A catastrophe is approaching, and we react with lethargy. Why? A new book looks for explanations - and finds them in the failings of politics.
Bar a dwindling core of climate deniers and those with their heads buried in the steadily warming sand, we all now know what is happening. The climate is in crisis. An existential threat that scientists have warned of for decades is in our faces. But beyond the individual acts of perhaps recycling more or flying less, what are we really doing about it?
In a new and unusual book, two academics and big thinkers explore the still gaping chasm between climate awareness and meaningful action. They are not talking about direct action, such as protest marches or the yellow spray-painting of priceless watercolours, but the collective failure of society to organise behind some kind of unifying, ecological class struggle.
“On the Emergence of an Ecological Class” is written jointly by the renowned French philosopher and academic polymath Bruno Latour, and Nikolaj Schultz, a young Danish sociologist based in Paris for whom Latour, who died last October, aged 75, was something of a mentor.
Schultz describes the slim volume not as an essay or a manifesto, but rather “a memorandum, understood as a set of discussion points that we believe green activists and parties could and should use and discuss if political ecology is going to become a strong, autonomous, consistent political ideology that can compete on equal terms with the old ideologies that defined the previous centuries.” The old ideologies he talks about are e.g., conservatism, liberalism and socialism.
The academics identify a degree of complacency or naivety among those who have pushed for change. “A strong ideology, and in the end a strong party, as we know historically, need ideas,” Schultz says. “But sometimes, it seems the climate movements thought people would simply act just by seeing the disaster approaching.”
As the pair put it in their book, which is made up of a series of 76 bitesize talking points: “Political ecology” has so far succeeded only in “panicking hearts and minds or making people yawn with boredom”.
Schultz is not surprised that an ecological class consciousness has been slow to take root. History shows that such cohesion is a long game. He compares it to the emergence of a working class. In his seminal 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class, the socialist historian E.P Thompson described how that process took a good 100 years. “The problem today is, obviously, that we do not have that much time,” Schultz says.
To reach a social tipping point, at which momentum would build behind some kind of ecological class, the chief actors, including ecologists and green parties, must play a swift game of catch-up. And Schultz says that the lessons are there in the history books.
“Perhaps the first thing would be to learn to even have an ideology, including a whole system of ideas, notions, visions for society, aesthetics, images and so on - all the things that allow people to be politically affected and mobilise them for political action. The green party and ecologists in general haven’t done all the work - philosophical, sociological, cultural - it takes to construct such an inventory.”
There will be hurdles along the way, yet some may turn out to be platforms. For example, the book argues that the emerging ecological class is trying to become self aware just as politics becomes ever more fragmented and divisive. “The very moment we need a massive input of political energy, it’s lacking because it hasn’t been cultivated,” they write, describing the “appalling emptiness of the public space”. Yet they also argue that this void is waiting to be filled - from below at the grassroots level.
A thread of optimism runs through the book, which isn’t about why an ecological class should and could emerge, but how one is emerging - and fast - even if, as the authors write, we can only “divine the emergence… through a thick fog”.
Nonetheless, parts of the work can feel slightly abstract. Schultz offers an example of where ecological class alliances can already be seen. He spent Christmas in his home city of Aarhus in Denmark. There, a diverse cross section of society is gathering and organising in opposition to the expansion of the industrial harbour because of its varied impact on marine life, carbon emissions, air pollution and much-loved amenities, including a beach.
“In terms of traditional ‘social class’ categories, this is a completely heterogeneous group of people, yet they emerge as a sort of geo-social collective - another division of an ecological class - due to their shared interests in limiting [the project] and its destructive consequences,” Schultz explains. “So people are already defining and positioning themselves differently according to new lines of conflict.”
In his next book, Land Sickness, published later this year, Schultz explores the case of Porquerolles, a French island in the Mediterranean where a tourism boom has bound together communities with varying concerns about its impact on the island’s fate
The greatest barrier to change, however organised, has been awareness, which has at least transformed in the past decade or so. “Everybody agrees that the ecological question is the question of our times, that we inhabit a different Earth than we thought we did, and that we need to construct a realistic link between politics, the people, and the earth we inhabit,” Schultz says.
The final note in the book is hopeful, arguing as it does against the conclusion that could be drawn from such a “memo” that there is too much to change, with too little time, for an ecological class to have a chance of ever “competing with the current ruling classes”. But the authors argue that everything is at least now in place. “As Paul Veyne noted, the great upheavals are sometimes as simple as the movement a sleeper makes turning over in bed…”