taking shape daily, this struggle will remain stuck in place, cloaked in pretty words and surrounded by glasses of Champagne. If we genuinely want the struggle against climate change to succeed and to bring about the desired profound change in our way of life and in the human economy – and that is what we are talking about, nothing less – the discussion must shift from being one that revolves around politics and power and pins its hopes there, to one whose primary goal is to enlist the public. A discussion that seeks not to fix, but rather one that recognizes that the only way to address this crisis is to create a new socioeconomic order.

And it is impossible to think genuinely and deeply about the climate crisis, about strategies for dealing with it, without understanding the wider context of the existential and conceptual revolution in which we are living, and without grasping that the ways of thinking and of acting that may have worked in the previous century are no longer relevant. After all, to a large extent the emergence of the discourse around the climate crisis in recent years is more a product of the tools of direct conversation and sharing created by the technological revolution than it is a result of the aggravation of the climate situation.

This must be understood: The climate crisis is not a crisis of states. As I wrote here in an essay about the “end of the age of politics,” states, at their core, were shaped in order to think about and grapple with challenges within “the game” between the states themselves, such as wars and local disasters. They have no real ability – as institutions, as courses of action and so on – to think in terms of a threat to the existence of the entire game, like the threat posed by the climate crisis.

Moreover, the nation-states are themselves the progenitors of the climate crisis. They were created as the societal response to the Industrial Revolution. Their existence is based on the industry that created the climate crisis and the type of economy that it creates, and it is through this prism that they think about reality and about society. A genuine and powerful reckoning with the climate crisis requires a fundamental change to the infrastructure upon which the nation-states rest, and the creation of a new socioeconomic order. Given all that, is it at all realistic to expect that states will provide a genuine, serious and revolutionary answer to this crisis?

The understanding that it is not the states that are the address for solving the crisis, but rather the public, the ordinary folks who will bear the immediate cost of the struggle against the climate crisis – after all, most of the people who attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow will go right on flying and consuming and so on even if prices soar due to climate taxes – is also the recognition of the extent to which a strong and independent technological revolution is a necessary partner in the genuine battle to save the planet and of the extent to which the only key to beginning to find a solution is in the hands of individuals, of the public. Not as those for whom “the change starts with them” – like the responsibility that representatives of the sated old order try to dump on them – but rather as those who only by force of a wide-ranging, committed, solidary, existential connection can rock the boat.

To paraphrase Albert Camus’ famous line about if the choice is between justice and his mother, he chooses his mother: Only when the climate conversation fights this crisis from a sincere sense of the “mother,” of existence, of individuals, can there truly be a chance of fomenting the climate revolution that is so urgently needed.

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