Ecological Depression

Ecological depression may become an acceptable diagnosis for an increasing number of people. It is characterised by feelings of impotence and despair when confronted with the massive scale of socio-environmental destruction in our world. It leads to paralysis. In today’s news cycle, not only are environmental problems under-reported, they also tend to be assimilated to the never-ending cycle of doom that tips people into anxiety instead of action. We are vertigo patients unable to cross the shaky bridge, frozen in place, making the crossing ever more difficult.

As Bruno Latour lucidly chronicles in Down to Earth, the issue of climate change is not just an atmospheric event, but rather a total even, a change in the total system, social, cultural, political, ecological. The only part that seems to, so far, resist the change is the economic part, which some are desperately trying to patch up. Big chunks of the political class have been, everywhere, incorporated into the moneyed class and have therefore become cynical and irresponsible enough to accept socio-environmental destruction on a massive scale, thinking that, somehow, their children will escape. This flight from reality is, argues Latour, at the basis of climate denial (in the likes of Republicans in the US).

But if we think of climate change as a total event, as everything changing, then we all are, in one way or another, in climate denial. The inertia of our economic system, driven by growth and consumerism, seems to be overwhelming, and ecological depression keeps this feeling alive, as if nothing we could do matters. In one sense, this is true; it is probably not individual consumer choices that will change our current suicidal system.  However, though not flying for holidays or going vegan is not going to change the overall system, there are other actions that just might.

An attendant symptom of ecological depression is the idea that nobody knows what currently existing capitalism can be replaced with. This notion is given intellectual weight by critical theorists on the left, echoing the often-repeated formulation by Frederic Jameson, from 1994, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Indeed, for many this seems to have become the case. The ends of the world (also the title of a recent, and brilliant, book of critical theory) are made visible in daily images of plastic-choked animals and desolate landscapes, as well as the increasingly dire reports on the state of the planet. The end of (at least this kind of) capitalism, on the other hand, is almost never connected to the end of the world. In other words, in mainstream discourse, the inevitable conclusion that the only way to avert ‘the end of the world’ is by ending growth capitalism, is almost never made. One action that we, as individuals, can make, is to voice this logical conclusion. Intelligent and well-meaning people have to end their own climate denial at this very basic level: growth capitalism and this blue planet are incompatible.

Behind the idea that nobody really knows what to replace growth capitalism with sits the assumption that certain features of our current system are non-negotiable. To paraphrase Danowsky and De Castro, are we ready to live without plastic, cell phones, or air travel? First of all, it must be questioned who the ‘we’ is. For some, access to certain commodities might be non-negotiable, but surely not for everyone. And the question really should be reversed: are we (who is this we?) ready to live on a planet of ghettoes and gated communities just in order to have phones and plastic? But even this formulation rings hollow. Perhaps the best way to put the problem is thus: can human needs be fulfilled without that fulfillment causing irreparable harm to our environment, both social and ecological? The answer to this last question is an emphatic yes, as history has plenty of examples of societies where needs were fulfilled in radically different ways. It is immediately apparent how posing the question in a trenchant and clear way opens up clear and unambiguous answers. There is also no shortage of people alive today that have excellent ideas for just how to fulfill actual human needs.

It is simply not true that we do not know what can replace growth capitalism. There are as many viable proposals out there as there are desperate people. George Monbiot, for instance, is a great source of inspiration for things to do, and a great aggregator of other ideas about what is to be done. To pick just one random example: one way to fix the issue of overfishing, as he argues here, is to simply ban fishing on the high seas. The cost of this, in terms of the technology that would have to be used for enforcement, is risible. The effect would probably be more fish available for human consumption, as the non-fished areas would become breeding grounds fro many different species. This is the kind of simple solution that exists for almost any field of human activity. The problem is not the dearth of solutions, it is that actual solutions cut through powerful interests, because they mind the bullshit and jump to the point.

And this is where what we do matters, not in terms of what we consume today or tomorrow, but in terms of how we think about changing societal practices, and what we do about changing them. Civil disobedience is crucial in this regard, as is voting exclusively for politicians that have clear solutions for pressing issues, solutions that cut through the crap (single-use plastics are an unacceptable problem? A ban would do; industry would adapt). If these politicians don’t exist, it has never been easier to become a politician oneself. Similarly, protest movements are increasing, and they need bodies, yours as much as mine. We all need to become allies, in whatever way we can, of the students and the rebels taking over more and more streets. I understand that not everyone has the inclination or time or whatever it may be to join a protest. But everyone has something that they are good at, that they can do, to become allies in the cause of ending growth capitalism (from writing reports to lobbying to talking to friends that still harbour illusions of infinite growth).

Nobody knows what the name of the next economic system is. But this does not mean that nobody knows what kinds of things need to be done today in order to bring about a yet-unnamed state of affairs. On the critical left, there is, as always, the danger of infighting on petty definition or on the exact name of a future unknown. It doesn’t matter if degrowth or circular economies of permaculture or universal basic incomes will be dominant in the future. What does matter is that we insist on the viability of these ideas, all of them, today. Most clear progressive solutions are compatible with other clear progressive solutions; nobody should need to pledge allegiance to one particular ideology.

One benefit of our current predicament is that the enemy is clear: it is impossible to grow material consumption on a finite planet. The time of the apologists of growth is over. Their only advantage is inertia and the security of the known. But as the known becomes more and more unbearable, they are bound to lose. Let’s force that loss as quickly as possible, sparing as many as possible from living in an unlivable world, both materially and psychologically. Let’s cure our ecological depression with clear thinking and acting. Pick your favorite solution and go.

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