From Anaximander to COP 27

Image: Kendall Hopes


The phenomenon of climate change as a result of an inequality of power over the planet's resources

The pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander of Miletus was, in the XNUMXth century BC, the first to establish a relationship between the social order and the order of things, between the political order and the order of the non-human. The notion of cosmos had emerged, before him, only applied to the order of the human world, the State and the community. Anaximander projected the notion of cosmos outside the social field. This notion began, from then on, to also designate an ordering of the universe itself as a whole.

For the philosopher, the principle of isonomy should also prevail in the universe. That is, there would be a legal connection through which, over time, things – today we would say, the biosphere – would reflect, in a problematic way, the injustices committed in the social world. What is the nature of these injustices? The philosopher was referring to the so-called pleonexy — namely, the avid desire of some to have more things than they ought to have. The political – isonomic – experience of law and law should be the foundation of the existence of the social world, but also of the cosmic world.

This is the interpretation of Anaximander's thought presented by the Hellenist Werner Jaeger, in his great synthesis of 1933,[I] long before, therefore, that the issue of the environment appeared as a public problem. Impressive is this secular philosophical anticipation of the articulation between cosmic order and the notion of justice – the suggestion that cosmic disorder, that is, injustice in the cosmic order and the subsequent perishing of things would result from the concentration of non-human things in a few human hands.

The signs of disorder in the cosmic world – such as those recorded today by the repeated reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – would result from the avidity with which certain economic actors would appropriate a larger part of the planet than what, by justice, should fit them. . This philosophy can help to understand the phenomenon of climate change as a result of an inequality of power over the planet's resources. But it also contributes to understanding politics as a space for combating social and environmental inequalities; it suggests, on the other hand, that policies to face the climate crisis must include combating social inequalities.

Members of the denialist coalition that came to power in Brazil did not read Anaximander. But they showed that they know that, in order to maintain their power over parts of the planet that are larger than they would, in fairness, they must disqualify the political sphere, dismantle the institutions of environmental control and make room for the direct exercise of force over social groups. who suffer most from the environmental damage caused by its businesses – indigenous communities, quilombolas and residents of the outskirts of cities.

For many public policy analysts, the main role of state environmental institutions is to produce new criteria for action and new models of development. More than adopting new technical norms and intervention procedures, it would be up to them to propose new frames of reference that mobilize actors for different representations of the future, for example, that of generalized extractive capitalism that resulted from neoliberal reforms.

Denial governments, while striving to interrupt established procedures for intervention and application of instituted norms, seek to deconstruct the reference frameworks that served the democratizing “environmentalization” of government actions, disregarding the implications of deregulation as a factor for aggravating inequalities environmental issues and disrespect for cultural diversity. In the case of Brazil, for example, this implied bringing together anti-indigenous and anti-environmental policies to facilitate the accelerated territorial advance of the agro-mineral complex.

Part of the literature specializing in the study of the “environmentalization” processes of nation states chooses to classify them according to the way in which society's interests are welcomed within them. So-called excluding states would select few interests to accommodate and deny access to others, while so-called inclusive states would be open to broader interests. These “environmentalization” experiences are also classified according to passive or active types with regard to the State's attitudes towards the interests of non-business society: Active states would try to affect the content and power of large interest groups, opening space for society non-business, while passive states would tend neither to promote nor to impede the action of non-business civil society on the state.

This literature could not devote enough attention to the most recent processes by which public machines were managed in order to promote a regression in environmental regulations, a neutralization of environmental protection agencies and, even more, a radicalization of what would be a process at the same time active and excluding with regard to the perspectives of non-business civil society, in its diversity of perceptions on the environmental issue.

The understanding of what is meant by environmental problems is a product of the representations from which the processes of socio-ecological change are understood. These processes can be seen as a manageable institutional challenge, or, alternatively, as requiring structural changes. To these two understanding strategies, however, it would be appropriate to add a third, one that disqualifies the subjects who define the environment as a public problem.

If a part of policy making is constituted by defining the type of problem that institutions must face and for which solutions will be sought, political action itself can be, paradoxically, constructed as a problem. If policies are not only built to solve problems, but problems are also built to create policies, we can say that, for environmental denialism, pre-existing policies and regulations are the problem in themselves.

The freedom that large corporations have to produce inequality is an important cause of the maintenance of the predatory model of development. This is because while it is possible to allocate the risks and damages to the poorest and non-whites, nothing will tend to change in the development model and it will continue to advance the frontier of agribusiness and mining, deforesting and threatening small rural producers, indigenous peoples and traditional communities. Nothing will tend to change either from the point of view of urban projects and the location of infrastructures that fail to serve and penalize residents of the urban peripheries.

That is, environmental predation will tend to continue as long as those who suffer its effects are the least represented in the spheres of power – whether populations victimized by extreme weather events, or those whose lands are occupied by agents of land grabbing and deforestation. The philosopher Walter Benjamin warned[ii]: it is necessary to pull the emergency brake of the locomotive of technical progress to prevent the world from being led to a possible catastrophe. But who will stop this train if those with the power to pull the brakes manage to escape the damage they themselves do?

For the anti-environmentalists of agromining capital, the “herd herds of illegality”, “a good environment is a degraded environment”. This is because the environment to be degraded is the environment of the poor on the outskirts, of small rural producers, of indigenous peoples and quilombolas. The question for debate today is: how to make environmental policies that fight inequality and feed a process of reconstitution of the political sphere? How to link the reassembly of environmental policies to the assembly of a democratic policy?

If environmental inequality is what allows extractive capitalism to expand without brakes, in Brazil and in the world, the fight against this inequality – this is what Anaximander’s pre-Socratic philosophy suggests – is the way to stop the trajectory of the locomotive of the progress towards a possible collapse. It will certainly not be enough to pull the brake and slow down. It will be necessary to change the direction of the train of development.

*Henri Acselrad is a professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).


[I] Werner Jaeger, Paideia – the ideals of the Greek culture. Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico – Buenos Aires, 1957, p.113.

[ii] In a text from 1928, Benjamin's metaphor is that of the need to cut the wick of technological development whose spark can reach dynamite. Walter Benjamin, one-way street, Selected Works II, Ed. Brasiliense, 1987, p. 45-46. It is in 1940 that, as highlighted by Michel Lowy, Benjamin speaks of the need for an emergency brake on the locomotive of progress, Gesammelte Schriften, Berlin, Suhrkamp, ​​1977, I, 3, p. 1232, apud M. Lowy, Revolution Is the Emergency Brake – Essays on Walter Benjamin, ed. Literary Autonomy, São Paulo, 2019. P. 145.

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