Todd Gitlin: Convulsive Climate Change



Some Philosophical and Sociological Challenges of Convulsive Climate Change


Todd Gitlin


Ecocide and Exploitation

Six centuries have passed since the British began to extract stupendous amounts of energy from the remains of extinct life buried deep beneath the earth’s surface. But “the British” were not all of a piece. The genealogy of coal is, well, illuminating. The mining that started to clog the atmosphere with carbon dioxide was the product of slave labor. At an early stage in the development of coal, a 1606 Act mandated that Scottish coal miners be permanently bonded to their masters. If they dared leave the mine, they were considered to be thieves and subjected to large fines and punishment “in their bodies.” Vagabonds were also at risk of being enslaved. It wasn’t till 1775, with the industrial boom in coal-fed steam engines afoot, that another law declared this to be “a state of slavery and bondage” and formally abolished it, in part to permit the recruitment of a much larger work force. Even then, to prevent “any injury to the present Masters”, the miners held in servitude would have to go through a long and laborious process to win release.

The mine owners’ new property model succeeded. Mining boomed. A whole way of life built up around it. Over the following two centuries, the principle driving the burning of coal was extrapolated to other fossil fuels, increasingly oil and gas. The extraction of fossil fuels drove the process that we are pleased to call “development.” This didn’t just happen—it was made to happen, by an amalgam of investment, organization, coercion, and culture. So it has come to pass that the energy unleashed from the remains of extinct life drives new waves of extinction and threatens a civilization that is hellbent on striving to fill every last crevice of the world, all the while bragging insistently on its excellence and inevitability.

This is not an old, superseded story. It is a continuing story of power and profit that offers employment along with unending harm to the miners. In his contribution to this symposium, for example, Ercüment Çelik calls attention to the death of 301 workers at a coal mine in Soma, Turkey, caused by an underground fire:

“The Soma Coal mine, formerly a state-owned company, had been privatized in 2005 and since then was proud of decreasing the cost of producing coal from about $140 to $24 per ton. After the disaster in 2014 it became clear that this was at the expense of the lives of hundreds of mineworkers. Erinç Yeldan, a leading economist, calls the tragedy of Soma mineworkers “a crime of peripheral capitalism” that operates through hasty privatization and forced informalisation of labour.”

In other words, the story of fossil fuels is not only a story of investment, it is a story of the exploitation of labor. As Murray Bookchin pointed out, “The very notion of the domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human.” The wreckage of humans by humans is intertwined with the wreckage of the world.

We are survivors from two time-directions. We are the lucky survivors of our ancestors who themselves survived convulsions. Even in the more or less prosperous world, we are also the survivors of a convulsive future. It might seem to trivialize the sufferings of those already uprooted by extreme weather, famine, droughts, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and so forth, for those of us in the more-or-less prosperous world to call ourselves refugees. But we are either refugees from an unsustainable future, or we are agents of change.

Power and Irony

None of this would have surprised Karl Marx. But Marx believed in the saving grace. With the touching confidence of an Enlightenment problem-solver enraptured by the Hegelian dialectic, he thought transcendence would emerge from the very bowels of the problem. He considered that mankind “inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since…the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.” In other words, the poisoning of the atmosphere and the consequent disruption of nature were no more than transitional perturbations.

Marx, for all his awe at the immensity of capitalism’s achievements, did not anticipate the scale of disruption made possible by the flourishing of capitalism. In the bliss of nineteenth-century ignorance, he could not imagine the fullness of a negative dialectic—the undermining of the very conditions under which capitalism had come to thrive. He could not imagine a world in which (in McKenzie Wark’s astute words) “the sum total of social labor undermines its own conditions of planetary existence. There is no longer an outside, a margin, an elsewhere, to dump the waste products of that labor and pretend this disorder that we make has gone away. That disorder now feeds back through the whole metabolism of the planet. It has done so for a while, it will keep doing so, in a sense, forever. There is no ‘environment’ or ‘nature’ that is separate. There is no ‘ecology’ that could be in balance if we just withdrew from it…. So we have to understand, and process the feeling, of living among the ruins.”

Disruption by conquest, by ecological threat and collapse, is integral to human history. Tradition is the residue of disruptions. Where there were hunters and gatherers, there was fire. Farmers have known since time immemorial that where there is nature, there is disruption. The Mayans likely fell to deforestation and drought. In the late thirteenth century, the Anasazi villages of the North American Southwest fell to drought exacerbated by warfare, with tens of thousands of people migrating to more hospitable climates. The fragility of civilization is an old story. So is the bulldozer jaggedness of large-scale capitalist development.

