Without Attachment or Fear

Professor Dominic Boyer
Director, CENHS, Rice University

Even if one were the sort who believed that war solved anything, there would still be the issue of identifying who or what was the enemy in the “battle” against climate change. Is it the upstream and downstream industries and infrastructures of Big Carbon? Is it the governments who rely upon carbon fuels as the cheapest route to economic development? Is it anyone who eats meat given that greenhouse gas emissions of livestock production alone exceed those of the transportation sector? Is it simply anyone who flips a light switch or plugs an appliance into an outlet and expects immediate gratification in the form of abundant affordable electricity? All of this makes a turn toward martial discourse sound rather hollow. Who exactly are we meant to be fighting? To my ear, war talk is displaced self-hatred about one’s own investment in an accelerationist culture of energy excess. Does anyone really aspire to participate in a diffuse and endless War on Climate Change that—like the War on Terror before it—would simply demonstrate once again violence’s remarkable talent for begetting itself?

All that said, an appeal toward peaceful solidarity is not sufficient either. It is a better utopia, and that is not inconsequential. But I think it is fairly obvious how a discourse on solidarity papers over the different interests and needs of the Global North and the Global South, not to mention the legacies of colonialism and empire that gifted us our present patterns of inequality. And that is only to speak of human affairs. What peaceful solidarity can be imagined between the earth’s apex predator species and the countless other species whose futures are being extinguished in the Anthropocene? The liberal-democratic fantasy that we can “talk it all through” and arrive at a common reasonable strategy for an orderly return to the Holocene is something we desperately wish to believe in. But each failed or underwhelming COP conference makes it seem still more ephemeral.

I would like to think about a rallying call that is about neither peace nor war but about emotional and intellectual detachment from a failing civilization and a preparedness to undergo what will amount to a revolutionary process of personal and social reform. I will give the final word to Roy Scranton, a former soldier who returned from the Iraq war with the wisdom that we need to accept the death of one way of life if we ever wish to attain another:

“The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of  Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

“The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.” (“Learning to Die in the Anthropocene”, New York Times, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/learning-how-to-die-in-the-anthropocene/?_r=0)

This post is a response to the CAOS Provocation Climate Change: War Footing or Peaceful Solidarity?. Read the other responses: