Forum: War on Global Warming/War on Terror
n+1 recently received a statement from the political thinker Alex Gourevitch. It outlined an argument that members of the editorial board disagreed with but couldn’t ignore. By drawing a connection between Bush’s war on terror and the campaign against global warming, it placed certain of our key values at odds and questioned, by implication, the “environmental” turn that n+1 may be taking (in common with a broad spectrum of the media) since the inclusion of Chad Harbach’s “Global Warming” in Issue 4. We are grateful to Gourevitch for amplifying his original letter to make it the basis for a forum. Responses follow from Kunkel, Harbach, and Greif.
What ever happened to the war on terror? As recently as the 2004 election, it was considered political disaster for a candidate to question its premises. Now, attacking the war on terror and “the politics of fear” has become a liberal cause. Zbigniew Brzezinski, sage of liberal diplomacy, tells us in the Washington Post that “The ‘war on terror’ has created a culture of fear in America.” Barack Obama calls for “a politics of hope instead of a politics of fear.” John Edwards has become the only front-running Democratic presidential candidate explicitly to call for an end to the war on terror. He has leveled the now commonplace charge that the war on terror is just a “political frame and political rhetoric,” which the President and his people use “to justify everything they do.”
Of course, these critics do not wish to overturn every aspect of the past seven years. No politician can forget the apparent purpose and unity that the war on terror seemed to offer in its earliest days. From Obama to Brzezinski, that Bush “squandered” that early unity is a recurring topos of the war on terror’s critics. Liberal hawks and conservatives alike were drawn to the possibility that uniting against an existential threat could be a source of political renewal. George Packer wrote of the general state of alertness that “what I dread now is a return to the normality we’re all supposed to seek.”
What (temporarily) yanked Americans out of their passivity was, of course, not political conviction but fear, not argument but the sheer force of necessity. One might think it odd that on the left, too, there is a nostalgia for a period marked by such fear and anxiety. Yet in conditions when conventional political ideologies fail to inspire, there is a temptation to resort to the politics of fear as a way of restoring the power and authority of elites. The hope is that the quest for security, rather than anything higher, can become a unifying political principle in its own right.
Thus, even if the declining fortunes of the war on terror give the appearance that the politics of fear itself is on the wane, another campaign may be reviving it. While Democrats have become increasingly uncomfortable with the anti-democratic consequences of the hard power of the war on terror, they seem more comfortable with a “soft power” politics of fear: environmentalism.
Environmentalism is one of the few movements on the left that presents itself in the same totalizing political terms that the war on terror does on the right, and its influence only seems to grow as the war on terror’s influence declines. The New York Times’s bellwether of elite opinion, Thomas Friedman, recently swung around to the new framework. His solution for overcoming the “trauma and divisiveness of the Bush years” is “a new green ideology, [which] properly defined, has the power to mobilize liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and atheists, big business and environmentalists around an agenda that can both pull us together and propel us forward.”
The congenitally unoriginal Friedman channels the hopes of others. Most prominently, it has been Al Gore who has championed the idea that environmentalism should replace the war on terror. He has long reminded us that “global warming is a threat greater than terrorism.” This could have been simply a pragmatic judgment, but Gore is interested in more than technical risk-analysis. His framework is also inspiring and existential:
[T]here are dire warnings that the worst catastrophe in the history of human civilization is bearing down on us, gathering strength as it comes. . . . This crisis is bringing us an opportunity to experience what few generations in history ever have the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence; the opportunity to rise.
In the attempt to rekindle hope and collective aspiration, however, Gore has summarized the way in which environmentalism reinvents the politics of fear. The belief that a threat to human life, especially one as global and overwhelming as eco-apocalypse, can transcend normal politics and create a sense of unique moral purpose is the differentia specifica of the politics of fear.
The global warming argument can be as morally coercive as the infamous ticking time-bomb torture scenario, even if the clock ticks slower. It’s not just that we should unite; we are, as Gore puts it, “forced by circumstance” to act. In the face of real political opportunities, there is always an element of freedom. One chooses between two alternatives, picks a principle, and commits to it. Imagining ecological collapse as an overweening crisis demanding immediate action and collective sacrifice, with emergency decisions overriding citizens’ normal wants and wishes, is not really a politics at all, but the suspension of politics—there is no political choice, no constituencies to balance, nothing to deliberate. There is no free activity, just do or die. It seems we will have traded one state of emergency for another.
