Why is it so much easier, as the saying goes, to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism? In 2017, the question felt particularly acute. With relentless hurricanes and wildfires ravaging the United States, the fears of doomsday preppers tipped into the mainstream: “Apocalyptic Thoughts Amid Nature’s Chaos? You Could Be Forgiven,” declared a New York Times headline last September, just weeks before publishing a Style-section guide on “How to Survive the Apocalypse.”
The most straightforward answer to the question, perhaps, lies in the sticky substance that fuels capitalism as we know it, and is daily bringing us closer to the apocalypse of the preppers’ imagination: oil. “No petroleum, no modern war machine, no global shipping industry, no communications revolution,” writes cultural studies scholar Imre Szeman in Energy Humanities, a recent anthology he co-edited. In other words, oil fuels and constitutes so much of what we desire—convenience, travel, year-round avocados, perpetual novelty, and cheap, plentiful goods—that it is hard to imagine life without it. “Oil capital,” writes Szeman, “seems to represent a stage that neither capital nor its opponents can think beyond.”
It’s not that capital’s opponents haven’t been trying—a dedicated minority of them at least. Clustered in and around the academy, a growing number of left-wing thinkers have taken up climate change under the umbrella of the humanities, producing a variety of subfields, research groups, conferences, books, and journals dedicated to understanding, and eventually dismantling, what they call our “petrocapitalist” system. Unease about our climate-changed era, the “Anthropocene,” has spilled into novels, movies, and the broader cultural realm—and not just science fiction. A growing genre of literature, sometimes described as “climate fiction” (or “cli-fi”), is imagining how climate change is reshaping the world.
But these efforts have yet to permeate into the mainstream, where climate change registers at the level of sci-fi apocalypse, or barely at all. Between the two lies an impasse. It takes the form less of outright denial than of inertia. This manifests in different ways. Even in the United States, a large majority of people now believe climate change is a threat, and increasing numbers recognize it as the result of burning fossil fuels. A majority of those polled by Pew in three dozen countries in 2017, including the United States, even see it as a leading security threat. Yet for most, the enormity of the problem leads to a sort of numbing, or imposes itself in more subtle ways: a series of new studies suggest that environmental dread is fueling stress, anxiety, and depression on a large scale. None of those responses do much to mobilize people against the status quo—and meanwhile, petrocapitalism chugs along, bringing ever more of the world into its ambit.
“The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination,” writes novelist Amitav Ghosh in his 2016 nonfiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. The scale of the crisis, he argues, makes it all but “unthinkable.” And this colossal blind spot afflicts both right and left. It’s not hard to understand why. Confronting a problem that threatens the collapse of human civilization as we know it means drastically rethinking how that civilization functions—and some of the fundamental assumptions underlying it. “The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil fuel use,” writes the postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty in a seminal essay collected in Energy Humanities. “Most of our freedoms are energy intensive.” Imagining a low-carbon world, then, means reevaluating our conception of freedom itself.
How did we arrive at this impasse? Just two years ago, with the December 2015 Paris Agreement, it seemed we had finally reached a tipping point on international climate action. The agreement marked “a stunning demonstration of universal awareness of the danger of global warming,” writes psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton in his latest book, The Climate Swerve (2017). This is the awakening—the “swerve”—that gives the book its name. But with the swerve, Lifton is quick to note, has come whiplash, most visibly in the form of Donald Trump and his cabinet of oil barons and climate deniers. Now many of us are eager just to get back to where we started.
Trumpism has furnished the climate movement with an almost cartoonish cast of enemies. Rex Tillerson, Scott Pruitt, and their accomplices belong to the larger cabal of wealthy Americans with ties to the fossil fuel industry who have falsified and actively denied climate science for the last forty years. The $1.4 billion that industry has spent on federal lobbying in the last decade has decidedly paid off: U.S. taxpayers have been subsidizing fossil fuel companies at a rate of $20 billion each year, according to a recent report from the think-tank Oil Change International, without which much of the increasingly dirty and expensive industry would no longer be profitable. It’s not because they’ve actually convinced all that many U.S. voters that climate change is fake news: 68 percent of Americans believe that global warming is caused by humans, according to a 2017 Gallup poll. Awareness of climate change is well on its way to becoming universal, as Lifton points out. But action to confront it is not. Ghosh argues “global inaction on climate change is by no means the result of confusion or denialism or a lack of planning: to the contrary, the maintenance of the status quo is the plan.”
