Ecology is the new big discovery of the year. It’s been for the last thirty years that we’ve just been leaving that stuff to the Greens, laughing about it on Sunday and acting concerned about it on Monday. And now it’s caught up to us, and is invading the airwaves like a hit song in summertime, since it’s 68 degrees in December now.
A quarter of the fish species have disappeared from the ocean and the rest don’t have much time left either.
Bird flu alert: hundreds of thousands of migrating birds are to be shot in flight.
The mercury levels in human breast milk are ten times higher than the rates allowable for cows. Lips swell up on biting an apple; it came from the market... The simplest gestures have become toxic. We die at the age of 35 from “a long illness” that’s managed like everything else is managed... We should’ve drawn the right conclusions before things got this bad, where we’re all patients at pavilion B in the palliative care center at the hospital.
It must be said that this whole “catastrophe” we’re so noisily kept up on, doesn’t really effect us. At least not before it hits us with one of its perfectly normal and expected consequences. Maybe It doesn’t concern us because it doesn’t touch us. And that’s the catastrophe right there.
There’s no “environmental catastrophe.” The environment itself is the catastrophe. The environment is what’s left to man after he’s lost everything. Those who live in a neighborhood, a street, a valley, a war zone, a workshop – they don’t have an “environment;” they’re living in a world, peopled by presences, dangers, friends, enemies, living and dying areas, all kinds of beings. This world has its own substance, which varies according to the intensity and quality of the connections that attach us to all these beings, all these places. There’s no one but us, we children of the final dispossession, the exiles of the end times – who come into the world in concrete cubes, harvest our fruits at the supermarket, and catch the echo of the world through television – only we get to have an environment. And there’s no one but us watching our own annihilation as if it were just a simple change of atmosphere. Getting indignant about the latest advancements of the disaster, and patiently putting together encyclopedia entries about them.
What is frozen in an environment is a relationship with the world based on management, that is, on foreignness. A relationship with the world where we’re not made as well as the rustling of trees, the smell of frying oil in the building, the bubbling of water, the uproar of school classrooms, the mugginess of summer evenings, a relationship with the world where there is me and then there is my environment, surrounding me but never really constituting me. We have become neighbors in a planetary co-owners’ meeting. It’s hard to imagine a more complete hell.
No material surroundings have ever deserved the name “environment,” except perhaps for today’s metropolis. Digital voices making announcements, tramways with such a 21st century whistle, bluish streetlamps looking like giant matchsticks, pedestrians made up like failed fashion models, the silent rotation of a video surveillance camera, the lucid crackling of the metro electricity terminals, supermarket checkout counters, office time-clocks, electronic ambiances at the cybercafé, the profusion of plasma screens, fast lanes and latex. Never has a decor been so able to do without the souls traversing it. Never have surroundings been more automatic. Never has a context been so indifferent, and demanded in return such equal indifference in order to survive in it. The environment is in the end merely that: the relationship with the world that is proper to the metropolis, which projects itself onto everything that escapes it.
Here’s the situation: our parents were employed to destroy this world, and now they’d like to make us all work to rebuild it so that, adding insult to injury, it becomes profitable. The morbid excitation that drives the journalists and ad-men these days in reporting each new piece of evidence for global warming unveils the steely smile of the new green capitalism, in the making since the 70s, which we waited for at the turn of the century but never came. Well, here it is! Ecology, that’s green capitalism for you! Alternative solutions, that’s it too! The health of the planet demands it! No doubt about it anymore, it’s a green scene; the environment is to be the pivot point for the political economy of the 21st century. A volley of “industrial solutions” are introduced for each new catastrophic possibility.
The inventor of the H bomb, Edward Teller, suggests spraying millions of tons of metallic dust into the atmosphere to stop global warming. NASA, frustrated at having had to put its grand idea of an anti-missile shield away in the museum of cold war horrors, suggests putting a gigantic mirror beyond the moon to protect us from the sun’s now-fatal rays. Another vision of the future: a motorized humanity, driving along fueled by bio-ethanol from Sao Paulo to Stockholm; the dream of a cereal grower from the Beauce , which after all only implies the conversion of all the arable land in the planet for soy beans and sugar beets. Ecological cars, clean energy, environmental consulting co-existing smoothly with the latest Chanel ad, throughout the glossy pages of the opinion magazines.
