The Ecological Crisis Is Existential, Not Political

Published: Fri 1 Mar 2024 11:09 AM
The exhausting political analysis of the ecological crisis finds its last gasp in a book by political theorist Ajay Singh Chaudhary, fittingly entitled, “The Exhausted of the Earth.” His core premise manages to be both undeniable and wrongheaded: “Climate change is about power.”
One comes away from reading excerpts and an interview with Chaudhary with a feeling of dismay about people with whom one has political affinity. It’s difficult not to conclude that this age is irredeemable when our best minds provide so little insight.
That’s not just a personal reaction. Ajay proclaims, “The climate crisis is not the apocalypse. Billions will die but the world will not end.” For someone who writes, “How we feel is missing from a lot of climate texts,” such a cavalier remark is exceedingly heartless.
Making a political Procrustean bed out of the ecological crisis provides no way ahead. The misnomer of “the climate crisis” is actually a culminating expression of the contradiction between man and nature. The fact that the peril is planetary means that man’s illusory power is over nature is the first issue, not the unjust power of the few over the many.
Man’s fragmenting tendencies were held in check during innumerable prehistoric and indigenous generations. Now, with all holds barred, human separativeness is running amuck. It’s sentimental nonsense to believe humankind can meet the planetary ecological crisis by returning to and reviving indigenous wisdom.
Unable to shed boilerplate worldviews of the left, Chaudhary just adds another layer of chrome: “Your exhaustion is not some random byproduct. There is a class of people out there who cause your exhaustion, and it’s not just Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. Under capitalism, we are not all in it together.”
That’s false. It isn’t just oligarchs like Zuckerberg who delude themselves that they’ll be safe in billion-dollar bunkers in Hawaii. Intellectuals on the left can be as insulated from reality as the richest and most powerful rulers of the political economy with callous, “billions will die” abstractions.
The “exhaustion” Chaudhary lauds as a potential unifier of people is not politically based and remedied, but the emotional and spiritual fallout from man’s destruction of the diversity and integrity of the earth. The fragmentation of the earth is being reflected back to us, resulting in an intensifying crisis of human consciousness.
Rather than feel and understand the universal sorrow and despair however, avoidance, by any means necessary, is the order of the day. And avoidance is exhausting, to which “The Exhausted of the Earth” adds.
Though much subtler and less obvious than right-wing denial, denial on the left of the roots of the ecological crisis is pernicious despite its powerlessness. It rests on the same ‘us vs. them’ externalizing mentality, which not only contributes to polarization, but induces more waves of ennui with its tired political prescription to resist and oppose the powers that be. (And no, I’m not advocating resignation.)
“I am forced into self-defense; sabotage, blockades, and yes, just straight up violence,” Chaudhary concludes.
That isn’t radical; it’s conventional. A premise and strategy that begins with power must end in violence.
As The Guardian says in extolling Chaudhary’s superficial analysis: “We need a slower life, a circular economic system, where firms compete for the same amount of finite profit and the state dominates certain sectors. This will be good for the planet and for people, producing “a world relieved from social, economic, and ecological despair and exhaustion.”
There’s no mention of spiritual exhaustion, which is first and foremost. By advocating a “slower, circular” way of living, without addressing the meaninglessness and rot at the core of the global materialistic/capitalistic culture, intellectuals and activists contribute to the ennui that so many people feel.
After all, why would people listen to “unite, you have nothing to lose but your exhaustion,” when they’re being offered the same externally oriented, class-conscious solution that’s made them exhausted?
“International solidarity” feels good and appears necessary, until one realizes that it retains the primacy of the nation-state, and therefore nationalism. Social justice is inextricable from the ecological crisis, as is the genocide in Gaza and threat of nuclear war over the war in Ukraine. But the roots of the ‘polycrisis,’ which is at bottom a crisis of human consciousness, go far deeper than the stale philosophy of most western intellectuals.
The fragmentation of the earth is directly proportional to the fragmentation of the individual within tribalistic nations and tribalistic sub-groups within nations. The unwise use of symbolic thought underlies both, despite the need of so-called philosophers to particularize. That’s also a feature of thought’s unchecked fragmentary nature and tendency.
In short, the ecological crisis does not stem from class and power, but from the misuse of higher thought, which in our globalized digital age is tearing the earth apart.
Class, power and capitalistic rapaciousness are drivers of the climate crisis and the Sixth Extinction to be sure. But to place the ecological crisis, which is existential for all humanity, in a political context, and insist that it’s primarily the result of disparities of power and wealth, is a shallow and utterly inadequate response.
Martin LeFevre

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