While many have of course accused environmentalists of using scare tactics, the new environmentalism surrounding global warming is a politics of fear in a deeper sense. The fast and easy use of the slogan “politics of fear” has not contributed very much to our understanding of it. As various analysts have pointed out, the politics of fear is better understood in relation to what we might call the security paradigm, rather than mere hysteria and manipulation. A widely circulated essay by Kanishka Jayasuriya, posted on the Social Science Research Council website, warned not long after 9/11 that the “most serious danger” of the war on terror was that “under the appealing cloak of ‘security’, a debilitating form of ‘anti politics’ that marginalises the constructive conflicts . . . that animate the public sphere” would emerge. Jayasuriya did not make the pundit’s point that the cloak of security is antipolitical because it recasts opposition as unpatriotic. Rather, his concern was that, as over the longer span, “the language of security . . . permeates every sphere of life—ranging from finance to the environment,” the consequence of “securitization” is to displace controversial and expansive democratic discussions of “power and redistribution,” and make purely symbolic their real grounding principles of liberty and equality.
The claim that universal risks—especially environmental ones—transcend conflicts of national, religious, and class interest, is now part of mainstream political sociology. The paradigmatic “supra-national and non-class-specific global hazards” that the popular German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, identified as defining features of our time in his book Risk Society are the unintended environmental effects of industrialization—like pollution. Moreover, with Friedman and Gore, Beck believes these global hazards promise “a new type of social and political dynamism” that transcends all social differences.
This global, environmental risk-consciousness is an innovation in the politics of fear because it differs in important ways from the security concerns of other recent periods of fear-laden politics, the 1930s and 1950s, in Depression and cold war. Security in these periods was mainly institutional—associated with economic crisis, war, and anti-state subversion. As the historian Ernest May has suggested, “national security” has meant “preserving the United States as a free nation, with its fundamental institutions and values intact.”
The referent of security today is importantly different—the relevant object to be secured is not the “fundamental institutions and values” of society but physical or biological existence. In the analysis of Giorgio Agamben [see “Apocalypse Deferred,” n+1 Issue 2], the defining question of politics has become “which form of organization would be best suited to the task of assuring the care, control, and use of bare life.” By bare life he means the life of the individual conceived as a natural, physical creature with needs, wants, and desires that can be known through the human sciences and administered by the state. This stands in opposition to the citizen who can exercise his self-determining capacities and assert his rights only within a specific institutional framework.
In Agamben’s words: “The declaration of the state of exception has gradually been replaced by an unprecedented generalization of the paradigm of security as the normal technique of government.” Rather than occasionally suspending the constitution to save the state from war, depression, and revolution, we have a recurring, bureaucratic politics aimed at taming any kind of uncertainty that might threaten the individual’s health and safety.
Rather than a departure from this securitized existence of the body, environmentalism is its clearest extension to all that surrounds us. We hear of the “health of the planet” as well as the species, in a further extension of life-politics into a kind of global hygiene.
Environmentalism is a left-wing politics of fear because it rests on the deeply fearful idea that only an overweening threat to our physical and collective health can inspire us to “transcendence.” Threats to the very conditions of life, rather than social controversies over power and distribution, come to motivate political engagement—an engagement that presumes setting to one side inequality and unfreedom as the central categories of political contestation. As Slavoj Žižek says, “Popular imagination is persecuted by the visions of the forthcoming ‘breakdown of nature.’ . . . It seems easier to imagine the ‘end of the world’ than a far more modest change in the mode of production.” In the Bush years we have seen that security is an unstable foundation for institutions—the separation of powers, constitutionalism, federalism, civil society—that liberals have recently sought to rehabilitate. It is a principle that can only constrain and limit politics, not renew our political imagination. No social change is possible without a great deal of uncertainty, and even the production of insecurity. No truly democratic choice comes with a guarantee of success, and such choices always produce unintended outcomes. Democracy must embrace an experimental attitude toward society. While it may seem odd to take aim at environmentalism while the uglier war on terror still presides, it is because we wish to move past the politics of fear that we should subject all the alternatives to rigorous scrutiny. As critics of the war on terror struggle to find a new legitimating principle, it appears they face a risk of renovating and reviving the same obsession with security and survival.
