Not Climate Agreement, But Climate Revolt

“The withdrawal by the United States, the nation with the second highest carbon output in the world (behind China, whose per-capita emissions are less than half those of the US), seems deeply catastrophic.

It is catastrophic, yes. But not for the reasons we might think.”

Environmental and political analysis, from Rhyd Wildermuth

“Philosophers of freedom were mainly, and understandably, concerned with how humans would escape the injustice, oppression, inequality, or even uniformity foisted on them by other humans or human-made systems. Geological time and the chronology of human histories remained unrelated. This distance between the two calendars, as we have seen, is what climate scientists now claim has collapsed….

The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.”

Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History


The world awoke to the news on Thursday that President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the COP 21/Paris Climate Accords.

Environmentalists and the environmentally-conscious everywhere are reacting with horror and panic, as are politicians and leaders of many of the largest industrialized nations. The governors of several states within the US announced they will still voluntarily partake in the accord, the mayors of Montreal, Paris, Mexico City and many other massive metropolitan areas ordered official buildings to be lit green in defiance:

Climate change is a catastrophic problem. Already thousands of species go extinct each year, islands flood, entire ecosystems die off, and disruptions of long-term weather patterns are causing famine, resource wars, and death. Many saw the agreements reached during the Paris COP 21 summit as the last best hope humanity had of slowing and finally stopping the damage. So the withdrawal by the United States, the nation with the second highest carbon output in the world (behind China, whose per-capita emissions are less than half those of the US), seems deeply catastrophic.

It is catastrophic, yes.

But not for the reasons we might think.

 Waste Management

Climate change occurs through human activity. “Greenhouse gas emissions” (primarily CO2 and methane) are the product of burning fossil fuels like oil and coal through automobiles (and other transport), industrial production (everything from toilet paper to ‘smartphones,’), and all the activities which go into sustaining modern civilization (including the data servers hosting this essay).

To put this as plainly as possible, all our economic activity produces carbon in the same way that everything we eat produces shit. The more we eat, the more we defecate, and all that left-over needs to go somewhere. Those emissions go into the air.

Emissions are the primary problem, but other activity speeds up the process. Deforestation, for instance, decreases the ability of nature to ‘sink’ carbon: each tree, each plant, and each of us is composed of carbon, and our very existence locks carbon out of the atmosphere until we decompose and release it again. Plants, trees, and plankton are much better at this than animal life: when we replace plant-life with asphalt and forests with agricultural land, we speed the carbon output cycle while reducing the ability of the earth to ‘fix’ carbon out of the air.

Likewise, pollution, soil erosion, development, and the damming of rivers decreases the ability of the earth both to absorb carbon output as well as magnifying the effects of climate change. In Florida and Louisiana, for instance, much swampland has been drained to make way for new housing developments and industry. Swamps hold intense rainfall better than any other bio-region, so with the increasing hurricanes caused by climate change, flood-damage, pollution run-off, and erosion are amplified, weakening other linked ecosystems such as the Gulf of Mexico as well.

To pick up the fecal metaphor again, it’s like all septic tanks are full and overflowing, the sewage treatment plants over-capacity, and the overflow is leaking everywhere, polluting everything else.

This process of cascading damage is repeated in  every bio-region in the industrialised world. Not just industrialised regions, either: some of the countries with the least damaging economic activity, who have contributed only a tiny fraction to the carbon output of the world, suffer the most damage.  Nauru, and other tiny Pacific island nations, are sinking under the rising ocean levels caused by the melting ice-caps. Caribbean islands such as Haiti (per-capita yearly income $800 US, rank 123/141 in per capita carbon emissions) see relentless death from stronger and stronger hurricanes.

Industrialised nations tend to be more resilient against these changes, precisely because they are richer. But there’s a paradox here: the wealth they have that helps them recover from and accommodate to climate change was gained from the very activity which caused climate change in the first place.

With all this in mind, the goals of the COP 21/Paris agreement seem both sound and charitable:

“The deal requires any country that ratifies it to act to stem its greenhouse gas emissions in the coming century, with the goal of peaking greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible” and continuing the reductions as the century progresses. Countries will aim to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C (3.6°F) by 2100 with an ideal target of keeping temperature rise below 1.5°C (2.7°F).

