For an Ecological Realpolitik

Pierre Charbonnier argues that post-carbon politics will be a new theater of rivalries organized around new infrastructures.

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Journal #114 - Pierre Charbonnier - For an Ecological Realpolitik

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Journal #114 - December 2020

Green New Deal poster developed for Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s campaign, 2020. Artist: Gavin Snider; Creative Director: Scott Starrett; Detailer Dayi Tofu, Maria Arenas; Type: Jamie Wilson. Copyright: Tandem, NYC

On September 22, 2020, Xi Jinping, the chairman of the People’s Republic of China, announced a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality before 2060. Here, then, is China, the world’s largest CO2 producer and leading industrial power, sometimes dubbed the “chimney of the world,” seemingly embarking on an unprecedented path of development.

In a text published a few days later, historian Adam Tooze unpacked the geopolitical implications of the announcement, which he sees as a major turning point in the international order.1 Given China’s strategic, environmental, and economic weight, Xi’s announcement—regardless of its subsequent implementation—could act like Archimedes’s lever and effect a profound realignment of commercial and industrial policies currently in place. But this announcement also means that an authoritarian ecology is on the march, which makes it urgent to reposition Europe’s environmentalist strategies to give democratic alternatives a chance.

In Europe, and especially in France, this news was greeted with extreme caution, when it was not met with silence. I would like to try to explain the reasons behind Europe’s inability to grasp the implications of the Chinese commitment, and what this inability says about the prevailing conception of the environment in our European provinces.

The first point that is absolutely crucial to stress, and which Tooze only implicitly indicates, is the monumental historical paradox that consists in making a show of political power by launching a program of fossil disarmament.

Ever since the emergence of industrial societies, particularly after World War II, the capacity to mobilize resources, especially energy resources, has coincided almost perfectly with influence on the global political scene. Coal and oil are not only the primary engines of a production capacity that generates high levels of consumption and a relative pacification of class conflict; they are also the stakes in cross-border projections of power designed to secure low-cost, steady supplies. The political order that emerged from World War II was obsessed, after the episode of fascism, with a search for stability (in the absence of genuine peace). It found an instrument of unparalleled power in the development of productive forces, serving both to ease internal tensions in industrial societies and to maintain the status quo between these nations and the new players that emerged from decolonization.

These historical dynamics explain the reluctance to pursue the path of an ecological revolution. Although earth system science has provided us with detailed evidence of the climate imperative, the inertia of the development paradigm and its percolating effect on both international relations and class relations have paralyzed the green turn. Without this engine of growth, how, one wonders, can “the social model” of industrial societies be preserved, and how, one wonders on the other side of the world, can the demands of development be satisfied?

The announcement by the chairman of China disrupts this logic—hence its historical importance. With the United States mired in a democratic crisis and Europe stuck in its wait-and-see attitude, China has taken the lead and opened a breach by signaling that it is now possible, indeed necessary, to pursue power politics without relying on fossil fuels. It goes without saying that China’s plan for financing a decarbonized production infrastructure in no way means that the country is abandoning its dream of geostrategic influence and development, but simply that from now on it intends to ground its power—both its economic engine and its strategic base—in other material possibilities.

In doing this, China is killing two birds with one stone. It is responding to science by preparing for a future in which global warming is limited, and it is consolidating its internal and external legitimacy by appearing as a responsible actor aligned with the objectives announced in the Paris Agreement. Tooze, as an historian of the economics of war, makes perfectly clear the simultaneously realistic and moral character of Xi’s announcement. We cannot continue to content ourselves with a debate that pits self-serving intentions geared toward power gains against purer intentions aimed at the global common good. Both dimensions are present in the Chinese announcement, and we must be prepared for them to be constantly mixed together in the years to come.