For every American who believes climate change is a hoax, there are many more who simply choose to carry on as before, despite knowing the facts. The phenomenon might be more accurately described as “climate inaction” than “climate denial,” and Lifton attributes this to “psychic numbing,” a manifestation of “the mind’s resistance to the unmanageable extremity of the catastrophe, to the infinite reaches of death and pain.” (It is similar to animals freezing, or “playing dead,” in the face of danger.) Lacking prior experiences on which to model the threat, we are left paralyzed.
Lifton’s view of the psychology of climate change is informed by another apocalyptic threat he has studied extensively (one that has become newly relevant in its own right): nuclear war. Faced with such overwhelming threats, “we tend to see each of them as beyond description or comprehension, as driven by otherworldly forces that render us tiny and helpless, rather than as lethal mechanisms we ourselves have created and are quite capable of understanding.”
So we find other ways to cope. Lifton compares them to the contortions in thinking, among both policymakers and the public, that ushered in “nuclear normality” during the Cold War. As he recalls, Americans began pondering the ethics of a hypothetical scenario: If a neighbor tries to enter your nuclear shelter and use up its valuable oxygen, are you entitled to shoot him? “That such a question could be seriously raised is an indication of how bizarre nuclear normality could become,” he writes. He quotes the psychiatrist character in Akira Kurosawa’s 1955 film, Record of a Living Being: “maybe we who are able to be normal are really the strange ones.”
Half a century later, in a society threatened by climate change, the spirit of “nuclear normality” persists in what Amitav Ghosh calls the “great derangement”: this condition where “our lives and our choices are enframed in a pattern of history that seems to leave us nowhere to turn but toward our self-annihilation.” Yet if it is felt at an individual level, this “derangement” is, at bottom, institutional: the psychological response stems from the deep hold of petrocapitalist ideology over our lives. Far from being inevitable, it is produced by a system that devotes considerable resources to preserving itself, and to foreclosing other alternatives.
Former Washington policymaker Meghan L. O’Sullivan’s Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power, also published last year, is a fitting case study in this respect. In O’Sullivan’s view, the persistence of the age of oil signals not impending doom, but a major political and economic opportunity for the United States. The United States, previously “the world’s thirstiest consumer of overseas oil,” is now a more self-sufficient oil producer: U.S. oil production has doubled over the last ten years, from about 5 million barrels a day in 2008 to 10 million today. This is freeing us from our reliance on foreign oil, and has also helped “temper predictions and perceptions of American decline.” China’s confidence in the United States has been restored. Paradoxically, so has America’s position as a “global leader” on climate change, according to O’Sullivan: carbon emissions have declined as cheap, fracked natural gas has replaced coal in U.S. power plants, allowing industry to brand it a “bridge fuel” for weaning America off coal and oil. (Critics argue that this is only locking the United States into a less dirty, but still deeply unsustainable, fossil fuel.) And for champions of the U.S. liberal order, the boom is evidence that the system still works: America’s innovative, boot-strapping wildcatters not only kick-started an industry, but “fueled an economic boom that has been good for jobs, government coffers, and the economy as a whole.” The frontier lives.
This is the U.S. liberal order that is premised on well-functioning markets and the capacity of free, profit-seeking individuals to generate economic growth. “Nothing is more tied to energy use than economic activity,” writes O’Sullivan, pointing to the global surge in energy demand from 1997–2007. This was when China’s economic growth reached a high of 14 percent (growth hovers around 2 percent in Europe and the United States); by 2007, China accounted for nearly a fifth of global energy demand. Today, this is visible in China’s smog-filled megacities as well as the proliferation of Chinese-made goods in American homes (from iPhones to Ivanka Trump shoes). Notably, it has also lifted millions of Chinese people out of poverty, swelled the ranks of China’s middle class, and offered them a particularly American kind of freedom: the freedom to express one’s identity through mass, conspicuous consumption.