The deal will also encourage trillions of dollars of capital to be spent adapting to the effects of climate change—including infrastructure like sea walls and programs to deal with poor soil— and developing renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. The text of the agreement includes a provision requiring developed countries to send $100 billion annually to their developing counterparts beginning in 2020. That figure will be a “floor” that is expected to increase with time.

The agreement gives countries considerable leeway in determining how to cut their emissions but mandates that they report transparently on those efforts. Every five years nations will be required to assess their progress towards meeting their climate commitments and submit new plans to strengthen them.” [Source]

Investing $100 billion dollars annually to undeveloped nations (such as Haiti and Nauru) to help them accommodate to climate change seemed to be a significant start, especially since it would represent the beginnings of a transfer of wealth from the countries most responsible for the damage to those least responsible. Without such aid, many people may die.

We can also read that provision as: “sorry we are making money by dumping our shit in your water supply. Have some of the money to help clean it up.”

This humanitarian element of the agreement is the part which seemed most ‘radical,’  a proof that the wealthy nations of the world were serious about being sorry for what they’d done.  Thus the United States’ decision to no longer participate seems particularly malevolent.

“As Soon As Possible”

Read the above summary of the agreement again. Did you happen to catch the words in quotes? (If not, they’re in this subheading.)

One of the two greatest problems with the Paris accords is that no specific timeline is outlined for the reduction of carbon output, or even the ‘peaking’ of greenhouse gas emissions. That is, there’s no regulatory or binding aspect to the agreement and no promises made as to when the industrialized countries in the world will stop increasing their output, let alone reducing it.

Instead, signatories agreed to stop increasing carbon pollution ‘as soon as possible,’ which is about as meaningful as an abuser telling you he’ll stop hitting you “when I’m done.”

The other targets (keeping global warming below 2°C/3.6°F and ideally below 1.5°C/2.7°F) are just as nebulous, and set to a future date so far away that it is guaranteed not a single person who negotiated the agreement will be alive to answer to their failure: the year 2100.

Climate agreements often suffer from an overdose of Realpolitik, the idea that while certain ideals are worth striving for, we must be pragmatic. Make the agreements too ambitious and (the reasoning goes) no countries will sign to them. Make them binding, with economic penalties for those who cheat, and no leader who agreed would ever get re-elected.

That pragmatism, however, conceals something more insidious, what is rarely spoken of by liberals (who often spearhead such agreements) or even leftists: climate change is not merely some global problem to be managed by the governments of the world, but the very result of the global economic systems by which those governments exist in the first place.

The High Cost of Living

Capitalist expansion, Liberal Democracy, and the increasing availability of technology to help humanity live longer, communicate over vast distances, and have access to the products of far-flung lands at any time of the year have come with the mass extinction of species, deforestation, melting ice-caps, polluted water supplies, and all the other cascading cycles of damage we call “Climate Change.”

We have smartphones and the internet, personal automobiles and life-saving pharmaceuticals, plastics and global travel, social media and strawberries in winter. We also have flooding islands, eroded top soils, resource wars and super-storms. These are not separate aspects of modern existence; they come by means of the very same thing, and the former produces the latter.

Again with the toilet metaphor: the ‘progress’ which we embrace is the food we eat; the climate destruction the Paris Accords promised to address is the shit that comes after.

That is, the agreement which Trump endangered by withdrawing the United States from its provisions was a sham in the first place, a dazzling illusion meant to assure the billions of humans upon the planet that we could continue on our present course of “progress” and not die from rising temperatures and oceans.

Thus we should not see the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Accords as a blow to the planet. Rather, it is a crippling wound to Liberal Democratic global capitalism. COP 21 represented the last hope for those who wanted to eat their cake and not see the shit too, but it was no hope at all. The United States pulling out is the final blow to the Liberal Democratic promise that both Capitalism and humanity can continue together.

And anyway: voluntary reductions ‘as soon as possible’ with nebulous targets negotiated by people who will be long dead by the time anyone could judge their failure or success? That was not a plan, it was a hoax.

We know what causes climate change. We know the connection between our economic system and the CO2 it shits out into the atmosphere. We know that our entire ‘way of life,’ our religious faith in progress, and endless capitalist expansion is killing us, and it will kill the poorest people of the world first. And more than anything, we know that the only way to stop it is to pull the emergency brake on the capitalist train hurtling us into destruction.

