Climate crisis and alienation

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By MICHAEL LÖWY*

We can still break out of the infernal circle of alienation and regain control of navigation and avoid a tragedy

We are passengers on a new Titanic. However, unlike the one in 1912, the officers and most of the passengers on this magnificent ocean liner are aware. They know that if the new Titanic continues on its current course, it will inevitably hit an iceberg and sink. The iceberg is called “Climate Change”.

Some of the officers raised the question of a change of course. The answer was “too expensive”: passengers would have to be compensated, etc., in short, huge expenses. However, a decision was made to reduce the speed, but this was barely implemented. Meanwhile, in luxurious Business Class, the orchestra plays and passengers dance. In Economy Class, people enthusiastically watch the football championship on television. A group of outraged young people protest and demand another direction, but their voices are drowned out by the noise of the orchestra and the television.

Some passengers, in both Business Class and Economy Class, are concerned. Really very concerned. They know that some stowaways managed to board the ocean liner. They actively mobilize to hunt them and throw them overboard. A philanthropic minority proposes that they be given a life jacket before being abandoned in the ocean. This is still under discussion.

Meanwhile, the new Titanic is moving inexorably towards its iceberg.

This tragicomic allegory can help to illustrate the situation of our civilization (modern industrial capitalism) in the face of the increasingly evident threat of ecological catastrophe, namely, irreversible and uncontrollable climate change, which threatens the very foundations of life in general. , and of human life in particular. Is this not an alienation of humanity as a whole, unable to cope with the imminent danger?

 

The iceberg approaches

So what is alienation? The dictionary Robert gives two definitions: (i) Mental disorder, temporary or permanent, which renders the individual incapable of behaving normally; (ii) state of the individual who becomes a slave to the things and achievements of humanity, which turn against him.

Are we in the first case? Can we speak of a kind of collective “mental disorder”, which makes individuals incapable of behaving normally? Perhaps. But, instead of “mental disorder”, we should talk about willful blindness or aggravated myopia or ostrich behavior (in the face of danger, stick your head in the ground).

I tend to consider the second definition in the dictionary, as long as it is extended from the individual to the collectivity.

The classic analysis of alienation (alienation) is found in Marx, especially in the Manuscripts from 1844. For the young Marx, alienation is the process by which the products of human activity, of work, of production, become independent of their creators and assume the form of an autonomous power, which escapes their control and opposes them. as hostile and alien.

This is the case of goods, the world market, fossil fuels, industrial agriculture, productivism and consumerism.

In fact, it corresponds to the whole of industrial civilization which has become an uncontrollable power, which turns against its creators and threatens to destroy them. It is a kind of impersonal “automaton” system that works according to its own rules, perfectly based on impeccable mathematical calculations (losses and profits). The New Titanic sails with automatic steering, the operation of which is bitterly defended by those who enjoy the privileges of this luxury ship.

The worst can still be avoided. We can still break out of the hellish circle of alienation and regain control of navigation. We can still change direction. But we don't have much time...

 

let's change direction

Who are these young people who try, with inexhaustible energy, to awaken the passengers of the New Titanic and break the deadly spell of mercantile alienation? The new generation is increasingly aware that it will be up to them to “pay the bill”, within a few decades, for the blindness of those who hold power today, be it economic or political. She understands very well that the problem is not just with the rulers – whose inertia is evident, and is reflected in the spectacular failure of dozens of COP meetings, including the last one on climate in Sharm el-Sheikh – but with the current economic system ( i.e., modern industrial capitalism). This awareness is reflected in the slogan of countless demonstrations since the Copenhagen Conference in 2009: “Let's change the system, not the climate!” For, as Greta Thunberg sums it up perfectly: “It is mathematically impossible to solve the climate crisis within the current political and economic system”.

Greta Thunberg – called a “witch” by fascists, neo-fascists and reactionaries of all stripes – has undeniably played a catalytic role in mobilizing youth for climate change. His 2019 call for a global climate strike was followed by 1,6 million young people in 125 countries worldwide, and his 20 September 2019 call by 7 million! The Covid-19 crisis may have dampened this mobilization, but it is starting again, in a thousand different ways: Friday for Future, Global Climate Strike, E Rebellion, Youth for Climate, etc.

Summing up the spirit of this generation, Greta Thunberg recently said, "We will not capitulate without a fight." This combativeness of youth is our main hope for avoiding collective shipwreck.

*Michael Lowy is director of research in sociology at Center nationale de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). Author, among other books, of What is Ecosocialism?Cortez).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves

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