But this also takes on significance in terms of political philosophy, and this is no doubt what we missed in Europe. If it is true, as I have suggested in Abondance et liberté (Abundance and freedom), that human interests in the political sphere always depend on material possibilities (more or less perceived as such), then we must admit that we are living through a fundamental shift in these geo-ecological assemblages. While we have long been asking ourselves the question of the perpetuation of a legitimate political power—that is, of a democratization of capitalism—in the context of an ecological and energy shift, we must now accept the idea that such shifts will instead feed processes of relegitimization and power consolidation. This utterly crucial reversal in the materiality of modern politics is being played out before our very eyes. The shaping of post-carbon politics is not a peaceful landing in the world of shared interests, but rather a theater of rivalries organized around new infrastructures, new assemblages between political power and the mobilization of the earth.

The second point to stress is more directly related to the movement for the climate and the environment (the red-green universe) as it exists in the West. In recent years there has been a rapprochement in Europe and in the United States between the political imaginary of the traditional social-issues left, heir to the workers’ movement, and that of political ecology. Admittedly, the compromise between these two worlds remains quite fragile, to the extent that the alignment between the exploitation of humans and of nature is debatable. But a strategic pact is nonetheless taking shape around reactivating economic interventionism, in a play on references to the postwar period. The Green New Deal, in its significantly varied American and European versions, does not yet structure investment plans that are both capable of meeting the challenge and truly rooted in social justice objectives, but it has imposed itself as the common ground of the Western left.

Yet the strength of the Green New Deal is also its weakness. This plan for economic and social reconstruction aims to break through the barrier of the employment problem by subordinating energy transition to wealth redistribution, control of investment channels, and even job guarantees. Thus defined, this project runs the risk of preserving the structural inequities between Global North and Global South. Whereas the so-called “developing” countries will lack the means to finance such plans, their partners to the North will have the wherewithal to reinvest their techno-scientific capital in a renovation that will only enhance their “lead” and their security. This paradox, which Tooze recently analyzed, is all the more embarrassing for the social-ecological left inasmuch as it compromises its rallying cry, namely the discourse of inclusion and global justice. Seen from the Global South, the Green New Deal often looks like a consolidation of the advantages gained during the colonial period of extractivism, and also like a lifeboat for advanced economies at a time of global disturbances.

Since at least the 1990s, Western environmentalism has been the subject of scathing criticism, notably from India. Ramachandra Guha, for instance, exposed the colonial and racist imaginary of the “wilderness” that enabled Americans to cleanse their urban and industrial guilty conscience by way of natural parks, which were established by evicting indigenous populations. This colonial disorder, which accompanies the environmental policies of the wealthy, continues to a certain extent with the paradox of the Green New Deal. There has long been a gap between ecology’s universalist, moral discourse, including when it is linked to social issues, and the darker reality of the structural, material inequities that it struggles to offset. We know therefore that ecology’s moral superiority does not amount to much, that it is something to be forged rather than posited. Peaceful ideas are often intimately bound up with a violent world.

And in this respect, too, the Chinese decision has upended the game. Indeed, the plan Xi announced to phase out fossil fuel dependence is based neither on a moral argument with regard to the environmental ravages caused by extractive industrialism, nor on the desire to curb or abolish the system of capitalist exploitation. It simply seeks to modify its material foundation, in what could be called an eco-modernist perspective, which is not incompatible with power ambitions. It so happens that, because of the Chinese economy’s weight on a global scale, this plan—decided in a vertical, top-down fashion—is likely to have beneficial consequences for the global climate, and hence for all of humanity (which is what distinguishes it from a similar plan adopted in France, for example). At the same time, the plan is but a lateral consequence of global power-game decisions made in Beijing—a game the chairman of China knows how to play well.

We Europeans tend to think (and I am no exception) that the ecological question has taken over from a liberating movement that has run out of steam. We think, in other words, that environmentalism enshrines the social demands of equality and freedom in a new regime of production and consumption that could loosen the hold of economic exploitation and individualist anomie. In short, the point is to promote the emergence of a new social type, breaking with the one that accompanied the period of rapid growth, and rely on this to reactivate the process of democratization and social inclusion that has come to a standstill. This project can be used to disqualify the Chinese announcement, to assert that it does not rise to the challenge or that it resolves the problem through authoritarian means. That may well be. But by adopting this strategy (and I believe that this is the prevailing attitude in these spheres), we run the risk of not fully grasping the geopolitical and ideological waters in which we are navigating willy-nilly, and hence of not grasping the historical sense of our own project.