Benjamin Kunkel Replies:
Necessity, the tyrant’s plea, Milton called it, and it’s no doubt possible that the compelling necessity of reducing carbon emissions may be invoked to justify the suspension of democratic politics. But Alex Gourevitch is worried not so much about the possibility of green tyranny as about environmentalism becoming an “antipolitics” that destroys civil society from within. In this scenario, political life would be dominated rhetorically by talk of security, of disaster prevention. A stealthily coercive model of shared identity through shared risk would displace a vigorous democratic politics in which the differing interests of citizens are acknowledged through conflict and compromise. Ultimately, the antipolitics of fear—as it would be more properly called—would deprive the person of his status as a political, even a social being; a man or woman would constitute, for public purposes, only a bare animal existence to be protected from the collapse of the natural environment and the engineered conditions sustaining that existence. This would be survival rather than life; and mere survival, no matter how comfortable or uncomfortable, is something less than being human.
It’s possible to accept that this would itself be a disaster without being so afraid that environmentalism might bring it about. The opposite development seems more likely: if global warming goes unaddressed, the disrepair into which our society falls may make constitutional government, not to mention a lively public sphere, sound like a quaint concept. Meanwhile, Agamben’s language of “bare life” can become a kind of cant, obscuring real problems: when forty-seven million Americans lack health insurance, can it really be, as Gourevitch says, that we have a politics “aimed at taming any kind of uncertainty that might threaten the individual’s health”? But the more important point is this: in a strange way, the politics of ecological anxiety is probably the only version of a utopian politics we can have, the only open path, if one exists at all, to that flourishing public life desired by Gourevitch and by no means taking place under the privatizing auspices of neoliberalism. Today there is no good way to talk about the society we want except in terms of what we fear.
Dreams, Freud thought, even the terrifying ones, were inevitably wish fulfillments—and this rule would seem to cover political nightmares more comprehensively than bad dreams suffered alone at night. In private life, after all, it’s sometimes possible to express your desires in a more or less lucid and straightforward way. In American political life, on the other hand, it has been impossible to talk openly about desire—the deep opposite of fear—at least since the 1960s, and this is probably true of other countries as well: the politics of desire outlined by Parisian students with spray paint in May ’68 now seems one of the embarrassing or at least useless features of that era.
The closest American politicians come to breathing a word about desire is to talk about hope, as Barack Obama is doing now. And to see the terminal weakness of hope rhetoric you need only recall the refrain of John Edwards’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention: “Hope is on the way.” Hope isn’t much—it’s not help, not happiness, not even security—but now even hope could only be hoped for. What happens to a deferral deferred? A depressing question.
Our taboo on desire owes something to the fact that all desire has its libidinal component, and so long as American politics concentrates mawkishly on the family—always working families, never simply working people—desire will seem an intrusive and inappropriate force. The other reason for Democrats to keep quiet about their desires is simply that they don’t have any they can recognize; for a generation or more, they have been in the literal sense a conservative party, mostly concerned with maintaining existing institutions of social welfare or moderating the pace at which they are dismantled. The Democrats never know what they want; they do know they’d like to go about it cautiously.
It hardly seems likely that Democrats will soon evolve any frank politics of desire—the desire (it is mine anyway) for a society just, sustainable, creative, and free. And the same goes for the traditional socialist left. Probably a larger portion of the global proletariat consists, today, of the superfluously large “reserve army of labor” than of wage laborers in factories or on farms, and no one can easily imagine a coordinated international movement led by the jobless inhabitants of slums. If we still imagine barricades being stormed, they are stormed by high seas.