We are told that the environmental issue has the incomparable merit of being the first truly global problem that humanity has had to deal with. A global problem, that is, a problem that only those who are organized on a global level will be able to solve. And we know who that is: the very same groups that for almost the past century have been the vanguard of disaster, and certainly intend to remain as such, but with a minor logo change; cheap! That the EDF has the impudence to serve us up its nuclear program again as the new solution to the global energy crisis says plenty about how much the new solutions seem to perfectly resemble the old problems.
Secretaries of State in the back rooms of alternative cafés, their concerns are always expressed in the same words, which are after all the same words as ever. People have to get mobilized. Not for to rebuild the country, like in the post-war era; not for the Ethiopians like in the 1980s, not for employment like in the 1990s. No, this time it’s about the environment. It will thank you for it. Al Gore, Hulot style ecology, and de-growth stand side by side with the eternal great souls of the Republic to play their role in re-exciting the little left wing people and the well known idealism of youth. Voluntary austerity writ large on their flag, they work benevolently to make us compliant with the “ecological state of emergency to come.” The sticky round mass of their guilt lands on our tired shoulders, intending to push us on to cultivate our garden, sort out our garbage, and compost the rest of the macabre feast in which and for which we are patronized condescendingly.
Manage the phasing out of nuclear power, the excess CO2 in the atmosphere, the melting glaciers, the hurricanes, the epidemics, global over-population, the erosion of the soil, the mass disappearance of living species... such is our burden. “It’s everyone’s duty to change their behaviors,” they say, if we want to save our fine civilization-model. We must consume little, in order to be able to go on consuming. We must produce organically in order to be able to go on producing. We must control ourselves in order to still have control. Such is the logic of a world trying to survive while giving itself an air of historical rupture. Thus they would like to convince us to participate in the great industrial challenges of the present century. And stupid as we are, we’re ready to leap into the arms of the very same people that presided over causing the devastation, expecting them to get us out of it.
Ecology isn’t just the logic of total economy, it’s also the new morality of Capital. The system’s state of internal crisis and the rigorous selection going on are such that we will need a new criteria to operate such sorting with. From one era to the next, the idea of virtue was never more than an invention of vice. Without ecology, how could we have today the existence of two different food channels, one “healthy and organic” for the rich and their children, and the other notoriously toxic for the plebes and their offspring, damned to obesity. The planetary hyper-bourgeoisie couldn’t make their ordinary lifestyle look respectable if its latest caprices weren’t so scrupulously “respectful of the environment.” Without ecology, no one would have enough authority anymore to shut up any and all objections to the exorbitant progress of control.
Tracking, transparency, certification, eco-taxes, environmental excellence, water police, all give us an idea of the coming state of ecological emergency. Everything is permitted to a power structure that authorizes itself to act as the representative of Nature, health, and well-being.
“Once the new economic and behavioral culture has passed into common morality, coercive measures will doubtless fall into disuse of their own accord.” You’d have to have all the ridiculous aplomb of a television adventure show host to have such a frozen perspective and at the same time to call upon us to feel “sorry for the planet” enough to get mobilized about it and yet remain sufficiently anesthetized to watch the whole thing with restraint and civility. The new eco-asceticism is precisely that self-control that is required of us all to negotiate the rescue operation for what the system itself has taken hostage. In the name of ecology, we must all now tighten our belts, as yesterday we did so in the name of the economy. The roads could certainly be transformed into bicycle paths, we ourselves could perhaps within a certain scope be one day gratified with a guaranteed income, but only at the price of an entirely therapeutic existence. Those who claim that generalized self-control will spare us from an environmental dictatorship are lying: the one will make the other’s bed, and we’ll have both.
As long as there is Man and Environment, there between them will be the police.
