the last exit

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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

In addition to the pandemic, which still persists, other catastrophes are on the horizon

The latest data makes it clear that even after the (highly uneven) advance in vaccination, we will not be able to relax and return to the old normal. In addition to the pandemic, which still persists (the number of infections has risen again, new confinements await us), other catastrophes are on the horizon. In late June 2021, the formation of a heat dome – a weather phenomenon in which a ridge of high pressure traps and compresses hot air, leading to high temperatures and cooking the region – over the northwestern United States and southwestern United States Canada has temperatures approaching 50oC. Vancouver got hotter than the Middle East.

This climatic pathology is just the culmination of a much broader process: in recent years, temperatures above 30°C have been detected in northern Scandinavia and Siberia. A World Meteorological Organization station located in Verkhoyansk, Siberia – just north of the Arctic Circle – recorded a record 38oC on the 20th of July. The city of Oymyakon, in Russia, considered the coldest inhabited place on Earth, registered, this year, the highest temperature in a month of June (31.6ºC). In other words, “climate change is frying the northern hemisphere”.

True, the heat dome is a local phenomenon. But it is the result of disruption in global patterns that is clearly related to human intervention in natural cycles. The catastrophic consequences of this heat wave for life in the ocean can already be seen: “The 'heat summit' probably killed 1 billion marine animals off the coast of Canada”, experts say. "A scientist from British Columbia claims that the heat basically cooked the mussels: 'beach sand is not usually crunchy when you walk on it.'"

While temperatures generally increase, in some places this process reaches extremes; and, sooner or later, these extremes will coalesce into a series of global tipping points. The catastrophic floods in Germany and Belgium in July 2021 are one such point. Nobody knows what will come next. The catastrophe is not something that will begin in the near future, it has already arrived, and not in some distant country in Africa or Asia, but here, in the heart of the developed West. Let it be clear, we will have to get used to living with multiple simultaneous crises.

A heat wave is not only partially conditioned by the reckless industrial exploitation of nature, but its effects also depend on the organization of society. In early July 2021, in southern Iraq, temperatures exceeded 50ºC. Simultaneously, there was a complete breakdown of the electricity supply (no air conditioning, refrigerator or lighting), turning the situation into a veritable hell. This catastrophic impact was clearly caused by massive state corruption in Iraq, where billions of oil dollars disappeared into private pockets.

If we soberly analyze these (and many other) data, we come to a simple conclusion. For every living creature, whether collective or individual, the final exit is death (which is why Derek Humphry was right to name it final exit for his book in defense of assisted suicide). The ecological crises of recent times open up a realistic perspective for the final exit (collective suicide) of humanity itself. Would there still be one last exit on this path that leads us to perdition or is it too late and we only have to look for a painless suicide?

Our place in the world

So what to do in this difficult situation? We must above all avoid that common sense according to which ecological crises have taught us that we are just a part of nature, not its center, and that we have to change our way of life – limit our individualism, develop new forms of solidarity, accept our place modest in the midst of all life on our planet. Or, as I said Judith Butler, “A livable world for humans depends on a thriving planet where humans are not at the center. We oppose environmental toxins not only so that we can live and breathe without fear of poisoning ourselves, but also because water and air must have lives that are not centered on our own.”

Wouldn't global warming and other ecological threats demand incredibly powerful collective interventions in the environment, direct interventions in the fragile balance of life forms? When we say that the increase in the planet's temperature must be kept below 2ºC, we speak as if we were the general managers of life on Earth, not as a modest species. It is obvious that the regeneration of the planet does not depend on “our smallest and most conscious role” – it depends on our enormous role. Here's the truth behind all this talk about finitude and mortality.

If we must also be concerned about the lives of water and air, it is because we are, as Marx said, “universal beings”. That is, we are able to go beyond ourselves, to lean on our shoulders and realize that we are a small moment of natural wholeness. Running away into this comfortable modesty of finitude and mortality is not an option; it is a false exit that leads us to catastrophe. As universal beings, we have to learn to accept our environment in its complex composition, which includes everything we consider garbage or pollution, as well as what we cannot directly perceive because it is too big or too small (Timothy Morton's “hyperobjects”) . to morton, be ecological

it doesn't mean spending time in a pristine nature reserve, but appreciating the grass that cuts through the tear in the concrete, and then appreciating the concrete. He is also part of the world, and part of us...

reality, Morton writes, is populated by “strange aliens” – things that are 'knowable but queer'. This strange strangeness, Morton writes, is an irreducible part of every rock, tree, terrarium, plastic Statue of Liberty, quasar, black hole, or lion tamarin we can find; by recognizing it, we move away from the attempt to dominate objects, trying to learn to respect them in their undefined character. Where the Romantic poets were enthralled by the beauty and sublime character of nature, Morton responds to its general strangeness; everything that is frightening, ugly, artificial, harmful and disturbing is included in the category of natural.

