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Back to No Future

What use is playing the long game when the arc of the universe feels so frighteningly short?


If you spend any time keeping up with the news on climate change, or even just looking at the occasional graph or two, it’s hard not to come to the reasoned, scientific conclusion that we are, in fact, totally fucked.

Scientists now think that by the end of the century, the planet is very likely to be four degrees Celsius warmer than it was at the start of the industrial revolution — a difference equivalent to that between now and the last ice age — and possibly much more. Even in a mid-range emissions scenario, temperatures could rise by three degrees by the middle of the century. The effects of global warming are already materializing more quickly than expected; it seems that every day a new report emerges declaring that all previous bleak predictions actually underestimated how bad things are, and how soon they will get worse.

Where we used to speculate in terms of centuries and future generations, we now speak of decades and the fate of those already living. We’re treading on treacherous ground, marked by thresholds we may have already crossed and negative feedback loops whose trigger points we don’t understand. A certain amount of warming is already assured, though we’re not sure how much; the window to prevent the certainty of more is rapidly closing. Environmentalism has long been the bearer of bad news and the trumpeter of end times, but this time the wolf really seems to be at the door: if not quite end-of-civilization territory, it’s frighteningly close. After years of putting on a brave face so as not to scare the public into fatalism, even scientists are starting to freak out.

Should the Left join them? Those end-of-civilization scenarios are still a ways off, after all, and there are so many other things to worry about in the meantime. In any case, the Left is certainly no stranger to bleak futures; it’s been a more-or-less uphill struggle since the advent of industrial capitalism set the course for our current predicament. Do we really need more doom and gloom?

But this, after all, is a movement that regularly takes heart in events that took place in the nineteenth century, and which has long appealed to the chance for something better than the dismal present. Leftists think about politics with an eye on the clock of history: the fortunes of labor are traced not in years but in generations. The abolitionist movement took decades to end slavery in the United States and the Civil Rights Movement another century in full; it’s been less than a hundred years since American women could vote. Even these projects remain unfinished. This is frequently interpreted with hope — the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice, and so on. And the ability to zoom out to the longue durée is important in bringing a sense of perspective to bear on the zeitgeist — though perhaps also, less usefully, in sustaining what Walter Benjamin pejoratively called “left melancholy.” But if understanding climate change requires the historical imagination of the Left to add politics to geology, it also requires the ability to look at the famous hockey stick graph and see that the entire history of the movement is encapsulated within the steeply rising line at the very end — a line that, turned upside down, looks like nothing so much as a cliff.

So surely the prospect that we’ve got at most a few decades before things start to get really bad has implications for the Left beyond environmentalism. Since the onset of the no-alternatives stage of capitalism, the Left has been on the defensive as the range of imaginable futures shrinks ever smaller. And so a year ago T. J. Clark wrote in the New Left Review of a “left with no future,” suggesting that our task consists of a sort of tragic anti-utopianism, a piece-by-piece orientation toward the present with no illusions that its circumstances will improve anytime soon. But what’s the task when it’s not just the Left but the world itself that’s seemingly faced with no future? In other words, what should the orientation be of a politics that’s playing the long game when the arc of the universe is starting to feel frighteningly short?

Who cares if you’re on the right side of history if there’s no one left to write it?

I realize this sounds like the kind of hysterically apocalyptic rhetoric that many have warned against. Catastrophism is, after all, better suited to the goals of the Right than the Left; more likely to produce despotism and repression in the name of Malthusian emergency than the plentiful egalitarian society of our dreams; more likely to fuel millenarian fundamentalism than revolutionary fervor. Those cautions are important, and should be taken seriously. But merely warning against the perils of apocalyptic politics feels inadequate as it becomes harder to avert our collective gaze from what appear to be genuinely dismal prospects.

It’s easy to understand why some climate scientists and activists have feared that explicitly laying out how bad things are would produce paralysis or panic; thinking about climate change can be genuinely terrifying and overwhelming. Despair is a completely rational response that growing numbers of people are likely to experience whether or not activists resort to fearmongering, particularly as extreme weather affects more people and becomes harder to dismiss as an aberration. But collective action can be a powerful force to counter the isolation and fear that come with facing overwhelming odds. And the fact that there are such terrifying end-times narratives out there is exactly why the Left needs to be thinking about how to respond in a way that feels — and is — adequately urgent.