Old-fashioned leftists sometimes object that green politics has substituted, as the ultimate opponent of capitalism, the environment for the working class. And in a way something similar is said by apologists for the suicidal neoliberalism that is the status quo; as Margaret Thatcher’s former chancellor of the exchequer has said, environmentalism “is profoundly hostile to capitalism and the market economy.” Both objections are correct—only neither counts as an objection. The fantasy of plenitude shared by capitalists and socialists for much of the 20th century needs to be abandoned. Wealth, as experienced by the rich of today, can neither trickle down nor be redistributed; already we burn too much fossil fuel in industrial agriculture and manufacture, the running of enormous appliance-filled households and offices, and the global transport of people and goods.
The nightmare, in good nightmare fashion, has something absurd and nearly inescapable about it: either we will begin running out of oil, or we won’t. If global oil production is already at or near its peak, the international economy may soon start shrinking—a terrible prospect when a social ethic of the fair distribution of diminishing total wealth exists perhaps nowhere in the world [see “More Blood, Less Oil,” n+1 Issue 3]. Or else, if optimists (of a sort) are correct, there may be oil to burn, at current or increased rates, until as late as 2050, in which case this is the way the world ends: with the steady purr of an internal combustion engine. It’s also possible that oil extraction will fall far below contemporary levels at the same time that there remain so many parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere that our world continues heating up even as its machinery slows down.
The sole alternative is to organize the world on a more local, modest, and (since so many people already have so little) egalitarian basis. Whatever happens will be frightening: to drift headlong toward disaster, to give up our life of convenience, or, more likely, to make painful changes without knowing whether they will suffice. But inside fear is also the desire for a different and better world, superior to ours not only because it might last, but because of the richer experience of life it would provide.
We have, today, a richly articulated market, and a lot of stunted lives. In order to live in any comfort, you must commodify the better part of your life: in this case, you engage in a restricted set of tasks for forty hours a week, or twice that many. The smaller, uncommodified portion of your life consists of shopping for necessities; of unremunerated domestic labor (washing, cooking, cleaning, child care, making repairs) that could be far more efficiently performed if tasks were pooled; and of accumulating the few or many luxuries you lack the leisure to enjoy. This is if you are lucky, or while you are lucky. Your pleasures, in the meantime, are guilty pleasures, since it is people like you whose lifestyle is ruining the climate, a fact your children will easily comprehend.
This description in some ways leaves out artists, entrepreneurs, socialites, monks, nuns, professional athletes, and politicians; but it also leaves out chattel slaves, of whom there are more today than lived even during the heyday of the plantations. Proportionally speaking, none of these groups count for much these days. A more significant category, occupied by some two-fifths of economically active humanity, is that of the informal economy, where people with nothing but their labor to sell—and no buyers—eke out a precarious, unprotected existence in a kind of frenetic unemployment. So it is that there are people whom capitalism pretends to cherish by never letting them rest; others that capitalism has no use for at all; and the narrow, specialized labors of both groups are pressed into the service of heaping up goods and opportunities for those who can hardly enjoy them—an arrangement the price of which is merely global warming. The common term for this collective situation is “freedom.” Likewise the word for our constant anxiety is “comfort.” We know this life can’t be sustained. And many of us want a different life anyway. Of course the old-fashioned leftist will smile and ask: How many of you? That’s a good question.
Chad Harbach Replies:
There is a word in American politics that represents all our local, regional, and global concerns about the condition of the land, water, and sky; all plant and animal life; and our own lives insofar as they are affected (and they’re always affected) by the foregoing. If one word must be so overworked in the service of such vast, essential affairs, it would be nice to have a reverent, all-encompassing one, like Tao or YHWH. Instead we’ve been stuck with environmentalism—a gloomy, marginal term, with a breeze of irrelevance whistling through the bureaucratic archways of its ns and ms.
The place of the physical world in our political rhetoric has become slightly more prominent of late, a change led by Democrats and motivated by the most visible early effects of global warming. Like Alex Gourevitch, I have qualms about this rhetorical shift. Not because I believe environmentalism threatens to become a totalizing existential framework, used by elites to consolidate their power. Rather, the rhetoric of environmentalism is being rapidly subsumed by, and used to ratify, the totalizing existential framework that already exists: that of the global growth economy.
