First, I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Abraham Lincoln and three men in his cabinet, Team of Rivals. It is a riveting document, dramatic and well-written, deeply researched and consciously analysed. It shows the fates of four men as their fates are buffeted by the gale force winds of history. I have much to say on this book, but the main thing I want to take away now is:
1. That the catastrophe and crisis of Lincoln’s historical moment was brought on both by an unsustainable and unjust mode of life in the United States.
2. That a single historical issue was the gate through which everything had to pass: the question of slavery.
It struck me while reading that there is a strong parallel to our current historical moment. The world is, like the US under Lincoln, in the middle of a crisis, a political crisis where all the political and economic incentives point towards inaction while the forces of history and politics are pulling in a different direction.
The climate crisis, our crisis, is an entirely different kind and scale of crisis, but it shares some structural similarities in that it is both a political and economic crisis. It is, like the crisis of slavery, an existential crisis (for our society, our system, our way of life). Inaction is rewarded. This puts tremendous pressures on democratically elected elites and democracy itself. The causes of the crisis are also, like that of slavery, so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our economic life causes people to not even recognise that there is a link between their everyday behaviour and a looming, existential crisis.
In retrospect, after the Civil War, it is easy to look back and see how the path of sustained and industrialised slavery led to tragedy. But in the moment, every incentive in everyday life pointed towards not recognizing it. If, as Upton Sinclair remarked, it is very hard to make someone understand something on which their salary depends on not understanding, so it is very hard to make a society see that the foundations of its economy and its way of life are unjust and unsustainable. That is a profound lesson to take with us. If rational analysis leads you to reject your society’s fundamentals, then that may very well be the correct answer. That this was the case with slavery is painfully obvious. That it is also the case with today’s climate crisis is, to many, now very apparent. But not enough, and in the middle of the stormy present it is hard to see clear through to the correct conclusions. That’s the lesson I take with me from Kearns Goodwin’s biography.
Second, in parallel, I am reading Naomi Klein’s new book on climate change and its foundations in capitalism, This Changes Everything. It’s a passionate argument about how, as the title suggests, to stop climate change, everything must change. Including capitalism. I’m convinced.
The book was the subject of a really interesting recent conversation with a British friend, visiting on a holiday. She is a high-level executive in a major multinational corporation. She has always had a strong strain of environmental activism in her blood, and is taking it out through relentlessly greening and reducing the carbon footprint of her corporation. She is a dedicated worker for social justice and one of the most effective workers I know of in what has become known as the field of corporate social responsibility.
Her recent meeting with Naomi Klein’s book, however, came in the middle of, or possibly even triggered a kind of crisis of confidence. My friend has started asking some very complicated questions about the way she and her family lives. About how they spend time, money and energy. How their lives, as she describes it, are tainted by what she describes as a kind of materialist sickness that runs through the entire British society. Since reading Klein a few months back, she has been having all kinds of ideas about “going green”. From what she describes as romantic and unrealistic ideas about communal living and farming in her house (which is actually big enough to pull that off) to more serious ideas about activism and donating time towards green causes.
This was shortly after the elections in the UK. I asked her whether this new crisis and insight – the greek word which “crisis” comes from also means “judgment”, “separation” or “insight” – had influenced her decisions about the election.
“Well, I voted Tory”, she said.
I tried to not look as stunned as I felt, and I hope she didn’t notice me picking my jaw up off the floor. This tremendously clever, intelligent, super-organised, analytical force of nature has voted for precisely the party that would move the country the furthest away from where she wanted it to go.
The lesson I take away from this is that powerful political insights and ideas completely worthless if they are not also coupled to an organised movement. My friend voted Tory because for people like her, it was what was on offer. With her ideas about the economy and the future, there was no other meaningful option. The Green movement was not yet strong enough to be an alternative for her, and the UK system would ensure that she would have wasted her vote on them.
What won the times for the anti-slavery movement was when it made the leap from movement to actor. It founded its own party – ironically the party now most aligned with racist forces in the US, the Republican party – and within only four years had become the completely dominant party in the Northern states. Two years after that, the party got Abraham Lincoln elected president.
It has become completely apparent to me that the climate justice movement needs to make the same kind of leap. Founding new parties might not be necessary – for various reasons I am skeptical of the Green Party movement – but for this cause to take over and dominate the political landscape in some way is completely necessary. And this insight needs to be coupled to the need to fundamentally reform the economy and ideas about justice and redistribution. I think this is what Klein very forcefully demonstrates in her book.
Third, a look at the alternative to taking action, or rather, a reminder of the facts of life. Yesterday I watched the excellent movie All Is Lost. A tour de force performance from Robert Redford, portraying a man lost at sea. He is alone and onscreen for the entire movie. It is nearly unwatchably intense. The loneliness of the man – the movie has, I suspect, less than three lines of speech in the entire script – his desperation and wordless determination is just crushing.
It is an entirely practical movie. It is about a man doing things – doing absolutely everything, in fact – in order to stay alive. To make sure that elemental exposure to a hostile environment doesn’t kill him. In this he shows remarkable resourcefulness. He uses celestial navigation, makes a solar still from a jerry can and some plastic tarp and treats his own wounds to keep them from infecting. Despite his superior technology and knowledge, his life is in constant, crushing jeopardy.
What struck me most about the man’s situation was the banality of it. When life is reduced to making do, scraping by and dodging death, everything becomes flat and senseless. There is no place for culture and finding meaning in existence. There is nothing good about his life, only a ceaseless, grinding lack of value. His life reduced to just the biological facts of existing (to being “bare life”, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls it). There is no human connection and no community. Not until the very last frame of the movie is he released (I won’t say how) from this meaningless existence, separated from everything that has value. His life is interminable enduring, waiting, replaced only by moments of sheer horror.
The British philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously called life in the state of nature “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. The full passage is worth reading:
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
That’s pretty much a description of Robert Redford in this movie, right down to the bit about navigation and seafaring.
I think the movie, besides being a wonderful allegorical meditation on growing old and dying, also shows us what we all, at any time, stand to lose from the degradation of culture; from the falling away of meaning, beauty and love which accompanies societies in collapse. When society degrades, in the face of crisis, everything good that we have ever accomplished fades away, and we start moving towards this exposed, bare life struggling for survival. This is what we stand to lose, what climate change threatens us with. Maybe not total collapse, but at the very least something much closer to the life of the lost man at sea.
The title of the movie is appropriate. What we have to lose from sliding towards such a state is precisely everything. Everything that matters. Unless we realise that climate change means we need to say this changes everything, I fear that all is lost.