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Beyond magical thinking: 3 truths for the movement for future

Excerpt from the cover of We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-War Britain. Courtesy Verso Books

Dear friends and comrades,

You may have noticed that sometimes - in Twitter discussions, on panels, occasionally even here on my blog - I come across as a bit impatient, gruff, even aggressive, like here in Leipzig (Öffnet in neuem Fenster), for example, or in my discussion (Öffnet in neuem Fenster) with Jacobin DE editor-in-chief Ines Schwerdtner. Why this impatience, why this grumpy cutting off some people in the middle of a sentence?

Apart from some obvious character flaws and results of my hyper-privileged socialisation, this is simply because after 15 years of climate activism and climate policy analysis, there are some discussion I just don't want to have anymore: I don't want to hear how elegant and efficient emissions trading is in theory, when in practice it hasn't produced any climate-relevant emissions reductions; I can't listen to movementist platitudes like "if only we had more effective alliances with the trade unions...."; and most of all, I'm done listening to highly educated people, who often know much more about the subject matter at hand than I do (it is, after all, Stefan Rahmstorf who is the Lord of the Tipping Points), trying to bullshit me, us, and above all: themselves, that we still have a chance to prevent climate collapse, when it has already begun with such brutal obviousness that I can only conclude that these clever, good people are also engaging in psychological repression or displacement (Verdrängung) – that there's something that they don't want to realise.

The ecolefty wing of the Displacement Society

"Surely Not! We are not part of the displacement society, we are not that ignorant! It is the others who displace and deny, those who deny human-made climate change tout court, who emphasise that “X (insert climate crisis effect here) has always been around”, who keep pointing at and shouting "But the Chinese! But the Indians!”

Darlings, I'm sorry to burst your bubble: you, all of us, also displace, have to displace, because not displacing would simply be too terrible. Too horrible to realistically imagine what the future of one's own children might look like in 10-15 years, in spite all the privileges that the birth lottery has given you, if everything continues to develop at the given hypersonic speed in the direction of a clusterfuck dipped in a shitshow and thrown into a dumpsterfire; too horrible to admit to one's own inescapable quotidian involvement in injustice (do you think that when I look at this laptop, I every day see the exploited, perhaps already dead bodies of those who have mined the mineral resources for it? I'd go even crazier, and I'm already crazy as a shithouse rat); to admit to the collective failure of us "climate types" ("the ecological social field and its social and political organisations") that this entails. All of this, were one to allow oneself to feel it in all its magnitude, would simply be too terrible.

To be sure, the fact that displacement also exists in the climate field, or, to put it another way, that parts of the climate field can also be absorbed by the displacement society, is not actually particularly surprising, but it is very frustrating, because it means that there is now a emerging fundamental rift running through what we still graciously call the “climate movement”. A rift that was foreshadowed when Fridays For Future brutally fouled (Öffnet in neuem Fenster) the Letzte Generation (“Last Generation”, the German A22-franchise, connected to similar groups like Just Stop Oil, etc.), a rupture that I sense on every podium, in every Twitterspace, in every movement-wide strategic debate: the rupture between those who are willing to question not only the business-as-usual of fossil capitalism, but their own BaU, who are willing to make political, social and personal sacrifices to stand in the way of destruction on the one hand; and those who are very well informed about the situation but have to talk themselves into more and more displacement nonsense in order not to acknowledge that the radicals have been right all along, that no one is going to save them, that the fire brigade is not coming, no matter how many times it is called from some academic institute.

Magical thinking abounds

Damn, now I just became too aggressive again, dragged my political criticism too deeply into the personal (although we do know that e.g. a "career decision" is highly private and highly political at the same time). Let me try again, a bit more structurally-minded this time: since getting involved in the "climate debate" (starting in 2007/08), I've noticed that every climate discourse has an element of magical realism in it. Every climate strategy contains at least a bit of magical thinking, and there is at least one dea ex machina in every even mildly optimistic climate narrative - from the totally market-fundamentalist to the most movementist - that exists to bridge the distance between what is necessary from a climate perspective, and what is doable from a political perspective: the market or the movement, a miracle technology or an intrepid engineer, or simply a "social tipping point", beyond which (abracadabra, open sesame!) things magically get better again. Who or what this goddess is doesn't really matter, the function it plays in the discourse is always the same: to convince us, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that "there is still a bit of time"; that "there is still a chance"; that what is necessary is somehow also doable.

Alas, it is not. Maybe it was 14 years ago in Copenhagen (COP15); maybe it was in 2015 in Paris (COP21), though I doubt it. In the midst of the beginning climate collapse, the third fossil fuel lock-in (this time gas. Round 1 was coal, round 2 oil), and an “international community” that continues to fetishise growth, it's obvious that avoiding climate collapse is simply no longer an option. Winter has come, so to speak.