In Alex Gourevitch’s essay, as in America generally these days, “environmentalism” refers to something very specific: a stated desire to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming. This formulation is notable for the issues it omits: the depletion of vital resources; the pollution of rivers, groundwater, and cropland; the decimation of unique ecosystems and natural beauty; and the fact that fewer than half the earth’s species are predicted to survive the century.
It’s also notable for the premises it doesn’t have to embrace: either that nature and nonhuman life have inherent value (the so-called “deep” ecological argument); or that it is prudent to preserve that nature and life for our perpetual use (the “shallow” argument). Most of the characteristic ground of environmentalism washes away; as long as you voice concern about global warming (even in the absence of any real intention to do anything), you are now green, and can, conveniently, be praised or derided as such.
Here is the heart of Thomas Friedman’s green manifesto: “The only thing as powerful as Mother Nature is Father Greed.” Not much of a moral framework, really, and surely not anything new. Friedman puts on a bright green suit to sing a song about economic expansion. He wants America to “compete in a flatter world” and “thrive in a warmer” one, never acknowledging that flatness is hastening warmness and that warmness may soon deliver us to an awful, compromised roundness. He’s not keen on collective sacrifice, either: “I am not proposing that we radically alter our lifestyles.” (A point he goes on to clarify, with intriguing syntax: “We are who we are—including a car culture.”) For Friedman, green is a groovy new brand, a value-add for the American economy: “Green is not about cutting back. It’s about creating a new cornucopia of abundance for the next generation by inventing a whole new industry.” The line is drawn: We will not shift our patterns of life to fit the demands of even the mildest environmentalism; the definition of environmentalism must shift to fit those patterns of life.
And yet even Friedman can see the cant that pervades the Democratic Party: “Today’s presidential hopefuls are largely full of hot air on the climate-energy issue. Not one of them is proposing anything hard, like a carbon or gasoline tax.” The candidates know that global warming is happening. (This marks a slight improvement over the last election.) They also understand that a growing fraction of Americans, including especially those that vote Democratic, also know that global warming is happening, and are worried about it. Therefore “energy efficiency” has been elevated to the status of a campaign topic—it requires a bulleted list on the campaign website and a plan, however vague. Each of the candidates declares that we must avoid the worst effects of global warming, while avoiding mention of what those effects might be; they declare that we must cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050, while avoiding mention of the profound changes that this would entail (or that many experts believe it an insufficient goal). They plan to tinker with market mechanisms (e.g., bump up fuel efficiency standards by inconsequential increments), and then “let markets work” (i.e., do nothing). They intend to create “new, high-paying jobs” (Edwards)—in fact, “hundreds of thousands” of them (Obama)—thereby turning this pesky global warming into a “win-win” (Clinton).
I think this could be characterized as the opposite of a politics of fear. It is a politics of assuagement—of false security and business as usual. It gives a dollar to a struggling wind farmer. It temporizes. It paints gigantic risks as minimal so as to release us from the responsibility of facing them. Political candidates used to do nothing about global warming, not even talk; now they are talking, so the rest of us can rest. American business is on the verge of going green—it will always be on the verge.
Meanwhile the experts continue to raise the alarm. Here is James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory (which argues persuasively that the earth’s living and nonliving parts interact as a single, self-regulating system): “Civilization is in grave danger. . . . Before this century is over, billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the arctic region where the climate remains tolerable.” Lovelock may be wrong, but he is far from alone among climate scientists. As CO₂ levels continue to rise (385 parts per million at present), estimates of the levels needed to avert global catastrophe continue to go down. James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, writes, “Very little additional forcing is needed to cause dramatic effects. . . . The dangerous level of CO₂ is at most 450 ppm, and it is probably less.” Despite such warnings, the US Department of Energy predicts a 33 percent rise in our fossil-fuel consumption by 2030.
We are confused and overconfident; we believe that our prosperity springs from our technological ingenuity, and that ingenuity, being omnipotent, needs only to be called upon in the moment of dire need. (Until then it refines the iPod.) In truth our prosperity springs from the ground, in the form of oil. It’s hard to describe the awesomeness of oil. We constantly underestimate its awesomeness, even as we fight wars to secure it. Petroleum has special properties: it provides us eons’ worth of solar power, compressed into an easily extractable, portable liquid form. Our ingenuity has harnessed these properties. It cannot replicate them. It’s true that the oil economy is propped up by massive tax breaks, investment in infrastructure, et cetera, and that these nonmarket benefits should be removed immediately. But other sources of energy will require even more massive propping-up. We will never live like we did in the oil days.
