The Crisis in the Climate Change Crisis

Paul VanDerWerf via Flickr.

Paul VanDerWerf via Flickr.

On Earth Day, tens of thousands of protestors gathered in Washington DC and elsewhere to draw attention not only to the crisis of climate change and other forms of environmental emergency but also to defend scientific reasoning in public policy. That this was but one of numerous large protest gatherings this year about a variety of issues, ranging from immigration to gender equity to health care, might leave supporters and skeptics asking, is climate change really “a crisis”? Everywhere we look there are crises today, leading to proliferating calls to mobilize specific domains as existential dangers. Why focus on this one now?

On the one hand, the answer is obvious: The Trump administration has made it matter of principle to oppose or otherwise undermine efforts to address climate change and undercut both environmental science and regulatory agencies. Stopping the administration’s agenda is politically urgent.

Yet, the bigger issue here predates Trump. Climate change is a particular kind of crisis, and one that has come to the fore in a cultural context where “crises” are ubiquitous. The predicament points to what might be thought of as the crisis of “crisis. “Crisis” itself is in crisis, such that both the structure and urgency of the crisis of climate change could elude us.

In the case of climate change, the protestors on Earth Day could point toward a number of material realties to justify the language of crisis. During the Obama administration, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency tracked a range of key climate indicators: increased coastal and river flooding, distinct shifts in patterns of human disease, changes in marine species distribution affect livelihoods, and, of course, the melting polar caps. (Trump’s EPA has since removed these indicators from the EPA website, relegating them to a historical archive.)

But it is apparent enough that climate change isn’t the only crisis we’re being asked to worry about. In some sectors of our media, the future is imagined solely as a slide into greater and greater degrees of structural chaos. And thanks to this narrative saturation, the power of crisis to shock and mobilize seems to be diminishing. So what happens to real and urgent crises in a world saturated in crisis talk?  And in these conditions, how does crisis become counter-revolutionary, a way to restore the very conditions for crisis to emerge?

“Crisis” is a longstanding watchword of modernity. Crisis and utopia were two motivations that structured the modernist Euro-American project of social engineering, technocracy, and the welfare state. State-sponsored efforts to improve society were, oddly, premised on the danger of society’s collapse: looking to the future with hope for progress also meant living with fear of catastrophe.

During the twentieth century, no technology exemplified this crisis-and-utopia dynamic better than the atomic bomb. In the Cold War, nuclear weapons came to stand for the prospect civilization-wide destruction, even as they were propagated as guarantors of American and European peace and prosperity. The bomb was a great human crisis, an antidote to one, and the symbol of an unimaginable future human crisis, the End.

Contemporary media depictions of climate change now offer a vision of end-times to rival that of the nuclear danger. But if the global nuclear apocalypse is characterized by its shocking immediacy, climate change is so incremental that it is difficult in any given moment to sense a change in the environment. Climate change is a cumulative- and momentum-driven process that operates on such a vast scale that it raises basic questions about human perception, memory, and ability to visualize a planetary-scale problem. In other words, the crisis in this particular crisis is epistemological, ethical, and political in a way that none of the other crises in our crisis-saturated world are. We have learned, perhaps, to think of crisis globally, but we have not learned to think of crisis in terms of geological time or to understand the force of technological revolution on everyday life across finance, industry, war, and communications.

My colleague Dipesh Chakrabarty at the University of Chicago has pointed out how climate change merges human history with natural history in a new way, radically undercutting our understanding of economic progress and development. This swallowing of human time by geological time forces us to think on unfamiliar scales—such as the planet—and to think not of populations and nation-states but species-level effects on earth systems involving atmosphere, glaciers, oceans, geology, and the biosphere. Climate change challenges our current political, economic, and industrial orders, requiring not only a reverse engineering of energy infrastructures to prevent a deepening ecological crisis but also new conceptual structures that can work on novel scales and temporalities.

The language of collective social improvement itself, however, has all but disappeared from political debates in the United States, a victim of a post–welfare state mentality and neoliberal economics. “Progress” is no longer tied to collective social conditions (e.g., the elimination of poverty) but to the boom and bust of markets and changes in consumer technology product cycles.

In fact, crises are now being crafted and enhanced by both state action and state inaction. The deregulation of hydraulic fracturing has made petrochemical energy inexpensive and abundant by historical standards at precisely the moment when it would be most socially and environmentally sound to make it ever more expensive. If the logics of market determinism were good at responding to the future at the scale of the climate crisis, the United States would not be embracing shale with such unrestrained enthusiasm. The ever-shorter profit cycle of corporate review is opposed to the need long-term investments in renewable energy, and “profit” itself is so narrowly defined that a loss of the collective environment is easier to imagine than a shift in the nature of petro-capitalism.

As a result, we are now facing a three-fold crisis in the crisis of climate change: climate change and its material consequences; a crisis in our conceptual structures that struggle to work on novel scales and temporalities to address climate change; and the crisis of crisis saturation, especially in our media narratives.  Put differently, if we removed “crisis talk” from politics today—what would be left to talk about?

It is clear we need new ways of thinking not only about climate change but about collective danger across multiple domains. Even more, we need to generate non-utopian but nevertheless positive futurities, replacing “crisis talk” with critical projects that can reactivate the world-making powers of society.

Joseph Masco is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. This piece is based on his recently published essay “The Crisis in Crisis” in Current Anthropology 58.S15 (February 2017).

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