The most obvious precedent is perhaps the nuclear age, when the end of the world seemed perpetually close at hand — so much so that we got the term “no future,” and an ethos to match. A lyric from the Sex Pistols song “God Save the Queen,” the phrase is most immediately associated with the punk subculture that emerged from the recession of the 1970s, revolting against grim urban landscapes of unemployment underpinned by a Cold War sense of imminent annihilation. The declaration of “no future” signified an intensely oppositional, at times nihilistic focus on the present; it was anti-utopian, declaring that only action in the here-and-now mattered. It wasn’t so much a politics as an attitude, and perhaps, ultimately, an aesthetic.

The aesthetic of the anti-nuclear movement couldn’t have been more different — earnest, respectable, middle-class mothers made up its frontlines, marching against nuclear weapons and nuclear energy by the thousands — but its politics were still founded on negation: no more nukes, and get rid of the old. The movement ran almost entirely on urgency and moral outrage; they proved a galvanizing combination. At the height of the arms race, hundreds of thousands of people turned out for anti-nuclear demonstrations in countries around the world, and in 1982, a million people demanded a nuclear freeze in Central Park.

Yet upon failing to achieve one, the movement began to lose steam. Raymond Williams, reflecting on the movement’s limitations, wrote that “to
build peace, now more than ever, it is necessary to build more than peace. To refuse nuclear weapons, we have to refuse much more than nuclear weapons. Unless the refusals can be connected with such building, unless protest can be connected with
and surpassed by significant practical construction, our strength will remain insufficient.” They weren’t, it wasn’t, and it did. Nor did the anti-nuclear movement, for the most part, address the structures perpetuating the nuclear arms race. But then, there seemed no real reason to rebuild the world: avoiding apocalypse required only that each nation do nothing. While the nuclear age didn’t actually end, the threat subsided with the sudden end of the Cold War. By that time, the anti-nuclear movement had largely been pared down to an ultra-committed core.

The anticlimax of the nuclear age might suggest that climate change is just one more in a long string of false doomsday prophesies. Of course, it’s often because prophesies are made and acted upon that they end up looking false in retrospect; credit is rarely given when bad things don’t happen. But in any case, there’s much to suggest that this time is different. Where nuclear apocalypse would occur suddenly, and be largely undiscriminating in its effects, the climate apocalypse won’t come in one sudden burst. It will happen jerkily and unevenly, without us doing anything at all. We will have to do a lot for it not to happen. It is in many ways much more difficult to address, but also much more predictable in its general outlines. The ability to see our own version of “no future” coming from afar is one of our few advantages. And so we need to ask: how could the urgency and outrage of the “no future” sensibility translate into, if not a programmatic politics, something beyond negation and refusal, beyond a cultural obsession with apocalypse?

There were elements of such a politics in the protests and actions that swept the world in 2011, driven in large part by young people — unemployed Egyptians, Spanish indignados, indebted Americans — without much in the way of a future, and certainly not the bright one they had been promised. Yet as Occupy demonstrated, the desire to focus on the here-and-now without any vision of what comes next tends to be overtaken almost entirely by process-oriented prefigurative politics. And when the old vision of the future is untenable, as it now appears to be — what then?

Here we might look to the queer activism that formed in response to the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the eighties.. In its early days, many gay liberationists criticized terms like “epidemic” and “plague” and rejected the framework of crisis, pointing out that it was being used by homophobes as a tool to roll back queer freedoms. And with good reason: right-wing groups suggested that gays be tattooed, sensationalistic media accounts moralized about gay male sexuality, legislators called for quarantine rather than research. But as time went on and the scope of the problem revealed itself to be far vaster than most had imagined, as entire communities were sick and dying of a unknown, incurable disease, fear and panic seemed like the only rational responses.

Thus, in 1983, the playwright Larry Kramer wrote an article titled “1112 and Counting,” which declared: “If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men may have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.” Gay men and other marginalized people, Kramer argued, were suffering as guinea pigs in the search for a cure while white middle-class heterosexuals stood by and watched. It was time, he suggested, to fight back. Kramer’s article sparked a frenzy of discussion, but not the mass civil disobedience he called for, in part because he had a scant history of queer activism, and consequently little standing in the community. Many sympathized with his sense of urgency, but questioned the confrontational tactics he proposed. As the radical movements of the sixties and seventies subsided, many gays and lesbians sought inclusion in society rather than liberation from it, and many felt the response to HIV/AIDS should be one of self-moderation: to minimize gay difference and assert mainstream norms. Protest seemed too countercultural.