It’s time to pull that brake. We cannot rely on governments and corporations to do the right thing, nor can we afford to delude ourselves that there is another way to stop the destruction of the natural world.

It’s time we stop putting our hope in climate agreements, and become the climate revolt.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is the managing editor and a co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He is a poet, a writer, a theorist, and a pretty decent chef. He can be supported on Patreon, and his other work can be found at Paganarch, and shirtless selfies occasionally seen on his FB. and also his Instagram


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The Violent & The Dead

For a couple of hundred years we have been telling ourselves that we can dig the midnight black remains of other life forms out of the bowels of the earth, burn them in massive quantities, and that the airborne particles and gases released into the atmosphere–because we can can’t see them–will have no effect whatsoever….

…At every state our actions are marked by a lack of respect for the powers we are unleashing–a certainty, or at least a hope, that the nature we have turned to garbage, and the people we have treated like garbage, will not come back to haunt us.

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (p.166)

Is it any wonder that a society which denies the Dead is destroying the earth?

Excrement and Exclusion

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, there’s the concept of the Excremental Remainder — the thing which fails to fully integrate into the total. Yes, I’m gonna be talking about feces here, but bear with me a little.

When you eat something, your body digests what it can, and uses what has been broken down to build, repair, and otherwise ‘create’ itself. Those calories, nutrients, minerals, and all other ‘usable’ parts are taken into the totality of the body to become part of the body.

Something is always left, parts that cannot be used or transformed into the whole. I need not get into a description of what’s left over, as you’ve certainly seen it yourself. That left-over mass, that undigested remainder, is the necessary excrement of your survival, your existence.

The Excemental Remainder is sometimes also called “the bone,” after the dialectical philosophy of Hegel (‘”the spirit is a bone.”) That ‘bone’ is what is left over when all the consumable meat is stripped off. It is the thing left over, the excrement, and yet it is also the very thing which kept all the flesh there in the first place, the unusable but necessary structure or foundation. It is also the thing we exclude. We don’t eat the bone; we don’t digest the feces or re-consume it. It is both the thing that is left over and the thing we choose to rid ourselves of. And, in both cases, we do an interesting thing with it — we bury it.

We bury the bones of what we’ve eaten and we bury our feces; although the fate of both is obscured through modern waste management. We exclude both from our lives. The Excremental Remainder is the necessary and buried secret of human existence. There is unlikely any place in your home where you store or display corn husks, onion skins, turkey carcasses, the intact bones of your great-grandmother, or your poop; rather these go outside, away, either into a compost pile, a trash can, a cemetery or a sewer.

The Excremental Remainder is what we look away from, what we do not examine. It is not just physical waste. There are social, relational ‘shits’ as well — aspects upon which society is predicated on which we do not want to look. Likewise, we cannot ‘include’ these remainders in our conception of society without threatening the very foundations of our society.

What Capitalism Shits Out

Consider carbon pollution, the necessary by-product of our high-consumerist lifestyles. The phone or computer by which you are reading my words, and I am writing them; the servers which create the connections we call “the internet;” and the electricity which powers all of these connections dumps significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. To look directly at the excrement of our technology would ruin the ‘magic’ and might challenge our behavior, just as a clogged toilet or a waste-collection strike forces us to confront what’s left over from our activities.

There are other Excremental Remainders of society and of a Western Capitalist society in particular.The homeless are the excrement of an economy based upon private property. They are both created by and excluded from Capitalist exchange, left to ‘rot’ on the streets of cities as a necessary s&#ting-out of our consumption. They must be excluded if housing is not considered a universal right; they must be homeless if housing is something that can be bought and sold rather than just had.

In this way, a shelter counselor is akin to a waste-management worker or a mortician. A homeless shelter is like a landfill or a cemetery; except in one particular way: the ‘waste,’ which is managed, is still alive.The homeless person is the excess carbon in the atmosphere that doesn’t need to be there; the cardboard or plastic bottle buried in the landfill rather than recycled or re-used or, more importantly, something that didn’t need to be created in the first place.

