“The first sign of a bankrupt form of society is that the ruling classes cannot agree how to save the situation.” — CLR James

Ever since the effective collapse of the Copenhagen Climate Summit, I’ve been thinking about how we represent survival and futurity in a conjuncture in which hegemonic ideology is so clearly bankrupt and the ruling classes in the world’s most powerful nations are so transparently unwilling to take the steps necessary to save civilization.

One the one hand, it seems important to note that, with the failure of Copenhagen, humanity (as well as most of the planet’s flora and fauna) is truly in dire straits. Heading into the conference, activists such as Bill McKibben joined scientists such as James Hansen to argue that humanity needed to agree on a plan to diminish atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 350ppm in order to forestall run-away climate change (we are currently approaching 400ppm, with an increase of roughly 3ppm annually). Meanwhile, there seems little chance that any legislation to address climate change will get through the US Congress, and the legislation that passed the House of Representatives is so toxic that it’s better left as a dead letter.

In addition, lack of action in the U.S. gives developing countries such as China, which recently surpassed the U.S. in terms of cumulative emissions, a perfect excuse not to cut back their own atmospheric pollution. Finally, a recent analysis by scientists at M.I.T.’s Sustainability Institute concludes that the emissions reduction pledges agreed to at Copenhagen would allow global mean temperature to increase approximately 3.9° Celsius, a level that could see global warming run out of control. “Under the current proposals, global emissions of greenhouse gases would increase 0.8C a year between now and 2020,” the joint report warned. In short, we seem to be witnessing a scramble for the atmosphere akin to the scramble for Africa unleashed by inter-imperial competition during the European colonial era; we all know where such inter-imperial competition led.

On the other hand, it makes little sense to panic. As Neil Smith and Cindy Katz argue, apocalyptic rhetoric (environmental and otherwise) almost always plays into the hands of the forces of reaction. This is because apocalypticism essentially evacuates the political imaginary, implicitly seeding it to the Right. Sort of the way that the threat of a filibuster by the Republicans in the Senate has produced total gridlock that dooms any and all progressive legislation. Of course we need to develop both utopian and pragmatic responses to the current crisis if we progressive rather than neo-fascist solutions to the current crisis are ever going to gain any popular traction.

But if it’s true that millenarian thinking is dangerous, it’s nonetheless safe to say that we are currently living through a potent resurgence of the apocalyptic imaginary. Hollywood has been churning out end-of-the-world fictions — from 2012 to Avatar –with increasingly frenetic energy. I think this is an important phenomenon inasmuch as it at least registers the cul-de-sac into which ideologies of globalization and neoliberal deregulation (not to mention capitalism itself) have backed. Apocalypticism constitutes a distorted recognition of the crisis; better this that know-nothing climate change denialism. Against the know-nothing idiots in Washington who have been chortling in the past two weeks about the record snowfall and suggesting that this indicates that climate change is bunk, some sort of recognition of our calamitous future under a business-as-usual scenario is necessary.

What will the cultural politics of survival look like as we move into the dystopian future we are currently seeding? As Marc Abélès observes in his recently translated book The Politics of Survival, climate change and the crisis of the model of development disseminated globally by the U.S. over the last half century has placed a new paradigm of sustainable development at the core of emergent global geopolitics. This paradigm, to quote Abélès, “places the horizon of survival and threat at its center, orienting political action around that horizon.” How, Abélès asks, shall we define the politics of survival today? To this question, which I regard as the seminal question for our times, I would add that this attempt to define the politics of survival is a question of struggles for hegemony over what survival might mean, and who will be counted as human in projects to ensure survival.

Ashley Dawson

Ashley Dawson is professor of postcolonial studies in the English department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His latest books include People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.