Rubén Vezzoni – Are we all in the same boat? The Environmental Populism of the 1%

The corporate world cannot wish to stop the plundering of the planet and beings living on it. It is their source of wealth and raison d’etre.

Rubén Vezzoni is a PhD candidate in Political, Societal and Regional Change at the University of Helsinki


I have not been able to find a single source that is against ‘sustainability’. Greenpeace is in favour, George Bush Jr. and Sr. are, the World Bank and its chairman (a prime war monger in Iraq) are, the pope is, my son Arno is, the rubber tappers in the Brazilian Amazon are, Bill Gates is, the labour unions are.

Erik Swyngedow (in Gibbs and Krueger, 2007)

Bloomberg and Reuters have their own section on green and sustainable business. Recently, the new president of the ECB, the French lawyer Christine Lagarde, placed the purchase of green bonds at the top of the ECB policy agenda. She declared to be ready to explore any available option in the fight against climate change. Just a few months before, Ursula von der Leyen was launching the European Green Deal (meticulously avoiding to put a New at the beginning), trumpeted as a “man on the moon moment” to bring EU countries towards a climate-neutral 2050. In response to the covid-19 pandemic, the World Economic Forum announced its recovery program, the Great Reset, for a new social contract for the management of Global Commons and national economies. And while several Hollywood stars devote their time to the production of astonishing environmental documentaries, a bunch of queens – Letizia of Spain, Máxima of the Netherlands, Elizabeth the II – together with Prince Charles, Kate Middleton and even Prince Harry responsively commit to spread the word about the fight against climate change.

This series of bombastic initiatives signals the proliferation of top-down solutions as a response to an environmental crisis that is supposedly transversally unifying the whole of humankind. Following the populist strategy, the enemy is associated to an external element, an ambiguous, empty and objectivised container which has been deprived of any societal connotation. The forbidden dream of environmental populism is the identification of an intruder: the CO2, a virus, diesel engines, you name it, as long as it is something that pollutes and corrupts an otherwise perfect system. Nature, according to this environmental populism, is supposed to be unique and universal, serving as a transversal bonding element that glues us all together into a unified humankind. It annihilates any internal division of the system, instead reinforcing this structure.

Environmental populism is a pressing call to arms to avoid the imminent catastrophe. The “we only have x years to act” rhetoric belongs to those who, on the one hand, have assimilated the notion that the solution (often related to technological innovation) may come only from the current neoliberal structure of the free market society; and, on the other hand, still have some time to spare. Those who on the contrary do not have any time left, and it may well be they have never had it, are the marginalised from the redistributive processes, those excluded from the decision-making posts, those that on a daily basis consider trading their dignity for a piece of bread and the illusion of ever-more rare opportunities of social-climbing. The paradox, perhaps the genius, of this type of universal environmentalism is in enlisting the masses of systemic losers for strengthening the current geometries of power, particularly in sight of the destabilising effects of environmental destruction.

The discourse around climate change requires diffuse consensus, hence it shuts down any voice that stands out from the crowd. It is post-political in being the negation of the political moment that we are facing. Several authors, Žižek and Mouffe among others, suggest that this post-political scenario emerges from the rejection of ideological divisions, the multiplicity of social imaginaries, and the alternative combinations of material conditions (both ecological and economic). Instead, it favours the universalisation of particular claims. The political arena gets invaded by non-traditional actors, such as NGOs, citizens’ representatives, digital platforms, and, above all, financial actors and multinational corporations (the recent confrontation of Coca-cola and Co. and Facebook & Friends is a clear example of it). But while the basin of consensus is extended to a wider audience, the negotiating table is moved to the experts’ room. The post-political is performed with data in hand, with graphs, forecasts, annual reports and specialists’ round tables entitled not only to provide the final response, but also to make the initial proposals.