But as time passed and the crisis worsened with little response from the Reagan administration, protests and vigils began to emerge. When the Supreme Court decreed gay sex unconstitutional in Bowers v. Hardwick three years later, it was the final straw. Queers felt like they had nothing to lose, sociologist Deborah Gould argues, and “rather than paralyzing, despair became freeing.” Rather than closing off the sense of possibility, it “helped to wrench open the existing political horizon.” Lesbian and gay male activists began to recognize a shared identity; lesbians involved in antiracist and feminist politics recognized the threat that HIV posed to women of color and low-income women; radical liberationists and mainstream assimilationists recognized that they faced a shared threat. Together, they began a movement aimed at forcing the Reagan administration to take HIV/AIDS seriously, much of it characterized by the confrontational direct action undertaken by organizations like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — otherwise known as ACT UP.

There are, of course, significant differences between early HIV/AIDS activism and the modern climate movement. Yet their trajectories resonate. In particular, the defiant attitude Gould describes activists adopting in the face of despair sounds remarkably similar to that expressed by Tim DeChristopher, a climate activist recently imprisoned for falsely bidding against oil and gas companies in an auction of public lands. Rather than being paralyzed by hopelessness, DeChristopher was radicalized when he heard from a leading climate scientist how slim the chances of preventing catastrophic climate change actually were. “Once I realized that there was no hope in any sort of normal future,” he explained, “there’s no hope for me to have anything my parents or grandparents would have considered a normal future — of a career and a retirement and all that stuff — I realized that I have absolutely nothing to lose by fighting back. Because it was all going to be lost anyway.”

Of course, nothing-to-lose radicalism has long been tempered with the suggestion of something to gain. Capitalism speculates about the future while imposing restrictions on the present, whether emphasizing work and saving for future investment, offering to lift all boats in due time, or holding out the hope that you too can be rich; even the immediate gratification of credit is premised on expectations of a future payoff. Welfare liberalism promises everyone a job and a house eventually — the economy just needs to grow a little first. Movements are urged to be patient, to wait, to recognize that change comes gradually, in small and steady increments. When faced with desperate circumstances, it can seem that the only sensible course of action is to abandon grand projects and do what seems most immediately possible.

It’s not always the wrong approach. The problem is when it’s held up as the only one: legislative incrementalism has been fetishized to the point where it’s the default for all serious, reasonable politics. But climate change flips the logic of serious and reasonable. Climate change is often framed as a problem stemming from inadequate attention to the future, but it’s our immense faith in a brighter future that makes the untenable present possible. In fact, we’ve put off addressing climate change in part because economists argued that we’d be richer in the future and better able to deal with it then. And while one reaction to impending catastrophe is to look away, the other is to look still farther into the future, to the point when we innovate our way to clean energy or colonize the moon or geoengineer the oceans. The wildly unrealistic utopians are people like Richard Branson, who sees no contradiction between his purported concern for climate change and his plans to take the rich to space, and Elon Musk, who sees the future of humanity in Mars colonies for the wealthy.

But if that future orientation is in part what got us into this mess, the end of that future could be what helps get us out. As Gerry Canavan writes, “to say that the present has no future is not to say there is no future — it is only to say that things cannot continue to go on as they have.” As Princeton’s Stephen Pacala points out, “the rich are really spectacular emitters … the top 500 million people (about 8 percent of humanity) emit half the greenhouse emissions. These people are really rich by global standards. Every single one of them earns more than the average American and they also occur in all the countries of the world.” While climate change is mostly a concern of the white middle class in the US, at the international level it’s arguably the most robust space for examining class and racial disparities. It’s one of the few issues remaining where justice is discussed explicitly and unyieldingly in terms of equality, where rich nations are openly named as obstacles to progress, where historical inequities and legacies of exploitation remain on the table, where responsibility for disparity is openly discussed. The focus on science versus deniers in the United States has served to obscure the question of who exactly is emitting all these greenhouse gases.

But now that the rising tide that supposedly lifts all boats is threatening to inundate the shore instead, more people are losing patience with being perpetually put off. At the most recent round of climate negotiations in Doha, Naderev Saño, the lead negotiator for the Philippines, cried as he spoke of the damage caused by the sixteenth typhoon to strike that country this year and insisted on “no more delays, no more excuses.” But without the power to back it up, his demand was mostly symbolic. How could a no-future politics not only reject the endless deferral of rights, equality,
meeting of basic needs, but actually do something about it?

Impatience can be a virtue, but the understanding of why we can’t wait doesn’t come spontaneously. Arc of the universe aside, Martin Luther King knew perfectly well that the advance of justice isn’t assured — that moments of action are made, not given. A passage from Chaos or Community? reads eerily like a premonition of the current situation:

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. We are faced now with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late…. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: Too late.