America and the fossil-fuel economy grew up together; our triumphant history is the triumphant history of these fuels. We entrusted to them (slowly at first, and with increasing enthusiasm) the work of growing our food, moving our bodies, and building our homes, tools, and furniture—they freed us for thought and entertainment, and created our ideas of freedom. These ideas of freedom, in turn, have created our existential framework, within which one fear dwarfs all others: the fear of economic slowdown (less growth), backed by deeper fears of stagnation (no growth) and, unthinkably, contraction (anti-growth). America does have a deeply ingrained, morally coercive politics based on a fear that must never be realized, and this is it. To fail to grow—to fail to grow ever faster—has become synonymous with utter collapse, both of our economy and our ideals.
I would like to predict that, as the consequences of our destructive practices become ever harder to ignore, a real ecological politics will emerge. Such a politics would take as its first principle the fact that human life depends on the Earth, and its debates would proceed from, instead of denying, this principle. (Despite the assurances of technofantasists, we’re much closer to turning earth into Mars than vice versa.) This politics would be both reasonable and profoundly radical. It would not in itself ensure social justice—the long-held dream of equal privileges and security for all people—but it could permit the survival of these dreams, and even lay the groundwork for their realization.
I fear, though, that time will only render such a politics less possible. The problem with emergencies is that they sometimes exist. We are immersed in one now, and it is precisely our existential framework that prevents us from noticing. We have long been the country of rapid expansion and unlimited, oil-girded growth. Now we must become a different kind of country—a country that holds our corporations accountable for the full ecological consequences of their actions, especially by taxing carbon emissions at a high rate; channels all our formidable scientific ingenuity toward mitigating global warming and preserving what remains of the nonhuman world; and forges an international agreement that will keep CO₂ levels below 450 ppm. We must drive much less, fly much less, shop much less; buy locally grown food; decline beef and bottled water. We cannot simply await and adjust to government edicts, which will always be corporately influenced and insufficient; we must change our practices today, while demanding strong laws and a localized, oil-free infrastructure.
Most of all, we must reject the coercive rhetoric of constant growth, and stop thinking of our way of life (which is so anomalous in the history of the world, and even in the world today) as immutable. This is not a moral challenge, but a practical and philosophical one. Can we think of ourselves sufficiently differently to save ourselves?
Mark Greif Replies:
Alex Gourevitch is right to say that the campaign against global warming can lead to left fantasies of an antipolitics of emergency. I’ll vouch for this, because I have these fantasies myself.
After the non-election of 2000, Al Gore temporarily withdrew from public life. He became fat, bearded, and to all appearances depressed. During the grim Bush years after September 11, 2001, he occasionally came out of his burrow and, unlike all the trim, clean-shaven, and optimistic figures who held active hopes in electoral politics, told the truth. Global warming was much on his mind. But it was woven into an entire vision of misplaced priorities and moneyed control of politics. His well-known August 2003 speech at NYU integrated the threat of global warming with deceptions in Iraq, failures of Bush’s economic policy, and the illegality of the administration’s “war on terror” methods—delivered in plain language no Democratic candidate for the 2004 elections dared to approach. From that time forward, I cherished an absurd hope: that a fat, bearded, and depressed Gore, elected President, could give us our only way out of a destructive centrist or rightist spiral and save America and the world.
Gore’s environmental and ecological passions, his emergency sense, would be the linchpin to a prophetic, truth-telling presidency. In the name of the climate, he would begin saying “no” to interests to whom American presidents are obliged to say “yes.” “No” to the oil industry, looking for perks. “No” to the auto industry, seeking a continuation of bad fuel economy for “national competitiveness.” “No” to the builders of coal-fired power plants. “No” to agribusiness. And finally, “no” to American citizens who want their consumption of energy, goods, and food to remain what it is! Inured to criticism, as fat as he liked and, by this stage, wearing a full beard like Tolstoy or Karl Marx, Al Gore would say “yes” to the American poor, then to everyone below the median income, then to a secure middle class—yes to a redistribution of wealth, the essential social change which could go hand in hand with a more modest, nonpolluting, nonwasteful nation. Yes to transforming our expectations about how many goods and resources we are entitled to, by securing the birthright of equality for all!