I have grown weary of this rather underwhelming magic show, but we - the climate types, and of course the parts of mainstream society that have not fully committed to structural assholery - still have to talk each other and keep fighting, I would like to suggest here that we agree on three "truths" (the Invisible Committee simply called such political points “obviousnesses” in The Coming Insurrection, but unfortunately they just don't seem to be that obvious), and move on from there on the basis of a rational discourse, without displacing reality, without constantly telling ourselves that the opposite of what is, is, because it is so hard to accept reality.

Truth No. 1: Climate collapse has begun

"Climate breakdown has begun (Öffnet in neuem Fenster)", UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said yesterday at the African Climate Summit in Morocco.

That headline again: the climate is collapsing. Right now we are passing the global climate system's macro tipping point, whose transition from a stable to an unstable state heralds a phase of climate chaos of indeterminable duration (Öffnet in neuem Fenster). The extreme weather of summer 2023 will soon be the new normal. The extremes are becoming more and more extreme. Such a collapse is a 1/0 question, there is only a yes or no answer, no shades of grey. Nevertheless, after the UN Secretary-General, who by nature is not prone to hyper-radicalism, publicly states that the collapse has begun, we still keep hearing this "we still have a chance" mantra, the "it's not too late".

I have already explained above why this is the case. But why is it so dangerous? Because only when we have broken the taboo of "it's not too late" can we seriously begin to develop solidarity-based adaptation and "crisis response" policies that are so urgently needed to reduce suffering as much as possible (cf. Renaee Churches (Öffnet in neuem Fenster)). Those who do not say how terrible the situation really is will at best confine themselves to dull commonplaces of the kind used to pacify children. But if we're finally going to start behaving in ways that are materially and ethically adequately, we don't need a population of pacified children. We need responsible adults (not in the sense of biological age), who know what's what and communicate and act accordingly.

Truth No. 2: The "Movement for the Future" as a movement to prevent climate collapse has failed

First things first: I have decided to increasingly refer to the climate movement as the "Movement for Future", because Future is much more awesome than Climate, because FFF has really not only built a successful brand, but has created an "empty signifier", a symbol, under which the "For Future" subject could gather, which with the Teachers, Psychologists, Construction Workers and of course also the Faggots For Future reaches very far beyond its historical core in Fridays For Future.

As I wrote here (Öffnet in neuem Fenster), the Movement for Future in Germany went through three discrete phases, each determined by different actors and strategies: 1. Attention for Future (Ende Gelände and the Hambi occupation); 2. Support for Future (Fridays For Future); and 3. Disruption for Future (Last Generation).

Each of these three strategies has failed, meaning: neither "draw more attention to the conflict (e.g. over coal)"; nor "gain more support for ambitious climate policy in general", nor "disrupt everyday life to a) wake people up, & b) increase societal costs" have proven to be effective levers for emissions reduction (not to mention the total flop that "divestment" has been). And if we want to apply effectiveness criteria to the climate movement - which in Germany has never really been a climate justice movement, but always an "radical climate action for emission reductions to prevent climate collapse" movement - then all the "proxy indicators" (approval, voting scores for the Green Party, degree of media coverage...) that we have used for thus far are inadequate or completely useless.

There are really only 2 criteria for success that are important:

a. Has the climate movement contributed to lasting, significant emission reductions?

b. Has the climate movement contributed to mobilising significant financial flows to the South to start making reparations for its ecological debt?

These are the criteria against which we must measure ourselves. Not because it was strictly our job to do all these things. But because no one else is fucking doing it.

NB: failure does not mean that we have had no effects, that all our work has been in vain; it also does not mean that we cannot still achieve successes, but they will be along a different metric than the one we would have had to apply so far if we really want to measure our effectiveness. "Failure" also does not mean “it's all our fault”. We failed, in essence, because emissions are directly tied to global economic growth, and we have no leverage to influence that. So if the first mission has failed (climate collapse + no leverage) - wouldn't now be time to think about our next mission?

I hate spending time fighting last decade's battles. I want to fight those that are happening now, and coming up.

Truth No. 3: the fascist threat changes everything

That fascism constitutes a real, clear and present danger has now finally also been understood by the "centre" of German society, at least since our increasingly fascist AfD recently managed to get its first local mayor elected (cf. here (Öffnet in neuem Fenster)why it took so long). Every climate activist must understand that the fascist threat changes everything, i.e., should there be AfD-led governments in Germany (not an unrealistic proposition in the coming years), the basic conditions of any kind of progressive activism would fundamentally shift; that there would be no climate policy of any kind, not even fake; and that the increasing dynamics of collapse would be used to establish "X/Y/Z for Germans only" as a principle.

That's why I agree with German comedian (!) Jan Böhmermann, who recently said: "The biggest, most pressing problem of today is to push the fascists into their box."

The climate movement is still the largest and tactically most capable social movement in Germany, despite our declining legitimacy. Helping to lead the fight against fascism, which is also the central danger from a global justice perspective, is one of our central tasks for the future. And unlike the fight against climate collapse, the fight against the new fascism is far from lost - in fact, we might even win it.

But more on that in the coming weeks.

Yours in solidarity,


Kategorie English

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