China is not alone. Notwithstanding the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which the United States is now the only country to reject, international trends still point toward the globalization of fossil-fueled consumerism. Over the last five years, global fossil fuel use has continued to rise at an average of almost 1 percent a year, or the equivalent of about 678 million barrels of oil, as of the latest estimates. Growth and carbon still go hand in hand.
Controlling the source of all this energy, of course, also translates into geopolitical power, and Windfall is ultimately concerned with how the United States can capitalize on the boom to bolster its superpower status. Above all, this means further expanding U.S. fossil fuel production, including by reducing regulations and maintaining free-trade policies like NAFTA. (O’Sullivan sees Europe at an economic disadvantage: the EU’s high price on carbon makes it more expensive for companies to pollute, meaning that European companies, enticed by inexpensive U.S. natural gas, may relocate across the Atlantic.) By capitalizing on this “new energy position,” the United States can also promote its own vision of freedom, strengthening its global influence (by helping other countries develop their oil and gas resources) and promoting its national security interests (by sanctioning unfriendly oil exporters to combat terrorism). This is no protectionist, anti–free trade vision of “energy independence” à la Trump. For O’Sullivan, further integrating the U.S. economy with Canada’s and Mexico’s would create a North American energy corridor to rival OPEC in influence—a vision that is also, incidentally, shared by the oil industry associations of all three countries and several big investment banks.
Windfall is a neat encapsulation of how ideology reproduces itself—the confluence of interests that create their own motor of self-justification. O’Sullivan’s sprawling list of appointments and credentials include Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan under George W. Bush; professor of international relations at Harvard’s Kennedy school; member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission; and “strategic advisor” to the CEO of Hess oil and gas. In many ways, she is at least as useful of an ally to fossil-fuel companies as the gaslighting climate deniers. Her “realism” helps enforce the status quo.
In this way, O’Sullivan is perhaps less removed than it might seem from some of her counterparts on the left. Windfall basically affirms the present order, imagining a future that differs from the present only in how power is distributed between nation-states, and in the emergence of new technologies like fracking. This may not be surprising coming from an alumnus of the Bush administration. What is more surprising is to find such “strategic realism,” as Imre Szeman labels it in Energy Humanities, reflected in the “apocalyptic environmentalism” of the left. The latter school imagines that climate change will precipitate the collapse of the capitalist system—and that “nothing can be done to stop the disaster from coming.”
It’s hard to avoid the feeling that, at least when it comes to stopping the disaster, they might have a point. Just look at Asia, says Ghosh, where 60 percent of the world’s population resides. Population density alone will make climate change especially disastrous there: rising sea levels could cause up to 125 million people to migrate from India and Bangladesh; the desertification of China’s farmlands, which feed 20 percent of the world’s population, is already causing direct annual losses of $65 billion; and the rivers of Tibet and the Himalayas, which sustain 47 percent of the world’s population, are drying up, with the region warming at twice the global average rate. These headline-grabbing examples from the world’s most populous continent illustrate all too neatly that “We needn’t do anything—other than what we are already doing—to endanger the future of our species,” as Lifton writes.
Still, if the only post-capitalist vision that the apocalyptic environmentalists have to offer is of capitalism’s smoldering ashes, aren’t they just conceding, as Windfall does, to capitalism’s total power over our minds and world? The confluence of these two seemingly opposite schools of thought points to a deeper challenge. As both O’Sullivan and Ghosh observe, Asia’s carbon-fueled economic transformation is also one of the main drivers of climate change, providing billions of Asians with access to consumer freedoms and amenities that the West has long enjoyed (and advertised via the movies and culture it has exported throughout the world). No wonder that national governments across the political spectrum view economic growth as a key measure of national strength.
“We do not succumb easily to the troubling paradox that the same fossil fuels that have so benefited our civilizing processes now threaten our future,” writes Lifton. This is compounded by our failure, as a society, to envision alternative futures—trapped as we are between the twin poles of apocalypse and business as usual. Rarely, then, has it been more incumbent on the left to offer that missing vision.