Impossible and stupid? Antidemocratic, because Gore would be calling the shots without compromise, legislative representation, or polls? Yes, all of those things. I kept thinking of my fantasy under the name “Only a Gore Can Save Us,” to remind myself that dictator-fantasies lead nowhere good: “Only a God can save us” is remembered in intellectual history as a troubling phrase from Martin Heidegger, a sign of his willingness to leave the future—and all its problems—to mysticism, or to some other force outside of normal politics.
As early as 1992, Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man told us that two exigencies remained that, were they ever fully to flower, would interrupt his vision of universal history as the gradual progress of democracy, free markets, and the economic development of the entire world. One was radical Islam; the other, “environmental collapse.” (He also included world-destroying nuclear war, a possibility we shouldn’t entirely remove from our radar.)
Fukuyama was neither a seer nor a soothsayer. September 11 did not inaugurate Islamic eschatological ideology nor the right’s opportunistic and strategic responses to it. Nor did the current melting close to the poles inaugurate ecological ideology and the left’s strategic recognition of it as a means to antigrowth economic reorganization. I remember reading news articles about global warming (then called the “greenhouse effect”) for the first time around 1987; Congressional hearings on the dangers of global warming were held in 1988 and 1989, the latter chaired by a beardless Gore. Fukuyama was paying intelligent attention to think-tank briefings at Cato or RAND or even the SSRC that described where political advantage could be gained within the framework of possible global futures.
In other words, there is indeed, and has long been, a correspondence in strategic political thinking between forms of “emergency” demands to be made in response to radical Islam and those to be made for ecological catastrophe. It has become clear that the vivid threat of catastrophes (a worldwide push by violent antimodern Islamism, the melting of the polar caps and oceanic inundation of significant parts of the dry surface of the earth), without their full realization, can allow portions of the right and left to push for preemptive settlements which favor their ultimate ends. The right pushes in the “war on terror” for the preemptive dominance of existing concentrations of wealth, backed by US military power, in the economic development of recalcitrant parts of the world.
The left might have the opportunity, in the crisis of global warming, to preempt as well—to tip the ongoing rulemaking of the economic world-system in favor of regulation rather than laissez-faire; to restrain the growth of current concentrations of capital within extracting and polluting sectors; and to reintroduce an essentially aesthetic criterion into the ongoing dollar valuation of the entire world. Aesthetic in this good sense, which ought to benefit rich and poor alike: “I like the beauty of air I can breathe, trees I can see, food that doesn’t poison me, the continued existence of animals seen and unseen.”
How bad would such preemption be? And how bad were my Gore fantasies, really?
The two greatest victories for the left in the history of the United States occurred under conditions of a state of emergency and within a security paradigm. They both involved Presidents who abused their Constitutional limits (without permanently damaging our system) for purposes of human equality and liberation.
One victory was the emancipation of slaves under Lincoln, a Republican, in the declared emergency of the Civil War—followed by a less than universally beloved Fourteenth Amendment which allowed both the immediate liberation of American blacks as equal rights-holders and the late-20th-century eruption of a range of equal protections for other groups.
The other was the creation of the modern liberal welfare state by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, in the apparent emergency of an economic depression which his policies may or may not have done much to solve before the arrival of increased production in the Second World War. Yet his efforts gained the country Social Security, a revision of the tax code to really levy greater taxes on the rich and on corporations, the National Labor Relations Board and a guarantee of collective bargaining backed by the government, the insurance of small account-holders reliant on large banks, and a general acceptance of the role of government to regulate the economy, protect the middle class, and actively aid the worst-off. (Gourevitch, in his professional activities, begins with FDR and the New Deal in his work on the origin of “security” politics in America. “Social Security,” after all, has its name for a reason. As was true of the key elements of the welfare state worldwide, Social Security partook of a version of the security paradigm in which the pacification of the conditions of life for individuals was modeled on defense in a state of war.)