But today, the scale of disruption is vastly magnified. The nature that disrupts civilization is nature shaped and wrenched by human history, which has become intertwined with what we are pleased to call nature. As the sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote recently:

This current period, which a growing number of scholars are calling the “age of extremes,” has been punctuated by significant disasters that change the way we understand risk, vulnerability, and the future of cities. Superstorm Sandy [on the Eastern seaboard of the United States] was neither the deadliest nor the most expensive catastrophe in recent US history, and in global terms its impact was far less severe than other twenty-first-century disasters, from the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 (which killed more than two hundred thousand people) to the pan-European heat wave of 2003 (which killed around seventy thousand people).

To process the feeling of living among the ruins is no simple matter. To process is not to succumb. To sloganize is not to process; so that, for example, one can rest content with wholesale blasts at capitalism without specifying what it is about capitalism that is so dangerous. To process is to take seriously the task of rethinking; and acting.

This rethinking needs, among other things, to pursue a philosophical track. For convulsive climate change challenges not only the material civilization of human life but, as the philosopher Samuel Scheffler points out, the values that undergird most human endeavors, for climate change (along with nuclear weapons) cast doubt on the likelihood of posterity. Yet the belief that there will be a human future is the unspoken core of present values. Can we believe in even our personal endeavors if a sustainable future is not within reach? Scheffler’s sophisticated answer is: Not really. Therefore we live among the ruins of the future.

Can Sociology Rise to the Occasion?

Uncertainty about the future is a human condition, but even as we conceptualize the interrelations of all humanity, collective uncertainty is now a shared fate.

How shall sociology contend with such a radical change in the human time horizon? Theoretical sociology long aspired either to a picture of a single interconnected world or to a differentiating prism, but both models presupposed a future that would be no more than a continuation of one past or another. From such fragments of the past, sociology has sought master concepts in order to compose master narratives, but all of them presuppose a ground of values that is now, and for the indefinite future, at risk.

One possible response, the easy “disciplinary” one, would be for sociology to throw up its hands and go in pursuit of smaller, more manageable analytical territories—to narrow its definition of data and to demote any imagined future altogether. But this would be to abandon the idea of humanity in favor of national and other sectoral surrogates. In a world so deeply at risk, there can now be no vision of a human future without reincorporating human nature into humanity and nature simultaneously.

Rather, sociology needs to take account, and urgently, of the melding of social and natural, because so-called nature is social—not “socially constructed” as if from the void, but nature and society melted into each other. That we live in a Möbius strip world was grasped by Fernand Braudel and his colleagues of the Annales school. It’s not that we need less theory, we need more encompassing theory that not only develops concepts but also makes contact with concrete problems and the efforts underway to move toward—as well as away from—a sustainable world. Toward that end, it’s good that efforts are being made by many writers, including some I have mentioned, to bring capital T Theory down off its clouds into contact with the entirety of the world. This is not the place to try sketching the many dimensions of a needed overhaul in sociological theory. But on a practical plane, I have, for now, three modest suggestions.

• Sociologists need to map corporate and state power clusters and networks that invest in disruption for the benefit of their property interests. We need studies of specific cases where disaster is organized by social institutions. For disruptions are made to happen. Names need to be named and fingers pointed.

• We are not beginning in Year Zero. Policies are underway. Shifts in energy generation are underway. Sociologists need to analyze the results of policies adopted—and not adopted—in many countries and regions. We need to study specific cases. For a critical sociology does not stand on an exalted plane and decry the depredations that are all too easy to find. Sociology needs to engage with the practical activity of adaptation, mitigation, and resistance.

• Sociologists need to write in the vernacular. I realize that I have not done so in this piece, where I am writing for sociologists, but were I writing for a more general readership, I would certainly do so.  To write with an eye to comprehension may seem the most trivial of imperatives. But the point is not just to map hell but to change it. The levers of potential change are in the hands of human beings who have no interest in the arcana of theory or specialized jargon. Communication with them is not incidental. It is of the essence.



Gitlin_Todd - portraiteditedjpgTodd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology, and chair of the Ph. D. Program in communications at Columbia University, and the author of 17 books, including The Whole World Is Watching, The Sixties, Occupy Nation, and a just-completed novel, The Opposition.
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Images:  The banner image shows Hurricane Isabel on 13 September 2003, about 450 miles northeast of Puerto Rico, with packed winds of 150 miles per hour and gusts up to 184 miles per hour. Isabel was the costliest, deadliest, and strongest hurricane during the 2003 Atlantic hurricane season. The photo with the hurricane’s eye, eyewall, and surrounding rainbands was taken from the orbit above by Astronaut Ed Lu during Expedition 7 of the International Space Station (NASA image ISS007-E-14750).  –  Photo credit for the portrait of Todd Gitlin goes to Laura Nguyen, University of California, Riverside.


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