The position of the homeless person, who is shunted to the outside of society, is illusory just as the magical disappearance of our excrement into a water-filled porcelain basin is chicanery. The feces goes somewhere; we just don’t see where. All the trash we produce, all the carbon we spew into the air, doesn’t go away. It goes back to the very foundation of our existence.

In other words, the excrement of our lives actually feeds back and becomes the center of our existence, the very foundation upon which we live. The homeless person lives at the very core of the city, invisible except to those of us who notice. Similarly, the CO2 of industrial production doesn’t disintegrate into the atmosphere, it becomes part of the atmosphere itself. The Excremental Remainder is actually the Excremental Center — the founding horror of our modern lifestyle.

Breathing is easiest when you don’t think about it. Feces is unnoticed once it’s flushed. Capitalist existence appears seamless and harmless until we are confronted with what we treat like s&#t. The riots and protests in Ferguson, for example, are just one of the many examples of what happens when people refuse to be flushed down the polite and pristine toilets of Capitalist exclusion. Likewise our warming planet, the dying species and the drowning cities are the build-up of the excrement we defecate by living modern and ‘free’ lifestyles.

There are ways we find to manage our excrement such as recourse to free-market platitudes and Calvinist ethics (“the homeless just haven’t earned a better life,” or “humans are greedy by nature”), delusional messianic hopes (“Capitalist technology can fix the problems that Capitalist technology caused,” or “It won’t happen here”), or the most popular solution of all — denial.

This last solution is the easiest precisely because it is a foundational aspect of Western Capitalism. Denial, distraction and oblivion are significant products of high Capitalist society, endlessly varied according to preference. There are thousands of video games, television channels and films, hundreds of sports competitions, an array of new products and vacation getaways, and the omnipresent availability of any sort of noise you’d like. Each distraction itself becomes a carrier for advertisements and injunctions towards engaging in the very behavior which creates the problem we hope to deny.

Denial, Distraction and Violent Enjoyment

There’s also an inherent violence to this last option, what Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek point to as jouissance. Jouissance is supreme, excess enjoyment; enjoyment at the expense of all else; pleasure and joy that give no thought to anyone harmed in the process of amusement. Jouissance encompasses both the sadistic pleasure of the child who shoots small animals ‘for fun,’ and the sated and oblivious pleasure of a good meal at a restaurant cooked and served by underpaid and miserable workers. Jouissance is the very engine of denial, the machinery of Capitalist consumption.

That violent and oblivious enjoyment can be seen best in the wars that Western societies fight to secure their oil addictions. It should have been no surprise that a U.S. President would have chosen to hide the shipments of coffins containing dead soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade; nor should we really think it odd that so many deaths in the last few years have been through remote-controlled drones. As oil becomes more scarce, the inherent violence required to get more of it might be too unbearable, like the excess feces after eating an entire pizza or the creation of more homeless to make way for an Olympic Village or new stadiums.

That is, the consequences of our excess, the violent enjoyment, our jouissance, must be obscured and hidden in order for us to enjoy it.  Images of mutilated children in Iraq, stories of the conditions of workers in iPhone factories, tales of flooding cities all ruin the enjoyment of our addictions and jolt us back to the very reality of the human activity behind the experience in the same way as a human hair found in a restaurant meal or a bone found in a chicken sandwich.

Homelessness is also a condition of violence, as is global warming, deforestation, pollution, and war. You cannot have private property without exclusion, any more than you can have industrialized production without global warming. And that ‘excess’ or that waste product is one of violence. Cutting down a forest to make room for a highway is a violent act. The ripping off of a mountaintop or the bombing a country to get at their resources is an assault. What is left behind, the ‘bone’ or ‘excrement,’ doesn’t go away anymore than the victim of a rape disappears after the act.

But like the silencing of a rape victim, the censoring of war images, or the flushing of a toilet, there are ways in which we specifically try to ignore the necessary consequences of our actions or the Excremental Remainder of human activity. Seeing the mounds of trash we create destroys the illusion of consumption-without-consequence. Seeing the victims of our wars weakens support for military expansion. Making a connection between global warming and the car we drive to work would force us to confront the very violence of an activity we consider foundational to a ‘good life.’