“The fact that laissez-faire ideas are still dominant within the Anglosphere is therefore itself central to the climate crisis,” writes Ghosh. “Global warming poses a powerful challenge to the idea that the free pursuit of individual interests always leads to the general good.” If that vision of freedom must be abandoned, what comes next?
The relationship between carbon and freedom has always been vexed. Yet it bears keeping in mind that the rise of modern democracy largely coincided with the age of fossil fuels. In Energy Humanities, Jean-Francois Mouhot argues that the rise of carbon-fueled machines helped to free individuals for leisure pursuits and education—the bedrock of a democracy. Fossil fuels allowed Western societies to outsource their labor to machines, much as wealthy, white slave owners once off-loaded their labor on slaves. Later, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and refrigerators lightened the burdens of women’s labor, as cultural studies scholar Sheena Wilson notes. Increasing automation and convenience have come to underpin many of the freedoms the left has sought to expand. Oil even fueled the sixties counterculture. In an essay on literature across different energy eras, the late feminist theorist Patricia Yaeger ponders on the movement’s precursors: “Kerouac’s characters are gasoholics. Oil dependency created their world; each city, suburb, truck stop, and bite of pie depends on Standard Oil, Shell, Mobilgas, or Phillips 66.”
Six decades after the initial publication of On the Road, the grip of consumer culture has only tightened on contemporary life, and people of all demographics now have the freedom to define themselves through a seemingly endless supply of goods reliant on petroleum: cosmetics, fashion, electronics, travel amenities, household goods, Instagrammable meals featuring food products shipped from abroad. In the process, these “conveniences” have lost some of their luster. Far from granting us more leisure, they have allowed work to further colonize our bodies and our time, with employees now expected to respond to emails around the clock, and bosses equipped with technology to track their workers’ every move. Patriarchy also persists: women, many of them freed by automation to pursue careers, remain disproportionately burdened by housework, meaning that they now perform double-duty. (Though wealthier women can dump their labor on service and care workers, who are often immigrants and women of color.) As Wilson writes, corporations also sold their fossil-fueled, petroleum-based products to women using advertisements that promoted “long-standing patriarchal conceptualizations of woman as object and as property.” Today, these products are ubiquitous, leaving society more dependent than ever on oil. But “its sources are mainly hidden from sight,” observes Ghosh. “The energy that petrol generates is easy to aestheticize—as in images and narratives of roads and cars—but the substance itself is not.”
Often, the sites where oil is pumped, fracked, processed, or mined are remote, and almost always, they are guarded by private security, allowing industry to control the images and narrative about what happens inside. In oil-producing regions, political parties and institutions across partisan lines pander to industry, producing what many scholars call a democratic deficit and “oil curse.” Even the newly elected social-democratic party in Alberta—the Canadian tar sands province—has adopted a pro-pipeline stance, aligning with its conservative rivals and marginalizing anyone opposed to the constructions, from landowners to native trappers to environmental activists. Thanks to the climate movement and growing media coverage of the human impact of extreme weather events, industry’s monopoly over the narrative is beginning to break. But their monopoly over everyday practice largely holds.
Ghosh is troubled that there is no popular climate mobilization in India or China, but he also acknowledges that their anti-imperialist movements understood, long before climate scientists “brought in the data,” that industrial civilization would collapse if it continued to expand. It is worth emphasizing that these anti-imperialist movements were not looking to mimic Western capitalism: some were communist, others were socialist, and many were internationalist. But while the Chinese Communist Party (which played an outsized role in the anti-imperialist movements of the global South) has morphed into a force for capitalist expansion, it continues to pursue industrial development as a path to achieving national strength. Today, China is itself an imperial power, engaged in the large-scale extraction of Africa’s natural resources for its own economic gain. Left governments elsewhere have also financed their socialist projects through oil production (for instance, Chavismo in Venezuela, or social democracy in Norway). When it comes down to it, feeding a nation, offering social services, and building infrastructure costs a lot of money—or at least it does in a globalized economy dominated by private corporations and subject to the dictates of free trade. And above all, oil continues to be big business.
