The Last Crisis: Climate Construction
14 July 2023
Crisis is a remarkable word. As is well recognised in politics research across a range of fields, ‘crisis’ is a term with considerable power. ‘Critical’ analyses of crisis often see the term as a dangerous little signifier that, if it expands into public politics and core practices of governance, can enable heavy-handed state action, erode democratic processes, and impose hardships on general populations.
In short: crisis is a construction, and it is one that requires careful analysis. So, it seems reasonable to ask what the transposition of climate change into climate crisis means. How does it portray the role of the state, how does it prioritise different political goods, what does it say about the role of the public in political decision-making, how does it exclude some things from debate? These are standard lines of inquiry for scholars who see terms like crisis, security, exception, and emergency as vectors of often problematic political change.
Constructing Climate Crisis
Extinction Rebellion and now Just Stop Oil deploy the language of climate crisis. And, they are not alone. Many OECD governments and UN organisations also evoke the language of crisis. So do some corporations. There is, amongst these influential agencies, a crisis consensus. This is not a consensus that implies a concord; these agencies clearly have different agendas and are in important ways adversarial. But, they do all share a prospective vision in which the world will enter into some form of deep and widespread chaos by 2050. That is explicit and treated as non-contentious.
Recognising this, one would expect that the notion of climate crisis would attract critical analysis. But, by and large, it has not. In relation to Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil (from now on ERJSO), this is all the more remarkable because key members within these organisations have stated in public that they exaggerate the evidence of crisis in order to generate public resonance and affect. And, these organisations commonly portray dystopian imagery of the future which is quite obviously fantastic. Marauding hordes of the dislocated, universal war, mass famine… something resembling Cormac McCarthy’s worst book, The Road.
The intensification of apocalyptic prospective and the political aesthetic of social breakdown and carnage is not scientific. Within a general scientific consensus that climate change is real and poses significant risks and challenges, there remain (as one would expect) different views of evidence and the modelling of future change. IPCC reports use the language of modelling, balance of probability and parameters of change. And, there is a trail of climate crisis prediction that has proven to be wrong. All of which serves to highlight the ERJSO crisis construction not as a ‘follow the science’ one but as a political discourse.
One of the things that I find troubling about ERJSO discourse is the use of the term genocide in relation to climate crisis. The genocide of the Jews during the Second World War led to the coining of the term, and the gravity of its definition and introduction into international normative law and academic research gave it a distinct and defined status. An abysmal phenomenon which has specific characteristics: defined by the systemic use of the state to destroy a people. In preparation for fieldwork in Rwanda, I think I read everything in English language on the genocide of the Tutsi in 1994. Naturally, it was deeply upsetting to do so. Narratives from survivors and perpetrators, the recovery of bodies, and the propaganda of the collapsing genocidal state test one’s emotional balance. There is something distinct about genocide that needs to be analytically maintained; it is a category that matters immensely to our understanding of humanity and its negation.
If one thinks that categories and definitions matter, climate crisis is not genocide. Evoking the term genocide—constructing the climate crisis through its evocation—is, then, a political act. And, we may legitimately ask, what is the politics that drives this interpolation? It is surely intensification. Genocide is a term that has wide-ranging and grave cultural resonance. Historically, whether an atrocity is or is not dubbed ‘genocide’ significantly changes the degree of international concern and the extent to which campaigns can be mobilised to push states to act to stop atrocities.
A salient example of this is Darfur in Sudan. The Save Darfur Coalition campaign sought to call the atrocities of the Janjaweed against the Darfuri a genocide. Others argued that the atrocities were not genocide. This disagreement mattered a great deal in the discussions of how to respond to what was quite clearly a major humanitarian disaster, however defined. For some, the Rwandan genocide was pulled into discussion: let us not repeat the mistakes made during the Rwandan genocide. Never again.
So, to use the term spuriously in relation to climate crisis discourse is to intensify the crisis, to endow it with a kind of anticipating guilt-anxiety. It is to evoke by association images of piles of corpses, of violence beyond cognition. The fact that climate crisis is in no way a solid foundation on which to expect genocide is not the point. ‘Genocide’ is a powerful way to evoke maximal anticipatory guilt about the inaction of people and governments and maximise fear of what the future might hold.
Retrospectives of historic genocides have identified the kinds of stages that build up to genocide: categorisation, symbolisation, discrimination, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, persecution, and extermination. It is clear these stages they do not map on to an impending climate crisis because they address a completely different phenomenon. With one exception. One of the stages does resonate with climate crisis, revealingly the stage which is actually about events in the aftermath of genocide: denial.
There is perhaps a second register at work in the climate crisis-genocide coupling. The term genocide does not only do heavy affective work for ERJSO. It also tightens the intellectual connection between climate change and climate crisis. It does so in the following way. Genocide studies has investigated the degree to which a genocide can be verified and given the historical certainty of definitive evidence. It is the nature of genocide that its full extent (and horror) will be unknown. As George Didi-Huberman explores in Images in Spite of All, there is a double erasure in genocide: both people and the memories of those who were exterminated.
