Beck to the future

A few days ago Duncan Green from Oxfam posted a thoughtful review of a thoughtful book – Why We Disagree About Climate Change published last year by Mike Hulme, a climate modeller from the University of East Anglia. At the core of the book is the idea that climate change will bring about a transformation in human life that is far more profound than most people realise, certainly those with their eyes down on the immediacy of policy. Duncan’s review picks up on a quote from the book and goes to on interpret that quote:

‘Climate change is not a problem that can be solved in the sense that, for example, technical and political resources were mobilised to solve the problem of stratospheric ozone depletion…. Instead, we need to reveal the creative psychological, ethical and spiritual work that climate change is doing for us…. We need to ask not what we can do for climate change, but what climate change can do for us.’ At first sight, this reminds me of those people who advocate ‘learning to love your cancer’ – more a counsel of despair than a real option. But I think it’s better than that. What he is essentially arguing is that even if we learn to manage and limit climate change, we will have entered a new age, the Anthropocene, which will require a different relationship between humanity and the climate, touching on religion, governance, economics and much else. To update Heraclitus, from here on ‘there is nothing permanent except climate change’.

Hulme is a scientist, and so frames this insight in the language of geological time. But there are other ways of saying that the world has changed irrevocably and more deeply than we realise.

I was immediately reminded of the idea of “reflexive modernity”, originally put forward by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck in his 1986 book Risk Society. Beck deals with the “dark side” of modernisation and industrialisation. Although he conceptualised this in terms of local environmental pollution and radiation hazards, his analysis is actually far more apposite to the truly amorphous pollution of greenhouse gas emissions. Beck’s central argument is that modern industry solves the old problem of scarcity, but in doing so it creates a new problem, in the form of widespread environmental hazards. It is these hazards, which modernity itself has created, and dealing with them, that defines reflexive modernity.

I find Beck’s idea of reflexive modernity, and the related notion of “risk society” (where the central dynamic is dealing with the risks created by environmental pollution) useful for two reasons. One is that we can see how we are not, in fact, yet fully in the phase of reflexive modernity. Large parts of the word are still trying to catch up with modernity, where the problem of scarcity still dominates. This is of course a major reason why global agreement on climate change is so hard to reach, and why so many countries are unwilling to reduce economic growth to cut emissions. Nevertheless, most countries have started at least to think about transitions to low carbon economies, and about adapting to climate impacts. The new has been born, but the old has not yet died.

The other insight from reflexive modernity is that its politics are going to be very different from those of ordinary industrial capitalism. This is another way of expressing the political consequences of the fact that climate change is a pure public bad. In an uncannily prescient passage for a book published 24 years ago, Beck writes about the difficulty of mobilising political support to underpin action to mitigate environmental risk, and the challenges this will pose to the project of building a politics of the common good to tackle climate change:

“What corresponds to the political subject of class society – the proletariat – in risk society is only the victimization of all by more or less tangible massive dangers. One need not be a Freudian to believe that such overwhelming anxiety can easily be repressed. Everyone and no-one is responsible for it. In classical industrial society, everyone is engaged in the struggle for his job (income, family, little house, automobile, hobbies, vacation wishes, etc….). But can intangible, universal afflictions be organized politically at all? Is ‘everyone’ capable of being a political subject? Is this not jumping much too casually from the global nature of the dangers to the commonality of political will and action? Is not globalized and universal victimization a reason not to take notice of problem situations or to do so only indirectly, to shift them onto others?”

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6 responses to “Beck to the future

  1. Roy Tindle

    Hulme refers to “four ‘mobilizing narratives’ that neatly capture the diversity of the discussion”, the myths of Eden, Apocalypse, Babel and Jubilee. In this he has captured the essence of the difficulties faced by many campaigners. Climate change is bundled together with every other perceived environmental ill and becomes a vehicle for blame.

    There are many strands of denial but the two most prevalent appear to be a neo-luddite rejection of technology. This can be seen in many climate change debates where the role of technology to help resolve change is either ignored or vociferously denied.

    The second is the ‘mea culpa’, hair shirt denialism that, again, ignores technological solutions and requires that we abandon most attributes of Western, technologically developed existence. Underlying both there is a rejection of science, except that which indicates and underlines the problems.

    Instead of aiming at clear definable targets, those evidenced in past public campaigning, the target has become the indefinable ‘us’ but with the blame ill focussed on elements of ‘us’, those, that is, who disagree.

    This approach has clearly failed to change public opinion: sadly, the more that it is seen to be failing, the louder and more negative becomes the cries of those who take this approach. Instead of looking to the potential for positive change, generating solar electricity and sharing wealth in Africa, for example, the shouts of forthcoming doom simply support the work of those who deny an anthropocentric cause for climate change.

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