Lifton points out that the fossil fuel industry would need to surrender about $20 trillion in untapped wealth for the planet to avoid a temperature rise of 2 degrees. According to economists and historians, the “last time in American history that such extraordinarily valuable stranded assets existed was in 1865 and the ‘assets’ took the form of human beings,” he writes. Slaves made up half of the South’s economy and 16 percent of that of the United States, which by today’s standards would total about $10 trillion.
The comparison is daunting. Yet the conceptions of freedom that the abolitionist movement introduced, once considered extremist and radically impractical, are now largely taken for granted in the United States. And fortunately, there are other precedents for such a radical transformation too. If climate change means redefining freedom, we can look back to the social movements—not just abolitionism, but feminist, labor, and anti-imperialist struggles—that won the civil and democratic rights we enjoy today. Despite their differences, the organizers of these movements believed that everyone should be free from exploitation, including economic exploitation as a condition of having enough to eat, a place to live, access to clean water and healthcare, and safety from bodily harm—in other words, basic human rights. Many saw this freedom as antithetical to the kind of system that prioritizes the right of individuals to profit, and assumes that those profits will lift all boats. None could have foreseen the extent of the climate crisis, but the paradigm shift they imagined—toward collective values—are echoed by the writers and activists today who are calling for a broadening of the commons and for viewing ourselves as stewards, not masters, of the environment.
Ghosh sees clues in indigenous practices as well. He recalls visiting India’s low-lying Nicobar Islands in 2005, just after the tsunami hit, and noticing that the indigenous islanders, living primarily in the interior, were unaffected by the waters. Only a half-mile-wide strip along the coast had suffered damage, where the middle class and educated population lived. “In settling where they had, they had silently expressed their belief that highly improbable events belong not in the real world but in fantasy,” he writes. This was an example of “the bourgeois belief in the regularity of the world,” which partitions nature from culture (science from the humanities), “deliberately excludes things and forces (‘externalities’) that lie beyond the horizon of the matter at hand” (like broader geological forces), and creates a false sense of security about our ability to control our surroundings. By contrast, the indigenous islanders appeared to accept their existence within the natural world, whose unpredictable elements were not worth trying to tame.
The climate crisis—the revolt of nature—is challenging the idea that “only those people who had thrown off the shackles of their environment” are modern, self-possessed, and free. It challenges not just the notion that freedom consists of private entities profiting from their individual interests, but also the idea that freedom is achieved by nation-states jockeying for power, all to clear the way for private corporations and, by extension, ensure their own economic growth. Are we really free if we can’t afford rent, child care, healthcare, retirement, or to fix our flooded homes, even while working multiple jobs? Will we still be free when private first responders and water and electric companies decide to prioritize their wealthiest customers after a storm, leaving the rest of us stranded?
There are no shortcuts to climate justice. The climate crisis poses a challenge that is larger in scope and more encompassing than any other humanity has faced. But is it actually helpful to fixate on the magnitude of the problem? Historians of the future may find it relevant, and it certainly highlights that anything short of a system change will be inadequate. Yet this scope has also been paralyzing. The abolitionists and anti-imperialists probably felt their odds to be just as daunting, but by identifying weaknesses in the systems of their oppression, they were able to chisel away, little by little, until those systems finally gave way.
Our path, in the twenty-first century, will likely involve some blend of direct action and pipeline blockades; federal, international, and community plans; carbon taxes; fossil fuel divestment; pushing elected officials to support tighter emissions regulations, an end to fossil fuel subsidies, and investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and public transportation; better farming, harvesting, and food production practices—and much, much more. It also requires a paradigm shift, one that redefines freedom in more egalitarian, collective, sustainable, internationalist, and just terms.
And somewhere in this overwhelming crush of history and global, geologic forces, we must steady our hands. This experience of coping with anxiety is keenly captured by Italo Calvino in “The Petrol Pump,” a short story published in the wake of the 1973 global oil crisis, as the narrator faces the existential angst of failing to fill up his gas tank just as the pumps are closing. “Between the end of the times when people with certain jobs worked round the clock and the end of the times when you imagined that certain commodities would never be used up, lies a whole era of history whose length varies from country to country, person to person,” he writes. “For a while now I’ve been getting used to imagining the future without flinching.”
Audrea Lim is a journalist and an editor at Verso Books.