The evidential ambiguity of genocide—innate in its totalising destructive impulse—means that there will often be some questioning of whether the evidence measures up to the genocide categorisation. At the margins of research in relation to both the genocide of the Jews and Tutsis (and in other cases as well) some (few) have argued (wrongly) that there was no genocide. In relation to Rwanda, some use the term ‘politicide’ for example.
In cases where large numbers of people were exterminated by a state because of their ethnicity, questioning the status of genocide attracts considerable moral condemnation. In the European historical experience, claims that there was no holocaust are associated with a deeply unpleasant right-wing and neo-Nazi fringe. These execrable people are often called genocide denialists, and it is etched deep into most people’s moral codes that these people and the arguments that they make are despicable.
A common turn of phrase used in ERJSO discourse is climate denialism. Those who question the evidence that underpins claims of an approaching genocide are not so much engaged with as accused of climate catastrophe denial. The term ‘denialist’ is deployed as an absolute pejorative.
There is no explicit claim that climate change denial is like genocide denial. But the mirroring in language is striking. If climate change is climate crisis and climate crisis is imminently manifesting in a genocide, then to question climate crisis is to be a climate denialist, a denialist that a global genocide approaches. Bearing in mind how redolent the association between genocide and denialism is in Western publics, the term genocide sutures a connection between climate change and crisis. This suturing is condensed into another climate crisis phrasing: ecocide.
To say that there is climate change but not climate crisis resembles something like a Philip K Dickian pre-crime: to have denied a future genocide; to be a David Irvine of the future. Denialist. Not cynic or critic. A noun derived from a verb: actively to deny, to refuse. To deny and refuse an immanent genocide.
The Transmutations of Genocide and Anxiety
Allowing the extraction of new oil and gas resources in the UK is an obscene and genocidal policy that will kill our children and condemn humanity to oblivion. It just has to stop. […] If we continue down our current path… we will face the starvation and the slaughter of billions of the poor – and the utter betrayal of our children and their future. (https://juststopoil.org/background/)
Following the accepted academic practice of treating ‘crisis’ as a construction, climate crisis readily appears as a political device. It generates the politics of exception, the politics of emergency, a thanatocratic politics in which mass death lingers in the nearest of futures. Crisis is the dispensation that allows fast and loose talk of genocide without even minimal attention to the meaning and historicity of that term. Genocide simply intensifies the affect of dread and exception, the two pillars upon which ERJSO rests. And, in its seeking of an absolute fusion between climate change and climate crisis, genocide enables a foreclosure of critical questioning of the crisis narrative by labelling those questions as denialism. Implicitly, denialism in the midst of claims of genocide leaves an extremely unpleasant moral tinge to any argument that we are no at a tipping point, a trigger, a precipice.
This moral cosmology is not built on uncontested scientific evidence. It is political. It would be extremely helpful for any process of climate change mitigation, understood as a strategy that must encompass all of the complexities of governing socio-economic change if those shaping the climate agenda stopped using the terms crisis, genocide, and denial and found a vocabulary that might enable an escape from the worldview of the apocalypse.
After all, the political impetus of apocalyptic worldviews is that they are unstoppable and unavoidable. They are often ex cathedra, or feel like they are. The misuse of the term genocide creates an impeding future that is so absolutely abysmal that it generates no repertoire for meaningful political action. A paradoxically universal genocide in which the gens is all of us and the state is the planet.
The timeline is wrong. In relation to genocide, denial and its condemnation takes place retrospectively, as shocked reflection takes place under the rubric of the metanorm never again. In relation to climate denial, the genocide has not yet taken place, so the condemnation of climate denial is anticipatory. The final proof will only finally come with the global genocide itself. This leaves a curious and uncertain sense of the future: part deep anxiety about a disaster predicted that is so epochal that avoiding it seems almost folly; part sublime revelation in which the genocide is proof. Both of these sensibilities are historically present in apocalyptic politics: part-panic and part death-drive. Never again achieves a darker and literal meaning: not a statement of intent but rather an absolute foreclosure of humanity’s future.
Perhaps this is the nub of the deconstruction of ‘crisis’ in climate crisis. Its articulation to global genocide and the end of civilisation relocates crisis from the particular and historic into the generic and apocalyptic. That is to say, unlike financial crisis, international war, terrorism and their brethren, should this crisis explode into reality, there will be no means to address it, no sense of possible progress beyond. Climate crisis constructs a meta-crisis in which the meaning of all modernising political endeavour is evacuated from our lifeworld. In the midst of the death-drive, between the paradise lost and the future erased, concrete and effective political agency is slender indeed.