Of course, every now carries a fierce urgency for those who live daily with the reality of scarcity and repression. That urgency is reflected in the most classic of all activist chants: “What do we want? When do we want it?” Whatever it is, and whoever we are, we know we want it now. But climate change adds a twist to that old chestnut. The recognition that incrementalism is an inadequate response to the problem that most threatens the Left doesn’t quite collapse all horizons into now or never, but it gets us closer to a shared time frame and a common answer to the question of why now? It gets us closer to a shared understanding of the importance of the current moment and a reason to pull together once and for all.

The global pall cast by the nuclear age brought, if not exactly a sense of unity, a morbid recognition of our interconnectedness, memorably encapsulated by the phrase “mutually assured destruction.” But the decision about the future was ultimately up to a few people. Climate change likewise suggests an interconnected doom, but it also offers a chance of salvation through mutual reconstruction. The kind of everything-at-once politics this suggests can be self-defeating if it amounts to fighting among ourselves for attention and space. Instead of jostling for position, instead even of forging temporary alliances aimed at achieving specific political goals, the emphasis needs to be on finally figuring out how all our different projects work together.

Because as the earth changes around us, the Left will have to change too. Nostalgia will serve us less well now than ever; we have to bring a newly critical eye to old goals, and find a core to build on as once-solid ice caps melt into open ocean. We need to ask: what could we do if we all agreed that now is the moment? But rather than subsuming all left politics under the single issue of climate change or treating it as an issue apart, we need to consider climate change a background condition for all politics. Instead of being bludgeoned by climate change, how can we use it as a lever to wedge open cracks of possibility, a shield against marginalization, a
time machine into our future, and a spotlight on the present?

Of course, for all its mobilizing potential, despair can also be debilitating, especially in the long run. If the rise of the HIV/AIDS movement was in part a product of despair, so was its decline: eventually, the fear and anguish that came with the inability to stem the tide of death took its toll, and internal divisions fractured the movement. Gould suggests that more attention to building trust and relationships among different factions in the early days of the HIV/AIDS movement would have helped organizations like ACT UP make it through later debates. Perhaps it would have fractured anyway in the face of the challenges before it.

But HIV/AIDS activists were also too quick to turn sorrow to anger, channeling emotions into politics without allowing themselves to simply feel them first. And so we should acknowledge that our work will be difficult. Suggesting that our new future won’t require much of us may increase surface-level support; offering lists of “things you can do” momentarily makes problems seem less daunting. But painting an overly rosy picture is also the best way to prompt a backlash when people realize that dealing with climate change is actually going to be hard or at the very least, defection by those who didn’t realize they were in for the long-haul. Told we’d reached the end of history, it turns out that we’ve actually arrived at the end of the future, or at least the one we knew. The experience will be disorienting. We have to rethink what progress means, and shift our gaze to a different horizon as we reconfigure our expectations for the present. It will sometimes feel like loss. We’re going to have to try things, and they aren’t always going to work. There are no assurances. But we have to start by recognizing the stakes.

This may seem rash. Sasha Lilley cautions that catastrophic politics tend to veer between “mechanistic determinism and no-holds-barred voluntarism or adventurism,” the likes of DeChristopher’s action arguably fits into the latter category. But his seeming recklessness reflects a larger shift in the climate movement, away from Al Gore-narrated documentaries and towards organizing, provocation, and confrontation. The broader left should be moving and thinking along with it. That doesn’t always mean replacing incremental politics with direct action at every turn. Even politics without a future can’t be oriented only toward the short-term: a movement that burns out after a few shrill years of protest may change the game for a while, but it isn’t going to rewrite the rules. Transformational projects require long-term politics. Nor does it mean rejecting partial solutions or hewing to overly determined prerogatives. It does mean pointing out that they are partial, and refusing to be placated. It doesn’t mean being rigidly dogmatic; it does mean making the case for our wildest dreams explicitly, in mixed company. It means thinking and acting more boldly than the political climate permits, all the while thinking in terms of futures that might be scoffed at as imaginary.

Utopia is usually considered the realm of bright-eyed optimists, but clear-eyed pessimism may be the state of mind best suited for building sturdier varieties. The new utopias won’t look the way the old ones did; they are unlikely to be lands of endless plenty. But released from the imperative to be politically realistic, we have new license to think about what’s actually possible.

The recognition of ecological limits could help undo political ones: if no other planet is possible, then another world is necessary. And while building a new present from the wreckage of old futures may be daunting, what other choice is there? The alternative is to watch the projected horrors of the future come closer; to view our own future through others’ suffering; to whistle in the dark and recite that Fredric Jameson quote about how it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. That’s probably true even for the Left at this point. But then, nobody said it was going be easy. We have nothing to lose, and a future to win.

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