Could there be a greater example of such mixing than the fate of Manhattan's rats during the pandemic? Manhattan is a living system made up of humans, cockroaches and… millions of rats. During the confinement, at the height of the pandemic, when the restaurants closed, those rats that lived from their dumpsters were deprived of their food source. This led to mass starvation: many rats were found eating their young. The closure of restaurants, which altered human eating habits without threatening them, was a catastrophe for rats. Rats as comrades.

Another similar accident in recent history could be called "sparrows as comrades". In 1958, at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese government declared that “birds are the public animals of capitalism” and launched a major campaign to eliminate sparrows. It was suspected that each bird was capable of consuming about four pounds of grain a year. Sparrow nests were destroyed, eggs were broken and chicks were killed; millions of people organized themselves into groups and beat pots to touch the sparrows from their nests, trying to lead them to death from exhaustion.

Such mass attacks wiped out the sparrow population, nearly driving them to extinction. However, in April 1960, Chinese leaders forcibly realized that they, too, ate large numbers of insects in the fields; therefore, instead of increasing, rice harvests declined drastically after the campaign: the extermination of the sparrows upset the ecological balance, and, in the absence of predators, the insects destroyed the crops. By then, however, it was too late: without the sparrows, the locust population exploded, with swarms plaguing the country and compounding with the ecological problems that had already been caused by the Great Leap Forward – including widespread deforestation and deforestation. misuse of poisons and pesticides. The ecological imbalance is thought to have exacerbated the Great Chinese Famine, which killed millions. The solution found by the government was to import 250.000 sparrows from the Soviet Union to replenish its population.

So, again, what can (and should) we do in this unbearable situation? Unbearable because we have to accept that we are one of the species on Earth, but at the same time, we are burdened with the impossible task of acting as universal stewards of life on Earth? As we miss out on other, perhaps easier, exits (global temperatures are rising, oceans are increasingly polluted…), it looks more and more like the last exit – before the final one – will be some version of what once was. called "war communism".

by any means necessary

What I have in mind is not some kind of rehabilitation or continuation of the “really existing socialism” of the twentieth century, much less the global adoption of the Chinese model, but a series of measures that the situation itself imposes on us. When not just a country, but all of us face a threat to our existence, we enter a state of emergency – similar to a war – which will last at least a few decades. To simply guarantee the minimum conditions for our survival, mobilizing all our resources is inevitable to deal with unusual challenges, including the displacement of tens, or perhaps hundreds, of millions of people due to global warming.

The response to the heat dome in the United States and Canada includes not just helping the affected areas, but attacking its global causes. And, as the catastrophe in southern Iraq makes clear, a state apparatus capable of maintaining a minimal welfare state under catastrophic conditions will be necessary to avoid social explosions.

All this can – I hope – be achieved only through strong and binding international cooperation, through social control and regulation of agriculture and industry; by changes in our basic eating habits (less meat), global health care, etc. On reflection, it is clear that representative democracy alone will not be sufficient for the task. A much stronger executive power capable of enforcing long-term commitments will have to be combined with local associations of people, as well as a firm international body capable of overriding the will of dissident nations.

I'm not talking about a new world government - such an entity would open the way to immense corruption. Nor am I talking about communism in the sense of abolishing markets – market competition must play a role, even if regulated and controlled by the state and society. Why, then, use the term “communism”? Because what we will have to do contains the four aspects of every truly radical regime.

First, voluntarism: the necessary changes are not stated in any historical necessity; they will have to be done against spontaneous tendencies – as Walter Benjamin said, we have to pull the emergency brake on the train of history. Then egalitarianism: global solidarity, health care and a minimal decent life for all. So, the elements that, for obstinate liberals, can only mean “terror” – and that we were able to taste with the measures to face the pandemic: limitation of many personal freedoms and new modes of control and regulation. Finally, trust in people: everything will be lost without the active participation of ordinary people.

the way ahead

This is not a dystopian and morbid vision, but the result of a simple and realistic assessment of our condition. If we don't follow this path, what will come is that totally insane situation that is already happening in the United States and Russia: the powerful elite prepares its survival in bunkers giant underground rooms where thousands can survive for months, with the excuse that the government must function even under such conditions. In a nutshell: government must continue to function even when there are no more people alive on earth to exercise its authority.

Our government and financial elites are already preparing for this scenario, which means they know the alarm bells have already gone off. While the prospect of the mega-rich living somewhere in space, off Earth, is unrealistic; we cannot avoid the conclusion that the attempts of some of them (Musk, Bezos, Branson) to organize private flights into space also express the fantasy of escaping this catastrophe that threatens our survival on earth.

And for us, who have nowhere to run, what's left?

*Slavoj Žižek is a professor at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Author, among other books, of The year we dreamed dangerously (Boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published in the US magazine Jacobin.

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