climate justice and the failures of western imagination

this year, BTOT was again full of joy and provocation: joy in the variety of jam sessions, new music, and dance composition with which presenters engaged their colleagues at berklee; provocation as some of our colleagues tried to stir things up. as a member of the BTOT program committee, it was a great deal of fun!

this year as many years, my colleague political scientist  victor wallis organized a panel that underscored the urgency of the climate crisis. as a prison and environmental activist and scholar who has edited the journal socialism and democracy, victor wallis is aware of the complexity of the climate issue. in many ways, his work points out how the urgency of the climate crisis requires us to think our way outside of capitalism

this point is not a new one, but one that we probably need to underscore. various incremental, “green capitalist” solutions have been offered to the climate crisis, including buying and selling of carbon credits. but what if, as glen coulthard has argued in the case of Indigenous Peoples, our survival requires capitalism to die? what sorts of infrastructures and new ways of life will we need to create a world which can serve as an alternative to capitalism?

in his recent book red-green revolution: the politics and technology of eco-socialism, wallis takes on  these questions. i’ve not gotten a chance to read the book yet, but was fortunate to attend a BTOT panel on the book. overall, the discussion reminded me of problems posed earlier by david harvey in justice, nature, and the geography of difference and spaces of hope. much to the credit of the discussants, all pointed out that one of the major problems of moving toward climate justice is not just a kind of ethnocentrism but also anthropocentricism. in his work, like other scholars, wallis has looked toward Indigenous perspectives on reciprocal and caring relationships among humans and non-humans as a means to rethink our economy in terms of ecology

nonetheless, i’m concerned that “bringing in an Indigenous perspective” is just that, perspectival. at its basis, much of the discussion on climate justice tends to the procedural–as in latour’s attempt to envision a “parliament of things”–and thus to deliberative model of communication, the kind of habermasian removal-of-impediments-to-rational-discussion plus gadamerian fusion of horizons model that one sees prominently in the work of multiculturalists such as charles taylor. it promises that if somehow we had the right spokespersons and speech prostheses, we could arrive at a consensus among the various “stakeholders” or “principals” whose rights and desires, as well as obligations to the commonwealth, would then all have a place at a table. somehow we would be able to move forward from there

of course, victor and others know that for these deliberations to have any result, we will need to sacrifice a bit; we will also need to curtail, through an application of political power, the activities and privileges of capital and capitalists. what strikes me, however, is how the work here is more or less a continuation of the enlightenment project. it depends upon rational calculation and deliberation. but what if such calculation is what led to the externalization of climate to begin with? in other words, we would seem to need a different sort of commitment, a kind of affective connection to a shared practice of climate justice that is based in the depth and thickness of ethical relationships. i doubt that “perspective” is going to provide that, particularly for the voting public

thus my thinking brings me back to the problem of how we develop ethical attachment and responsibility. what are the practices through which an ethics might form? what might we do as scholars to facilitate the development of the forms of affect and care necessary to confront the climate crisis? while traditional environmental knowledge might be part of such a program, it is clearly not enough. our problems require more than knowledge production, perspective, and deliberation

to say otherwise is to engage in a more fundamental failure of imagination: the failure to imagine that all problems might be solved by reason. come to think of it, isn’t such a failure akin to the question of whether one can use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house?

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