The left have not been immune to these cultural currents of disempowering doomsaying. There are plenty of leftist and environmentalist writers who seem to relish the catastrophe that approaches us. Take this quote by US journalist Chris Hedges, for example: “We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.” The quote not only is nihilistic in its outlook, it is misanthropic in its view of humanity.
The authors of Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth show how many of these authors draw on either a Malthusian politics (long an affliction of some environmentalists) or a structural-determinist ideology that sees doomsday scenarios as evidence of the impending collapse of capitalism. “Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber — if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous,” writes Sasha Lilley.
On the other side of the coin, many environmentalists have sometimes shied away from discussing climate futures all together. This may have been because of fears of looking honestly at the future, or more often because it implicitly suggested defeat from the more urgent task of preventing worsening climate change. However, in so doing, we have left the terrain of the future in the hands of the climate dystopians. The truth is that we cannot avoid facing climate futures, because they are already unfolding now. We can see some of the consequences vividly on our TV screens, such as the hurricanes that swept the Caribbean this summer, or Iran registering a world record-shattering 54 degree Celsius heat wave. But a great deal also happens silently and out of sight, such as the gradual impact that increased heat is having on food production, particularly in tropical areas.
Everything we can do to reduce emissions now — climate mitigation — will reduce how negative the consequences will be. However, we also need to advance a clear radical agenda on how to cope with the inevitable climate change that is already “locked in,” drawing attention to issues of redistribution of wealth and resources that will be so critical to responding justly. This is where an anti-capitalist and anti-militarist critique is even more relevant, because transnational corporations, whose very raison d’être is profit, and the military and police, whose raison d’être is to protect the current system, are the last institutions any sane person would trust to justly manage climate change impacts. It is why movements, such as the Movement for Black Lives, that challenge state violence and demand that police forces are either accountable or replaced, are so important to support. After all, the ever-more militarized police will be mobilized disproportionately against marginalized communities — as they have always been — in order to protect wealth and property during times of climate instability.
As the environmental activist Tim DeChristopher has argued, “when things get ugly, and access to resources becomes difficult, we want to have trust that those making decisions will act justly, and not just favor the strong. … We need to start working now on putting in place power structures that share our values as we enter difficult times.”
Global Justice: The Only Solution
There is considerable evidence that putting more democratic power structures in place will not only ensure a more just response, but also prove to be more resilient to climate change impacts. Research on communities coping with climate change shows that those that maximize participation and inclusion are far more likely to provide the flexibility, creativity and collective strength to cope with fast, multiple changes and stresses. By contrast, unequal societies are far less resilient as they lack interpersonal trust and have weak social bonds, which make collective organizing all the more difficult. In addition, there is growing evidence that gender equity is particularly important for finding peaceful resolutions to resource challenges.
The historical evidence from past weather-related or natural disasters suggests that crises and disasters, far from prompting a dystopian scramble for resources as suggested by military planners, are far more likely to prompt outpourings of support, solidarity and creative community-building efforts. Rebecca Solnit, in A Paradise Built in Hell, examining five major natural disasters in the twentieth century, recovers amazing stories of people without resources undertaking heroic efforts to protect vulnerable neighbors, developing brilliant collective systems to rebuild communities, and most surprisingly of all finding joy as they weave new meaningful relationships amidst disaster.
In fact, she shows how many disasters lead to the building of “mini-utopias” by those most affected. The panic and fear is mainly expressed by elites who assume that the majority are dangerous and a threat to them, evidenced by the media scaremongering of “looting” that appears in the wake of every disaster. Of course, recognizing this does not mean welcoming disasters with their deadly tolls and the disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable. But we can certainly welcome the revolutionary human spirit that emerges in such situations. “If paradise now arises in hell,” says Rebecca Solnit, “it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.”
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A belief that communities are best suited to finding their own solutions to the crises and disasters that unfold from climate change means that we can start with a far more empowering and proactive approach to climate disruption, embedded in values of solidarity rather than security. We can learn from Cuba, where highly organized local civil defense committees, backed by central government resources and communications, remain constantly mobilized and prepared for extreme weather. When hurricanes batter the Caribbean nation, as they do with ever greater frequency and ferocity, they ensure that the most vulnerable are kept safe and in the aftermath mobilize the whole community to house the affected and rebuild their homes. When the impoverished country confronted its most powerful hurricane ever, Hurricane Irma in 2017, ten people died — in contrast to its far richer neighbor, the United States, where the same hurricane, although weaker in terms of wind speed, killed over 70.
In the US, an alliance of grassroots community organizations is seeking to implement a similar community-driven response to climate change preparation. It is led by grassroots community justice groups on the front-lines of climate change, such as the multi-racial Gulf South Rising movement that brings together African-American cooperative workers with Vietnamese fisher folk on the Gulf Coast. They argue that just climate resilience will only emerge if cities go beyond consultations and vulnerability assessments to identifying the root systemic causes of vulnerability and embracing leadership and solutions from those communities most likely to suffer climate impacts.
Taj James, a leader within the alliance, says true community resilience is built when there is a “shared collective sense of understanding of where that community is trying to go, and a sense of ownership and agency, … [including the support] of other communities that are working towards their own self-determination, and understanding of limits of the bioregion in which they are operating.”