Political resignation in the face of cosmic disaster, and the search for universal norms in economic rationality: these twin threats move to the foreground with extreme weather phenomena
When a real storm cloud thunders above
him, [The Rational Man] wraps himself in
his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from
—Nietzsche, On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense
In pre-Enlightenment Europe, only God had the power to transform the world; then, we learned, it was Man. In the last 10 years, the global consciousness has shifted once again: now the Earth itself is the agent of global change. Humanity, with its arsenal of nuclear weapons and ready-to-revolt workers has been stripped of its power and now sits as a helpless spectator, alongside God, to the big-budget disaster flick that is the contemporary news cycle.
This nightmare was not how this century was to proceed—we were set for a different one. Spectacular terrorism was to be our daily affirmation of helplessness. How little we expected that our planet itself would be a far more bloodthirsty bin Laden—even more irrational and unforgiving than that dark wizard of the caves. It was as if, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the cabalistic Bush administration were recast as adventurers in some overly ambitious cartoon with the twist ending that they were after the wrong villain all along—it was our beloved Mother Earth, angered by decades of unabated industry, who sought vengeance on us hubristic mortals in Lovecraftian reckoning.
How do we proceed now that we are at the mercy of this unbeatable foe? Are we to take hippie pseudo-scientists and Greenpeace activists as our new cultural prophets? Why, after all, should we sneer at the forward-thinking strategies of green energy, carbon offsets, and the reduction of individual footprints, when we old radicals have no better solution for the undeniable impending blow of Gaia’s hammer? Maybe a better question to ask ourselves is not how much disaster we should endure, but how these disasters have been folded into myths that justify the obedience of humanity.
Hurricane Sandy was described as a “threat,” a “challenge,” and a “lesson.” The primary affects occasioned by it were anxiety and irritation, because the spectacular news media told us to expect inconvenience, frustration, and discomfort from the high winds and rain. You may not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but you might need one to tell you that it sucks.
“A Big Storm Requires Big Government,” headlined an op-ed piece in the New York Times from October 29, celebrating FEMA against Romney’s campaign trail exhortations to privatize disaster relief. Yet there is already no shortage of “deluxe survival kits” and “premium family cooking kits” whose advertisements read like unwitting parodies of 1950s nuclear holocaust domestic idylls, with smiling dads charbroiling ribs in a poured concrete foxhole 35 feet below the lawn. The prospect of chaos is a fantastic resource both for the legitimacy of the state and for private enterprise. The label “disaster industry” has already been applied to humanitarian agencies and relief organizations that address famines as natural phenomena rather than as elements of political and economic strategy. After all, from the perspective of enterprise, what does a famine represent but a massive demand to be met with a massive supply?
The narrative that pits humanity as such against an immense and obscure antagonist seems all too familiar. The weather has become a stand-in for the nation-state’s essential enactment of the friend/enemy distinction. Its army of science bureaucrats is hard at work justifying how we ought to combat our foe: appeasement, or heavier attack. The meteorological-industrial complex sees profits in longer summers and a newfound shipping route through the arctic, while the Green left sniffs electoral potential in withdrawing troops from the theaters of ecological destruction, only to redeploy them as eco-peacekeepers. Worse still, these seem to be our only choices—even the Green movement’s Bakunin, Derrick Jensen, favors working within this dynamic (going so far as to form an alliance with the FBI) in order to preserve the sanctity of salmon runs.
We are in danger, to be sure, but science and new-age theologies will do us no good. As Nietzsche puts it in Human, All too Human: “Even if existence of [the Metaphysical World] were never so well demonstrated, it is certain that knowledge of it would be most useless of all knowledge: more useless even than knowledge of the chemical composition of water must be to the sailor in danger of a shipwreck.” (HTH 9) It is not, after all, the damage that has been done to atmospheric layers, nor the glaciers and their bears that should concern us when the wards of New Orleans or the Rockaways are flooded and the army is dispatched to protect the surviving commodities—it is the sum of our practices themselves, our bloody history of always thrusting the poor and working classes to the fore of every battle.
In this case the front is a battle against ecological restriction, and the trenches are lowlying coastal areas. Are we big-hearted consumers prepared to separate our recyclables, reduce our carbon footprint, and take shorter showers for the war effort? Are we prepared for 150,000,000 to die in Bangladesh when we let the water run a moment too long? Ah, it will be a tragedy, but at least the guilt that results from it will be equally distributed among all us selfish consumers. Who were we to fabricate plastic and burn the Jurassics’ cadavers? The third world is a mass grave we all dig with each soft drink we suck dry.
But this war propaganda is already wearing thin. How was it, again, that the equally devastating Tsunamis and Earthquakes in Japan, Thailand, Chile, Pakistan, Haiti, etc. were the result of global warming? Only pseudoscientists have answers, which are about as compelling as religious fanaticism. And those condemned Bangladeshis, how could they be so foolish as to not attempt an escape from their shallow prison? The gigantic wall at the border with India provides a ready answer. Is it really the Ozone we need to repair, or the system of policymakers and their armies who would gladly condemn 150,000,000 to death rather than risk an ethnic or economic crisis in their borderlands?
