Climate Apocalypse and/or Democracy

From Huffington Post:


In the last week, a group of scientists and a prominent historian each predicted a climate apocalypse. The scientists, led by Ricarda Winkelmann of Germany’s Potsdam University, issued a paper finding that, if humans burn the rest of the world’s estimated fossil fuel reserves — which might take only another 140 years at current rates of increase — effectively all of the world’s ice will melt, and sea levels will rise some 160 feet, enough to change the surface of the planet and drown, among others, New York, London, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, and all of Bangladesh.

Historian Timothy Snyder of Yale argued in the New York Times that climate change may bring us the next Hitler. If we ignore the warnings of science and don’t start investing in clean technologies, climate shocks will push countries into panic-inducing scarcity, inspiring everything from ethnic and religious conflict in Africa and the Middle East to imperial land grabs by a hungry and worried China. The Nazi precedent is at the heart of Snyder’s essay, which is titled “The Next Genocide.” For him, Hitler’s genocidal war for “lebensraum,” or “living space” for Germans, is a paradigm of an anti-scientific response to an ecological crisis. Snyder emphasizes that Hitler rejected scientific measures to increase crop yields and called for Germans to colonize Ukraine and the rest of Europe’s grain belt as protection against a food-poor future.

Taken together, these two warnings underscore the discomforting fact that the future of the planet is a political problem. The map of every coastline, the habitability or uninhabitability of the places where billions of people live today, will arise from policy decisions, as surely as if we were detonating those cities, or literally playing God and raising the seas with a word. This is only an especially vivid example of the new human condition, the Anthropocene, in which people are a geological force shaping the Earth. From now on, the world we inhabit will be the one we have made. We can’t decide to stop shaping the planet, but only what shape to give it. And the only way to decide deliberately and explicitly is through politics. Nothing else can bind and direct us in the right way.

And, as Snyder emphasizes, ecological crisis can make politics horrible. It can power the worst politics imaginable, to the point of genocide. But avoiding that awful future isn’t just a matter of accepting scientific guidance and opposing evil where it arises.

Instead, we can ask what kind of politics makes ecological crises less terrible. Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel laureate in economics, famously observed that no famine has ever taken place in a democracy. That is, a natural disaster isn’t simply a matter of drought or crop failure; it is a joint product of these events and political decisions: who gets the food, whether to let people starve. No democracy has let its own people starve — which is an abstract way of saying that democratic citizens have not let one another starve, or, more muscularly, have refused to be starved. There is a key here to a politics for the Anthropocene: a world of ecological crisis, where ecology is both a political problem and a political creation, must be democratic, or else it will be terrible.

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