Žižek on Environmental Terror

Slavoj Žižek on how we can avoid the terror of environmental catastrophe through terror (“Joe Public v the Volcano,” New Statesman 29 April 2010).

Our growing freedom from and control over nature—indeed our survival—rely on a series of stable natural parameters that we tend to take for granted. [But t]he limits to our freedom become palpable with ecological disturbances . . .

. . . like the eruption in Iceland.

And we increasingly like “to assume responsibility for the threats to our environment . . . because that suggests everything depends on us”—and that we might be able to manage such threats. In the case of the eruption in Iceland, this led to  “[t]he confusion of natural and cultural or economic concerns in the arguments over the prohibition of flights”:

In the media, the volcanic ash has sometimes been treated as a natural catastrophe, sometimes as a meteorological phenomenon; sometimes it has been said to concern the economy (that is, the financial loss of the airline companies or of those who rely on air transport, such as the flower growers in Kenya). At other times the focus has been on the disruption of social life and the plight of passengers stranded abroad for days, even weeks. The main argument in favour of the closure of airspace over Europe was the danger that the volcanic dust posed to planes’ engines; the main argument against was the financial loss this closure entailed for the airlines and the wider economy.

A series of half measures were undertaken, in which the economy ultimately overrode science.

The same logic is at work with global warming.

Either we take the threat of ecological catastrophe seriously and decide today to do things that, if the catastrophe does not occur, will appear ridiculous, or we do nothing and risk losing everything if the catastrophe does take place. The worst response would be to apply a limited range of measures—in that case, we will fail whatever happens.

We are dealing here with “unknown knowns” (this category escapes the epistemological triad of Donald Rumsfeld: known knowns [things we know we know], known unknowns [things we know we don’t know], and unknown unknowns [things we don’t know we don’t know]): “the disavowed beliefs and suppositions to which we are not even aware we adhere,” things we don’t know we know.

In the case of ecology, these disavowed beliefs and suppositions are the ones that prevent people from believing in the possibility of catastrophe, and they combine with the “unknown unknowns” [i.e., the catastrophes themselves].

Either we can not anticipate ecological catastrophe, as we did in the past, when “the [resultant] social changes occurred in a wild, spontaneous way, with violence and destruction,” or we can act in anticipation, with revolutionary politics (to use Alain Badiou’s term). This means strict egalitarian justice, enforced by terror, on the basis of collective decision-making and trust, i.e.,

  1. “strict egalitarian justice” to force developed countries to use energy fairly, enforced by
  2. “terror,” i.e., “ruthless punishment,” on the basis of
  3. “voluntarism,” i.e., collective decision-making, and
  4. “trust” that the majority of people will participate in the enforcement, i.e. inform on transgressors.

In other words, communism.


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