Everything about the ecologists’ discourse has to be turned upside down. Wherever they call the blunders of the present management system for beings and things “catastrophes,” we should really only see the catastrophe of its oh-so perfect operation. The greatest wave of famine known in the tropical belt to this day (1876-1879) coincided with a global drought, but above all it coincided with the apogee of colonization. The destruction of the provincial world and of its food-production practices had made the means of dealing with scarcity disappear. Beyond a mere lack of water, it was the effect of the colonial economy in full swing of expansion that covered the whole tropical strip with thin corpses. What presents itself everywhere as an ecological catastrophe has always been above all the manifestation of our disastrous relationship with the world. The way we don’t really inhabit it at all makes us vulnerable to the slightest jolt in the system, to the slightest climactic risk. As the latest tsunami approaches, and the tourists continue to frolic in the waves, the islands’ hunter-gatherers make haste to flee the coasts, following the birds. The present paradox of ecology is that on the pretext of saving the Earth, it is merely saving the foundations of what’s desolated it.
The regular functioning of the world normally serves to hide our state of truly catastrophic dispossession. What is called “catastrophe” is no more than the forced suspension of this state, one of those rare moments when we regain some sort of presence in the world. Let the petroleum reserves run out earlier than expected; let the international flows that maintain the metropolis’ tempo get interrupted, let us suffer some great social disruption and some great “return to savagery of the population,” a “planetary menace,” or the “end of civilization!” Either way, any loss of control would be preferable to all the crisis management scenarios they envision. The specialists in sustainable development aren’t the ones with the best advice. The logical elements for a response to this problem, which could easily cease to be one, come out in times of malfunction, when the system short-circuits. Among the signatory nations to the Kyoto Protocol, the only countries that have fulfilled their commitments, indeed in spite of themselves, are the Ukraine and Romania. Guess why. The most advanced experimentation with “organic” agriculture on a global level has taken place since 1989 on the island of Cuba. Guess why. And it’s along the African highways, and not elsewhere, that automobile mechanics work has come to be a form of popular art. Guess how.
What makes the crisis desirable is that in the crisis the environment ceases to be the environment. We are forced to reestablish contact, albeit a fatal one, with what’s there, to rediscover the rhythms of reality. What surrounds us is no longer a landscape, a panorama, a theater, but rather it is what we have to inhabit, something we should be made of, something we can learn from. We won’t let ourselves be robbed by those who’ve caused the possible content of the “catastrophe.” Where the managers platonically discuss among themselves how they might reverse emissions “without breaking the bank,” the only realistic option we can see is to “break the bank” as soon as possible, and make good use of the each collapse of the system until then to increase our strength.
New Orleans, a few days after hurricane Katrina. In this apocalyptic atmosphere, life is reorganizing itself. In the face of the inaction of the public authorities, who were too busy cleaning up the “French quarter” tourist area and protecting the shops to come to the aid of the poorer city dwellers, forgotten forms are reborn. In spite of the sometimes forcible attempts to evacuate the area, in spite of the “negro hunting” parties that the supremacist militias went out on, a lot of people refused to leave the terrain. For the latter, who refused to be deported like “environmental refugees” to the four corners of the country, and for those who from nearly everywhere decided to join them in solidarity, responding to a call from a former Black Panther, self-organization came back to the fore. In a few weeks time, the Common Ground Clinic was set up. This true country hospital provided, from the very first days, free and ever more effective care to those who needed it thanks to the constant influx of volunteers. Years later, the clinic is still the base for an everyday resistance to the clean-sweep operation of the government’s bulldozers, which are trying to turn that part of the city into a pasture for property developers. Popular kitchens, supplies, street medicine, illegal takeovers, the construction of emergency housing: a whole practical knowledge accumulated by people here and there over the course of their lives has a place to be put to use in there. Far from the uniforms and sirens.
Whoever knew the penniless joy of these New Orleans neighborhoods before the catastrophe, the defiance of the State that already characterized them and the mass “coping” that was already happening there, wouldn’t be surprised that all that has come to pass was possible. On the other hand, someone who’s trapped in the anemic and atomized everyday routine of our residential deserts might doubt that any such determination could be found anywhere anymore. Yet to reconnect with such gestures, buried under years of normalized life, is the only practicable means of not sinking to the bottom along with this world. May there come a time when we again become impassioned by those gestures.