The conventional solution is that everything should be made more sustainable, a universal and timeless label ideal for any occasion. This is why we, humankind in the broadest sense, need sustainable development, sustainable business, sustainable governments, etc. But what if we simply couldn’t care less about sustaining the current system? Or rather, what if opinions diverge as a consequence of antithetical interests? The negation of the political lays indeed in foreclosing the possibility of debating what to sustain and what to dump, which hierarchies are to be consolidated and which are to be destroyed, which needs should be fulfilled and which should be eradicated. Žižek, for instance, defines politics the art of the impossible. True politics destabilises the foundations of the system instead of answering to its ludicrous requests. The political is a reshuffle of the possible alternatives, an emancipation of minds to imagine what was not allowed to be imagined. The atrophy of collective imaginary, also in the environmental domain, is on the contrary the consequence of the absence of the political.

The mainstream climate change narrative pretends not to discriminate against anyone – it puts us all in the same boat. It has a reconciliatory effect for the very simple reason that it marginalises dissent, both concerning its essence (e.g. climate deniers) and its enactment (e.g. those who question the economic system causing climate change). Despite the fact that an office worker in the suburbs of a European metropolis lives in a socio-environmental context which is completely different from the material conditions of a billionaire waiting for the apocalypse in his bunker in the mountains of New Zealand, it seems that the environmental catastrophe would affect them in the same way. Against this narrative, Keucheyan’s critical analysis shows the relevance of class, race, gender and other social characteristics and institutional settings in determining both winners and losers, and the ways in which costs and benefits of environmental degradation are distributed. The recent pandemic provides an example of how discrimination takes place in response of calamities. What those people forced to domestic seclusion in, say, 50 square metre urban flats with 4-5 relatives experienced is definitely different from the life of those celebrities that in some countries (like Italy) have been appearing on television preaching the beauty of staying at home from their luxurious houses with 5 bathrooms, a pool on the terrace and a separate playroom for their furry, fluffy cats. Echoing the words of Swyngedouw, the plain truth is that the need for and the idea of sustainability of Bill Gates and Elon Musk are radically different from those of a farmer in Guatemala or a bank employee in Lyon.

Nature with capital N does not exist. What does exist instead is a constellation of possible combinations of biological and societal conditions which determine the uniqueness of each context. However, this does not translate into a relentless deconstruction of any universal interpretation of environmental issues whatsoever. It highlights, on the contrary, the need for recognising which social phenomena assert themselves over this multiplicity of distinctive contexts. It means identifying common patterns of dispossessions and accumulation that systematically appear according to the same geometries of power. Different winners and losers in different settings are thus selected according to the very same methods. The (re)politicisation of the quest for environmental justice cannot be separated from the de-institutionalisation of the current system, namely from the explicit depiction of alternative social imaginaries and from the rearrangement of the metabolic processes of the economy. Against the post-political and reductionist populism of the anti-CO2 priests, Swygedouw suggestion is to recover the democratic horizon for the cultivation of political distinctions and antagonisms. New and unexplored futures can emerge from this political humus. And to these new imaginaries it is necessary to give clear, bold and brave names, just as much as capitalism and socialism offered distinct contents to be first easily identified and then debated in the political arena of the past century.

The demarcation of environmental programmes therefore helps not to mix up different vested interests. And since not all of us are in the same boat, we do not need the same equipment. Personally, I do not know what to do with Lagarde’s agenda, EU advertising campaigns, World Economic Forum, and royalty’s wet dreams. In principle, I share my particular interests and material conditions with the overwhelming majority of Europeans who are excluded from the positions of power in global financial capitalism. Our climate change justice is diametrically opposed to that of the elites mentioned above. Our environmental agenda asks for a Central Bank that, instead of playing darts with 2% inflation rate, would support full employment for securing our common environmental heritage and for transforming industrial production. It calls for radically democratic institutions, which represent the public interest rather than that of corporate groups or that of states with hegemonic interests in foreign countries. Finally, it demands an extreme resizing of economic geography, such that it would slow down global trades and re-localise productions processes of goods and services with the goal of meeting the needs of each locality in an almost autarchic fashion.

Climate change is an inevitable phenomenon whose velocity and magnitude are exacerbated by ravenous desires for profits, material accumulation and economic expansion. Yet systemic change is still to happen. Our societies cannot support existing institutional arrangements any more. They must not.

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