When we do acknowledge the violence, we create hierarchies to excuse some actions while vilifying others. We consider the razing of a forest for a highway or suburb less violent than the eco-activist who torches a bulldozer. Developers are awarded tax breaks and profit from their violence, while the ‘ecoterrorist’ goes to jail. The homeless squatter in a foreclosed house is beaten and jailed while the real estate agent is given a commission for selling that home. The plight of the victims of our daily violence are ignored when they try to speak of their villages flooded or their children bombed. At the same time, we throw parades for our military and line up for days to buy the next big i-thing.

We celebrate and reward the violence at the very foundation of our civilization and then dole out more violence in pursuit of maintaining our cherished, modern, ‘way of life.’  And to do this, we ignore the Dead.

Paganism and the Return of The Dead

Consider how, after Hurricane Katrina, a common lament of the poorest New Orleans black communities was about the water-logged, bloated, decomposing corpses left unattended for weeks. No image made clearer to me the connection between Capitalist exclusion and ignoring the Dead. How much must we ignore the Dead in order to maintain our skewed and oppressive violent enjoyment of inequality?

Cut down a forest to build a shopping center and you do not just have an absence of forest, you also have a dead forest. Bomb a village in the Middle-East and you do not only have an absence of a village and its inhabitants; you also have a dead village and dead people. The mountain doesn’t go away when we strip it for coal, nor does the gasoline we combust to drive our vehicles.The bones of the raped mountain litter the earth, just as the carbon from our consumption litters the sky.

The Dead don’t go away. They are always with us, even when we refuse to notice.

When Capitalism sweeps through a formerly non-Capitalist people, one of the first things to get destroyed is the ancestral traditions and reverences of those people. Witch persecutions in Africa, Asia, and South America mirror the same persecutions in Europe that required us to divorce from an understanding that included the Dead in life-activities. It does so because Capitalism must sever people from a recognition of the Dead, must obscure and displace the excremental effects of its exploitation. For peoples who remember the destroyed forest, the wound of Capitalism is ever-present. Its ghost still haunting the place it once stood. The rape remains even though the rest of us have forgotten just as the dead child remains in the bombed village, out of sight but never fully flushed away.

Western, particularly American, Capitalism denies the Dead in order to erase our memories, and we play willingly along with this Forgetting — this exclusion.

But the Dead persist, no matter how hard we try to ignore them. Consider our fascination with ghost stories, or more precisely, the peculiar Anglo-American fascination with zombies. These are depictions of shambling men and women, shuffling through the streets in torn clothes, reeking of death, moaning incoherently without substance to feed upon the ‘living.’  Zombie films remarkably depict our fear of the “living dead,’ the homeless, the immigrant, the prisoner, the refugee — that is, the very people we exclude from our society in order to enjoy it, those who continue to live despite being ‘dead to us.’

Few people like to look at their own feces, or even talk about it. In fact, we consider it perverse to do so, just as we consider those who speak of the dead as ‘morbid.’  Similarly, any calls to change or abolish the Capitalist system, which is warming the planet and ruining lives, are considered ‘extremist.’ The few brave souls willing to actually do something about this matter are called ‘radicals’ or ‘terrorists.’

The return to a way of thinking which doesn’t ignore the Dead might be the only chance we have to build societies which create less excrement. The various Paganisms which acknowledge the dead can return to our denialist society precisely what it refuses to notice.

The destroyed forests remain as Dead forests, and we must insist they be remembered. Only by doing this may we learn not to destroy them.

The burned oil and coal are the compressed remains of our earliest ancestors, and we must acknowledge them as Presences melting our ice-caps and flooding our cities. Only in this way might we finally admit the consequences of our consumption.

The poor, the homeless, the downtrodden all live on as ‘walking dead,’ and we must again see them as the excluded foundation of our very societies. Until we do so, we will meet their rage and horror with malevolent, brutal fear.

And the Dead themselves, the gathered ancestors of all our peoples, stand before us, just on the edge of our sight. If we learn to acknowledge them, to see them, to accept what they have to teach and listen to what they have to say, we may finally learn what it is like to truly live.


[This piece was originally written for The Wild Hunt on November 1, 2014]


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd AuthorRhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.

 


Rhyd Wildermuth’s essay, “We Are The Rude” is published in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here. Order it here.