Climate politics has moved to centre stage.footnote1 Even as pockets of denialism persist, political actors of multiple hues are turning green. A new generation of activist youth is insisting that we cease to evade the mortal threat posed by global warming. Chastising elders for stealing their future, these militants claim the right and responsibility to take all necessary steps to save the planet. At the same time, movements for degrowth are gaining strength. Convinced that consumerist lifestyles are driving us into the abyss, they seek a transformation of ways of living. Likewise, indigenous communities, North and South, have been winning wider support for struggles only lately recognized as ecological. Long engaged in defending their habitats and livelihoods from colonial invasion and corporate extractivism, they find new allies today among those seeking non-instrumental ways of relating to nature. Feminists, too, are infusing new urgency into long held ecological concerns. Positing psycho-historical links between gynophobia and contempt for the Earth, they mobilize for forms of life that sustain reproduction—both social and natural. Meanwhile, a new wave of anti-racist activism includes environmental injustice among its targets. Adopting an expansive view of what it means to ‘defund the police’, the Movement for Black Lives demands a massive redirection of resources to communities of colour, in part to clean up toxic deposits that ravage health.
Even social democrats, lately complicit with or demoralized by neoliberalism, are finding new life in climate politics. Reinventing themselves as proponents of a Green New Deal, they aim to recoup lost working-class support by linking the shift to renewable energy with high-paying union jobs. Not to be left out, strands of rightwing populism are also greening. Embracing eco-national-chauvinism, they propose to preserve ‘their own’ green spaces and natural resources by excluding (racialized) ‘others’. Forces in the Global South are also engaged on several fronts. While some claim a ‘right to development’, insisting that the burden of mitigation should fall on northern powers that have been spewing greenhouse gases for two hundred years, others advocate ‘commoning’ or a ‘solidary and social economy’; while still others, donning the environmentalist mantle, utilize neoliberal carbon-offset schemes to enclose lands, dispossess those who live from them and capture new forms of monopoly rent. Finally, corporate and financial interests have skin in the game. Profiting handsomely from booming speculation in eco-commodities, they are invested not just economically but also politically in ensuring the global climate regime remains market-centred and capital-friendly.
Eco-politics, in a word, has become ubiquitous. No longer the exclusive property of stand-alone environmental movements, climate change now appears as a pressing matter on which every political actor must take a stand. Incorporated into a slew of competing agendas, the issue is variously inflected according to the differing commitments with which it keeps company. The result, beneath a superficial consensus, is a roiling dissensus. On the one hand, growing numbers of people now view global warming as a threat to life as we know it on Planet Earth. On the other hand, they do not share a common view of the societal forces that drive that process—nor of the societal changes required to stop it. They agree (more or less) on the science but disagree (more than less) on the politics.footnote2
Yet the terms ‘agree’ and ‘disagree’ are too pallid to capture the situation. Present-day eco-politics unfolds within, and is marked by, an epochal crisis. A crisis of ecology, to be sure, but also one of economy, society, politics and public health—that is, a general crisis whose effects metastasize everywhere, shaking confidence in established worldviews and ruling elites. The result is a crisis of hegemony—and a ‘wilding’ of public space. No longer tamed by a ruling commonsense that forecloses out-of-the-box options, the political sphere is now the site of a frantic search not just for better policies, but for new political projects and ways of living. Gathering well before the Covid outbreak, but greatly intensified by it, this ‘unsettled atmosphere’ permeates eco-politics, which perforce unfolds within it. Climate dissensus is fraught, accordingly, not ‘only’ because the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance, nor ‘only’ because time is short, but also because the political climate, too, is wracked by turbulence.
In this situation, safeguarding the planet requires building a counter-hegemony. What is needed is to resolve the present cacophony of opinion into an eco-political commonsense that can orient a broadly shared project of transformation. Certainly, such a commonsense must cut through the mass of conflicting views and identify exactly what in society must be changed to stop global warming—effectively linking the authoritative findings of climate science to an equally authoritative account of the socio-historical drivers of climate change. To become counter-hegemonic, however, a new commonsense must transcend the ‘merely environmental’. Addressing the full extent of our general crisis, it must connect its ecological diagnosis to other vital concerns—including livelihood insecurity and denial of labour rights; public disinvestment from social reproduction and chronic undervaluation of carework; ethno-racial-imperial oppression and gender and sex domination; dispossession, expulsion and exclusion of migrants; militarization, political authoritarianism and police brutality. These concerns are intertwined with and exacerbated by climate change, to be sure. But the new commonsense must avoid reductive ‘ecologism’. Far from treating global warming as a trump card that overrides everything else, it must trace that threat to underlying societal dynamics that also drive other strands of the present crisis. Only by addressing all major facets of this crisis, ‘environmental’ and ‘non-environmental’, and by disclosing the connections among them, can we begin to build a counter-hegemonic bloc that backs a common project and possesses the political heft to pursue it effectively.
This is a tall order. But what brings it within the realm of the possible is a ‘happy coincidence’: all roads lead to one idea—namely, capitalism. Capitalism, in the sense I shall define below, represents the socio-historical driver of climate change, and the core institutionalized dynamic that must be dismantled in order to stop it. But capitalism, so defined, is also deeply implicated in seemingly non-ecological forms of social injustice—from class exploitation to racial-imperial oppression and gender and sexual domination. And capitalism figures centrally, too, in seemingly non-ecological societal impasses—in crises of care and social reproduction; of finance, supply chains, wages and work; of governance and de-democratization. Anti-capitalism, therefore, could—indeed, should—become the central organizing motif of a new commonsense. Disclosing the links among multiple strands of injustice and irrationality, it represents the key to developing a powerful counter-hegemonic project of eco-societal transformation.
That, at any rate, is the thesis I shall argue here. In what follows, I unfold it on three different levels, which complement and reinforce one another. Making the case, first, on the structural level, I contend that capitalism, rightly understood, harbours a deep-seated ecological contradiction, which inclines it non-accidentally to environmental crisis. But far from standing alone, I claim, this contradiction is entwined with several others, equally endemic to capitalism, and cannot be adequately addressed in abstraction from them. Shifting, next, to the historical register, I chart the specific forms that capitalism’s ecological contradiction has assumed in the various phases of the system’s development, up to and including the present. Contra single-issue ecologism, this history discloses the pervasive entanglement of eco-crisis and eco-struggle with other strands of crisis and struggle, from which they have never been fully separable in capitalist societies. Turning, finally, to the political level, I contend that eco-politics today must transcend the ‘merely environmental’ by becoming anti-systemic across the board. Foregrounding global warming’s entwinement with other pressing facets of our general crisis, I claim that green movements should turn trans-environmental, positioning themselves as participants in an emerging counter-hegemonic bloc, centred on anti-capitalism, which could, at least in principle, save the planet.