How different a different imaginary?

Marge may be the moral center of The Simpsons, but surely Lisa represents its active conscience. We have some chuckles at her expense when she moves into the tree to save it from logging. They are the tribute cynicism pays to sincerity.

mr burns blocks out the sun

Mr. Burns blocks out the sun.

Mr. Burns sits at the other end of this spectrum, and there the laughs are more satisfying. I’m not sure I’ve laughed more cathartically as when he contrived to block out the sun. Still, I’m not the first to note that Mr. Burns might have been onto something with his giant, sun-blocking device. Today’s geoengineers are proposing to seed the atmosphere with reflective bits of something or other, not to block the sun’s rays but to mirror back some of their light and heat.

In terms of ecological thought, as in much else, Lisa and Mr. Burns represent responses in polar opposition. But I’ll bet Lisa, who respects science and its technological legacy, and who in fact rightfully credits science with her understanding of human-caused climate change, might be willing to listen to the reflective bits idea. Others would urge her to stay up in the tree.

This is all to introduce, rather roughly and garishly, an essential point of contention in ecological thought demonstrated in two recently published articles. One, Peter Frase’s “By Any Means Necessary”  appeared last August in Jacobin. The other, from The New York Times a few weeks back, is “The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid,” by Benjamin Y. Fong.

The point of contention I’m talking about might be summarized this way: What will it take to face our climate crisis, wholesale systemic change or a more enlightened and more inclusive program of techniques–including those of geoengineering?

To be fair, both Frase and Fong are leftist critical scholars endeavoring to imagine a socially equitable, post-capitalist world. But within the immense difficulty of that project, old debates emerge. Because capitalism’s framing premises are the source of the climate crisis, Fong believes there are no piecemeal ways to deal with the magnitude of the threat. “It’s systemic change or bust,” he says.

Although he shares Fong’s etiology for climate change, Frase urges the Left to be more flexible in contemplating solutions. Certainly, rapid decarbonization is necessary, but the potential for remedies in geoengineering should not be dismissed out of hand. Human beings have long been geoengineers, Frase argues, at least since the agricultural revolution. To think we can suddenly change our ways and wait for the natural world to find its way back to some human-friendly homeostasis is not merely naïve, Frase claims; it’s bad natural history.

Students of American history won’t miss the provocation in the title of Frase’s article. “By Any Means Necessary” deliberately recalls the contrast Malcom X drew between the commitment to non-violent protest associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his own endorsement of greater militancy. Accordingly, Frase’s argument rests on the same realism used against pacifists in the civil rights realm or elsewhere. If good-thinking people sit out even a discussion of geoengineering, Frase warns, the field will be left open not only to “unaccountable private actors” but to “the apparatus of global neo-liberal government.” Forgoing action for moral reasons, in other words, amounts to surrendering to those who are unafraid to act. Action must be met with action, strength with strength.

These are compelling arguments. Less compelling is the way Frase sets up the problem in his first few paragraphs. The kind of apocalyptic warnings that support the call for systemic change are old hat, he charges, mere grist for the “mill of green moralizing.” Furthermore, they make “it is easy to abandon hope that political institutions can address the crisis in the time-scale it demands.” We need a “different political imaginary,” Frase says.

One might counter that the call for systemic change like the kind Fong makes is by definition a call for a different imaginary. That’s what makes it so frustrating and disturbing, so impossible-seeming, and such a target for ridicule. Maybe apocalyptic warnings are familiar to us now. But at least as familiar is the defensive character of the response to these warnings: their association with religiosity and scolding moralism; the charge that they only encourage hopelessness; the charge that systemic change is unrealistic. It seems to me that the critique on grounds of realism is the clearest sign of all that Frase is not offering a different imaginary but defending the old and dominant imaginary once again.

We might label that imaginary “liberal” or “modern”: it imagines that the key to human progress is the application of intelligence by agents free of received ideas and political oppression. Fong summarizes this as the dream that “intelligence will save us.” “The intelligence of the brightest people around,” he also states, “is no match for the rampant stupidity of capitalism.”

Fong doesn’t elaborate on what he thinks is stupid about capitalism in this brief article. He does mention in passing its “progressive nature.” In the recent book, The Patterning Instinct, Jeremy Lent uses a more descriptive term: “the self-accelerating treadmill of perpetual growth.” Lent shows how many aspects of late capitalism enact a Sorcerer’s Apprentice scenario: the insatiability of want and the planned obsolescence that support consumerism; the demand that corporations maximize returns on investment; the requirement for money to grow in order to insure its future value; the imperative, therefore, to progressively monetize all aspects of human existence. Gun violence and climate change are two more contemporary examples of positive feedback loops in runaway.

These are the systemic aspects of a systemic problem. Therefore, Fong argues, it does no good to blame individuals or even corporations for our predicament. “It is the system as a whole that is at fault.” Lisa Simpson would likely agree with that conclusion. But what can it possibly mean to say that the whole system is at fault and that intelligence cannot save us? What do we have but intelligence to intervene in conditions and to have some say over our fates? Such thinking seems to lead into the hopeless paralysis that Frase describes.

lisa contemplates systemic change

Lisa contemplates system change.

In the face of that paralysis Frase counsels – what else? More doing. Yes, we must decarbonize immediately, strike protests in trees, presumably, and we need to plan for geoengineering projects, as well. Frase’s “all of the above” approach echoes the way Obama articulated the need to fuel a stagnant economy in the aftermath of the 2007 collapse without ignoring climate change.

As commonsensical as this pragmatism is, it can be boiled down to the following: Why fool ourselves? This is who we are. We must keep doing because doing is what we’ve always done. If it hasn’t worked before, it still might work this time, if we can only do better and in greater amounts.

Permit me to direct your attention, at this point, to the paragraph above about the loops.

There is an understandable impatience with certain aspects of ecological thinking: its catastrophism, its moralism, its seeming gestures toward new age mysticism. We may be at the point, however, where the get-real response is the one more threaded with magical thinking.

Note: Peter Frase is an editor at and frequent contributor to Jacobin and the author of Four Futures (Verso, 2016), a smart book that gamely speculates on what might be expected in a post-capitalist, post-climate-changed world. It’s a useful book, brief enough and straightforward enough to be used on a course syllabus. Benjamin Fong is the author of the recent Death and Mastery: Psychoanalytic Drive Theory and the Subject of Late Capitalism (Columbia, 2016). I haven’t read Fong’s book, but it’s now on my list.

Note: This post also appears on the Society for US Intellectual History blog where I have been invited to become a regular contributor.