Green New Deal poster developed for Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s campaign, 2020. Artist: Gavin Snider; Creative Director: Scott Starrett; Detailer Dayi Tofu, Maria Arenas; Type: Jamie Wilson. Copyright: Tandem, NYC.

Indeed, it is simplistic to imagine that the conflict in which we are caught pits exploiting, alienating, and extractive capitalism against a political ecology of reconciliation between human beings, and between humans and nonhumans. This would be the consequence of conflating the countercultural lexicon of environmentalism with the lexicon of social critique in the red-green universe: ecology or barbarism. But now we find ourselves in a situation where aging fossil capitalism, mired in its material and social contradictions, coexists with a state capitalism engaged in accelerated decarbonization, and with the more demanding and radical path of reinventing the meaning of progress and the social value of production. If we accept this description of the situation, as clearly rudimentary as it is, Europe’s red-green left takes on a different significance. It is then no longer locked in a binary confrontation with capitalism (reputed to be unfailingly fossil) in which it embodies the frontline of progress, invested as it is with a universal mission. The Chinese model that is being developed provides a third term, a third model of development, which is both compatible with the global climate aims defined in the 2016 Paris Agreement and possibly in tension with the green ideal of democracy that the social-ecological movement advocates.

Otherwise put, political ecology loses its status as the unique countermodel; it loses its ability to impose itself in debates as an anti-hegemonic political form. Two questions follow from this. First, what kind of alliance will it establish with the Chinese model to safeguard at least what is essential on a strictly climatic level, at the risk of no longer having “clean hands”? And, symmetrically, how will it make its specificity heard with regard to this new paradigm?

The European social-ecological left must figure out whether the Chinese announcement has “stolen the spotlight,” so to speak, by embodying the central path towards breaking the climate impasse, or whether, by a more complex game of three players, which also involves relations with the United States, it opens a breach that must be entered without delay. This breach is quite simply the definitive weakening of fossil capitalism, that is, of the American way of life (indeed, the US appears to be the weakest player on the global political and economic scene right now), consequently opening the possibility of a more direct debate between China and Europe. To put the question even more simply: What political forms should undergird the ecological turn? European ecology must take a turn towards realism. This does not mean it has to embark on an aggressive, pugnacious debate with other geopolitical players, but it must abandon its harmful habit of expressing itself in consensual, pacifying, and even moralizing terms, and agree to play on a complex political terrain.

After all, this dimension has always been present in the history of social welfare, even though we don’t always like to be reminded of these things. The development of systems of protection began in Prussia; and, in a way, Xi Jinping is a little like the Bismarck of ecology: he does not so much listen to the demands of environmental justice as he anticipates them in order to silence them. The postwar advances in social rights in Europe are incomprehensible outside the geopolitical game that combines the specter of fascism, the war to be stamped out, the Bolshevik possibility, and American influence. As a British political representative put it, “The National Health Service is a by-product of the blitz.”2 The fact is that emancipation is not always, and not even primarily, won through expressions of moral generosity; it is also a matter of power. The figure of Lenin seems to be making a return to favor in critical thought, perhaps precisely because ecology has not yet found its Lenin.

The ecology movement should therefore agree to talk about strategy, conflict, and security; it should present itself as a dynamics of building a political form that assumes the idea of power without scaling back on social and democratic demands. In fact, these demands can only be achieved if they are invested into specifically political reflections and practices. But for this to be possible, we have to leave behind our tendency toward moral depoliticization, because we no longer have a monopoly on the critique of the fossil development paradigm. A new arena is emerging, and we have no choice but to launch ourselves into it.

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Translated from the French by Gila Walker.

This essay originally appeared as “Le tournant réaliste de l’écologie politique,” Le Grand Continent, September 30, 2020:

Pierre Charbonnier is a French philosopher, a teacher at Sciences Po in Paris, and currently a research fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). He is the author of Affluence and Freedom: An Environmental History of Political Ideas (original French edition 2020, forthcoming in English from Polity, 2021).

© 2020 e-flux and the author

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