03 Dec

The Metaphysics of Climate Change

Posted By Politybooks

Ole BjergThe task of philosophy today, according to Slavoj Žižek, is not to provide answers but rather to show how our perception of a problem is sometimes part of the problem itself.  If we look at the field of climate politics today, Žižek’s critique does appear relevant. This field of politics is marked by a pervasive sense of urgency generated by calls to ‘Act now!’ and ‘Save the planet!’ On an immediate glance,these politics seem to have fully adopted Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways;the point is to change it.’ The premise of Marx’s thesis is, however, that the philosophers have already interpreted the world. This raises the question whether contemporary climate politics is informed by a sufficient analysis of the situation.

There is of course an abundance of scientific analyses documenting trends of global climate change, bio-diversity decrease, natural resource depletion, etc. Indeed such analyses are necessary in order to understand our current predicament. The problem, however, is that these studies lack a theory of humanity explaining, why it is at all worth saving in the first place. Humanity itself is not included in the world view of the natural sciences. At best we are merely just another species. The natural sciences tend to conceive of the world in purely physical terms thus excluding the domain of metaphysics. Let’s explore the possible implications of this through an analogy.

Imagine that an obese woman comes into psychoanalytical therapy. She is suffering from excessive eating habits that is now threatening her physical health and perhaps even her life. Would we approach her by weighing her, measuring her blood pressure and submitting her to a number of other medical tests and then proceed to explain to her how a continuation of her current lifestyle gives her 80 percent likelihood of dying within the next five years? And would we tell her that the cure for her problems is a healthy diet and daily exercise? The answer is obviously no. The risk of subjecting the obese woman to a purely medical and physical gaze is that it might inadvertently confirm her own unconscious knowledge that her body is indeed just a heap of flab and meat that is heading for complete self-destruction and not worthy of any kind of edifying care and tender beyond the quick stimuli of sugar, fat and salt. And also her subjective sense of self-confidence and worthiness may be shattered by the realization of the things she has done to her own body.

The calls for global action against climate change based on new and evermore gloomy scientific projections risk functioning in a similar fashion. Why care about nature, if it is broken anyway? And why try to save the human race, when our biggest accomplishment so far has been to destroy our own means of existence on the planet? Rather than repeating medical facts about obesity, health and nutrition, psychoanalysis would approach the obese woman by trying to uncover the way that her general structure of desire is structured around certain unconscious ideas about food, body and eating. In similar fashion, philosophy should not simply repeat the scientific facts about climate change, resource depletion, etc. but rather attempt to uncover, why contemporary capitalism is so attached to perpetual economic growth in the first place.

We should therefore also be sceptical towards the concept of green growth, which is often held forward as a solution. Solving our global climate crisis through green growth is the equivalent of trying to fight obesity by eating fat-free potato chips, drinking Coke Zero and watching TV-shows about other people, who are trying to lose weight. The problem with green growth, from a philosophical perspective, is not that it is insufficient at best and impossible at worst in terms of solving the climate crisis. It is rather that the notion of green growth comes to stand in the way of an inquiry into the notion of growth itself. As long as the obese woman believes that she can solve her problems by eating fake fat and fake sugar instead of the real thing, she is not confronted with the core existential question: Why must I keep eating so much? In similar fashion, the fantasy of green growth stands in the way of a thorough Auseinandersetzung with the key question of contemporary society: Why must the economy keep growing? The posing of this question is the task of philosophy today.

Ole Bjerg is Associate Professor at the Copenhagen Business School and author of Parallax of Growth – The Philosophy of Ecology and Economy.