There is a black cloud hovering over civilization, but it was not created by a secret government satellite, rogue industrialism, or a vengeful forest spirit. It is a sense of helplessness against our own impulse to reproduce a community of death that has rotated through varying degrees of catastrophe since its inception. The machine begins, the victims take their places, and all avenues of retreat are closed. The apocalypse is inevitable — every two-bit mystic, environmentalist, or political radical agrees. It is as though we were trapped in that Twilight Zone future where the sun is heating up and melting the world—a future, we discover, dreamt by a woman in a sunless post-apocalypse.
In what does this dream really consist? What does it mean to complain about the paralyzing heat? To feel indignant toward the chill that numbs our fingers? It means, simply, to say no to the world. The affinity between this pessimism and all apocalyptic narratives (of the melting polar ice caps, the Texas-sized asteroid, or the collapse of global capital) is in their stripping us of political agency. The Trotskyist who waits for the unified proletariat to seize the government apparatus and the Christian who waits for the second coming are both doomed to political impotence. Is there a climactic “heaven on earth” purged of the original sin of large-scale industry? The Anthropocene becomes a world to be wished away, and nature is not the adversary but rather the force that guarantees this development, like God and historical necessity before it.
While the climate can be a fantastic antipolitical force that necessitates the maximum of worldwide technocratic governance, the weather also reveals other social contradictions. What does an ice storm look like? In the penthouse, a cozy bourgeois afternoon with hot cider, scented candles, terrycloth robes, and a Netflix subscription. Twelve floors below, a wanderer’s frozen hair and scant shelter under scaffolding that’s ready to collapse. The air in the penthouse feels heavy with a lingering Christian empathy, seasoning every scone-bite with a dash of guilt. But relativism comes to the rescue, free-market freedom-of-choice its cavalry: comfort can be confinement and freezing can be freedom, depending on your vantage point. We all choose our own lifestyles—who am I to judge someone else’s choices? The guilt that might accompany an awareness of one’s class privilege is treated by changing not the material conditions, but simply one’s attitude to them. Any impulse toward community is pushed aside by the neoliberal norm of man as an enterprise—one invests in it, one develops it, and if it fails, that’s a risk one took.
Political resignation in the face of cosmic disaster, and the search for universal norms in economic rationality: these twin threats move to the foreground with extreme weather phenomena. During the blackout caused by Hurricane Sandy, grocery stores hiking up the prices of candles and batteries was cynically attributed to the exigencies of enterprise: “They’ve got to make a buck, wouldn’t you do the same thing?” Meanwhile, The American Security Project responded to the storm with fears that the “effects of climate change on infrastructure will not only be costly to our nation’s economy, they will also make us less secure as a nation.” Here it seems that mass-industry and the global security regime are pitted against each other, making many wonder if its tendency to throw the climate into disequilibrium contains capitalism’s negation. But isn’t it more likely that climate change is one of capitalism’s “internal limits,” the ones it continually proliferates while including them in its infinitely expanding axiomatic? Just as reusable shopping bags and water bottles fought one excess of capitalism by introducing another, so do renewable energy solutions. While it’s true that China increased its wind electricity generation a hundredfold over the past ten years, it is also currently building 26 new nuclear power plants.
A possibly auspicious result of this contradictory tendency is that the disastrous effects of expanding large-scale industry might directly undermine the techniques of surveillance that serve capital. During the blackout caused by Sandy’s swells, almost all security technology below 39th street was incapacitated for several days. Surveillance cameras and alarm systems were offline, and the luxury boutiques, bourgeois penthouses, and gourmet groceries were defenseless, save for the restless searchlights mounted on the patrol cars of New York’s Swinest. Instead of celebrating the temporary disappearance of all hindrances to the satisfaction of their material desires in a feast of unproductive consumption, the masses found themselves in a double bind. With the power out and the smartphones dumbed everything was permitted, so nothing was possible.
The timid reaction to Superstorm Sandy reveals the conservative attitude that constitutes obsessive-compulsive bourgeois subjectivity; fears of intrusion and the interruption of routine paralyzes the population, and the sight of comatose flatscreens gives condo-dwellers post-traumatic stress disorder. The only nominally revolutionary response from the organized left, which now calls itself Occupy, is to fill in where the State fails. They clean up, aid survivors, and ultimately aim to get devastated areas back to the point where stores and schools can reopen and people can get back to work. The work is admirable, and it goes without saying that this is what any human does for a neighbor. But how impossibly far is this response from one that rebuilds the capacity of neighborhood survival without rebuilding the schools and workplaces? When will we allow ourselves to be truly devastated?
Sandy was the figure of an unreachable object of desire—a vengeful goddess out to destroy the security apparatus and the most dispossessed rabble alike. What are we to make of this? What did she want, and whose side was she really on? The trick may be to resist this hermeneutic temptation, and ask ourselves instead: What do we want? Nature is not the subject of history any more than God or the self-realizing Spirit, but then again, who is?