FDR was, in his way, the closest thing the US had to a dictator before the time of George W. Bush. Elected to four terms in office, working with Democratic majorities in both houses for his key legislation, he was also the progenitor of a failed and utterly illegal and unconstitutional attempt to pack the Supreme Court when it got in his way. The steady expansion of executive power in the US in the 20th century has meant that Presidents can rub up against these opportunities of emergency power with increasing frequency, even when the electorate hasn’t voted them in with large legislative majorities to back their programs. As a long-range goal, it would be a great blessing to diminish or even nearly eradicate the presidency and restore the Congress as the mainspring of democratic representation. In the short term, however, we face the prospect, in our two-party system, essentially of swapping tyrants. With a genuine climate crisis facing us, and necessary measures to halt it which will often be opposed to business interests, and which will be international in scope (in international conflicts it may be that the executive branch, rather than the Congress, moves more sure-footedly and effectively), it really seems preferable to have a tyrant concerned with global warming, even to the point of “emergency.”
So: Ecological catastrophe does inspire fantasies on the left of a state of emergency. This, in turn, does mirror elements of the deceitful war on terror. It does operate within a security paradigm. But given the present goals and constitution of the US left, this may not be such a bad thing. The left retains, in its inner character, goals of liberation and safeguards against violence which the right does not. Thus, tyrannical though it can sound, one has to say that there may be advantages for all humanity, and fewer risks to human life, from a left emergency: from “our” emergency rather than theirs, from “our” security rather than theirs.
This one-sided sense of right is easier to declare as a matter of principle, however, because it seems likely to have so few firm consequences. The reality of the political situation is deflating, depressing, but safely “political” by Gourevitch’s standards. The Democratic party, potential gatekeeper of change to help the environment, will not represent the liberatory left. Measures to mitigate global warming, if taken, will occur within an economic order where capitalism, at best in the form of “mixed economy,” and most likely within pro-growth (and pro-inequality) models, will blunt or co-opt whatever radical social possibilities exist within ecological critique.
As for the antidemocratic threat lurking inside the left fantasy of an emergency “of our own”—a left overriding of citizens’ wishes—it is unlikely to come true not only because really dramatic changes in our lives or economy seem unlikely, but because citizens’ wishes change in a different and less-governmentalized fashion than we acknowledge. This is where Gourevitch’s gestures toward “bare life” and a biological politics of citizen health become so important. It’s easy to assume that Americans care most about their short-term economic interests: we want low gas prices, more power and more resource consumption more cheaply, and are ready to let future generations go hang (or roast, or learn to swim above the new Atlantis that was New York). And yet if you look at other aspirations and behaviors—in dieting, nonsmoking, exercise, medical remedies—you get a different sense of Americans, as a nation of people who like to go along with self-deprivation and self-regulation (plus purchases of many new products!) to transform and secure their sense of a permanent, endlessly remediable self. The extension from care-of-self to care-of-planet-around-self is only a tiny step. These impulses begin altogether apart from presidential or top-level politics; they are considered eminently democratic because government links are so distant. Problems are publicized by assorted grassroots and government-private groups, reported by the news media, then inundated with “expertise” that ranges between hard science and lifestyle-tip rumor. The media-driven desire for an “environment-friendly” self-regulation, too, will ultimately be pushed along by new business interests devoted to serving or exploiting the new healthy (in this case, “green”) individual.
This may be where we are heading with global warming: to a similar mixture of the ascetic and the expansive, health- and world-transformation as personal lifestyle satisfaction. Suppose, for instance, that the campaign against global warming turns out to resemble less the war on terror than the campaign against public smoking. You’ll get a democratically acceptable list of disappointments: the slight paternalism of slow public changes of habit, rather than vigorous public argument; “political” measures which may not go far enough to save us from environmental consequences, but aren’t tyrannical either; and changes in daily life with which “politics” as such seem to have nothing to do. A top-down “politics of fear” will not be the issue. The populace will be working on itself in the name of the globe.