Getting Used to Climate Catastrophe

Rowan Fortune reflects on the crisis of optimism and COP26.


COP26 marks twenty-five years of abject failure. The political leaders of the world have proved demonstrably unable to prevent the wanton arson by capital against the planet. Now scientists are reduced to begging world leaders to follow the evidence.  Irrespective, the targets, ambitions, proposals, good intentions and green investments remain inadequate to stave off disaster.

This is symbolized by Boris Johnson, hosting the conference, travelling back to London from Glasgow in a private jet, while his chancellor reduces tax on internal flights in the UK rather than investing in affordable train travel. The mismatch between words and deeds has been captured in Greta Thunberg’s characterisation of the ‘blah-blah-blah’ of politicians. At the same time, the media are keener to whip up a violent moral panic against environmentalist protestors than they are to hold the powerful to account. 

In the 2018 Marxist social-satire Sorry to Bother You, the protagonist attempts to reveal a plot by a powerful capitalist to more cruelly exploit labour; he pulls a TV stunt that catapults him on to talk shows, but his message is still ignored. Talking later to a union organiser about the situation, that mass apathy is explained: ‘If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.’ The problem facing those of us who want to save the world is not mass ignorance, but mass powerlessness. How people respond to a lack of agency.

Polling indicates that the majority of Britains want climate destruction to be tackled, but we should not be naïve about polls; many of those Britains will look with hope to COP26 not because they are fools, but because the alternative in a world without collective agency is an unfathomable despair. That despair is everywhere for those of us who will not accept false hopes, for those of us on the left and in environmentalist movements the anguish of the situation is often intensely felt.

Optimism is perhaps the greatest problem of our times, because a deficit of it impedes solving every other problem. But sustainable optimism is not an attitude adopted by atomised people irrespective of circumstances. We have a lot of bad optimism. Optimism in Boris Johnson as an environmental saviour; the optimism of a left so embedded in Labour, the Democrats, etc. it won’t face our serial defeats; the optimism of small far left grouplets, anarchist and Marxist, who peruse a terminally online sectarianism as a path to salvation. There is little room for hope between the clash of such optimisms and good faith pessimism. All of these are forms of getting used to the problem.

There are two possible types of eco-socialism. The bad type adopts the prefix ‘eco-’ as a brand to aid recruitment for its own sake. It believes in the magic of words, that just invoking ecology somehow means that we as socialists have solved the greatest logistical challenges to confront humanity. How to take care of the needs of a world already made bitterly unjust by inhumane political and economic systems of domination, while preventing the possibility of our extinction through the over-exploitation of the earth’s resources. The second type recognises our challenge, and only this form of eco-socialism can deliver an optimism fit for our times.

Environmentalism without socialism, unable to respond to other injustices, cannot restore the mass agency needed to give control to the vast majority of people and end global warming. Both a socialism unwilling to address the crisis of nature, and one addressing it only in name, are further instances of the politics of ‘blah-blah-blah’. Both of these ersatz socialisms choose a fantasy of hope over its authentic possibility.  But to a socialism willing to work towards the empowerment of the exploited and oppressed, hope remains; it must not only expose the lies of COP26, but also the hidden power of the working class.

Exposing the evils of the powerful is easy, the stuff of conspiracy film light-entertainment. Exposing the power of the supposedly powerless is altogether harder. It is not a top-down process of personal heroics; to realise their power, people must come together and take great risks in exercising it, in testing the weaknesses of the ruling class. Resistance must be nurtured when an understanding of its strengths remains fragile, and defeats (sometimes horrific) endured and learned from. Theory and action must intermingle. There is no shortcut to a genuine optimism, but our flourishing, and survival, depends on it as it never has previously.

We must again take on a slogan of Paris ’68, we must be realistic, and demand the impossible!

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Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

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