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Climate Politics: Finding Common Ground
Putting intention, not ideology at the centre of the debate
Last week I interviewed Robbie Watt, a Lecturer at Manchester University who teaches on a range of courses, including the politics of climate change. Robbie joined me to discuss his research into carbon offsett markets, in particular the fantasy of how this market in particular will solve climate change. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theory of Lacan, Robbie explains how ideology and subjectivity are essentially impeding our ability to collectively respond to the climate crisis.
It was excellent to see philosophical theory applied to a real world problem—and framework— such as the carbon credit market; anyone following Planet: Critical for a while will know I take every opportunity to lambast the market based solutions both on this podcast and in my investigative journalism.
Towards the end of the episode Robbie brings up a fascinating notion of re-politicising spaces, explaining how vital this is. What this means is recognising that different stakeholders have different objectives and desired outcomes. This is true in all spaces from local to national governance, from community projects to family negotiations. To pretend that different groups of people with different desires are coming together to work wholly collaboratively on a piece of legislation or a policy or a project actually depoliticises the space.
Robbie argues that re-politicising spaces is important also because it serves to combat ideology and clarify our own subjectivity, our own biases. We can then acknowledge the fact that people have different objectives, agendas and intentions. The only way to work effectively with the powerful is to understand that the powerful have a different desired outcome than you.
This ties in very nicely with the interview with Katherine Stewart, Pro-power: How the far right stole America. She’s an investigative reporter who spent the past 12 years tracking the rise of the New Right and how they weaponised abortion to create a multi-denominational grass-root support network, and claw power back from the progressive agenda.
Part of what Katherine noticed is how the powerful deliberately set the framework for debates; they will couch a debate in terms of a binary which hides their agenda. The abortion debate is an excellent example: it will be presented as pro-choice vs pro-life whereas, in actuality, it is an agenda point that has been weaponised by a small group of people who wish to impose their Christian fascist ideals on an incredibly diverse nation. Forgetting these intentions, or not working hard enough to uncover the agenda of the people setting debates, is where we fall prey to our own ideology.
Perhaps it's because it is so terrifying to think there are people that wield such power in the world and would like to use it to impose their vision upon the world. For disempowered communities, who certainly share different value systems to the powerful, recognising one is up against individuals and groups who consistently prioritise their own benefit at the expense of hundreds or thousands or millions of people is frightening.
This is exploitation, and there are millennia of historical precedent for it, but history does not mitigate the present. Quite the opposite. Perhaps, then, we allow for certain debates to become weaponised and couched in ideological terms because then we have a sense of agency over what we're discussing; if nothing else, we have our opinions.
Continuing with the Roe vs Wade example: presenting the debate in pro-life vs pro-choice terms enables anybody and everybody to get involved in the debate because people fall on one side of the argument—they choose what feels morally, ethically or ideologically relevant to them. People can then participate in one of the biggest debates of our time—forgetting it shouldn’t be presented as a debate at all.
Whereas, to point out that the abortion debate has been deliberately weaponised by a very small group of people so that they can manipulate large swaths of the population into supporting their bid for power without realizing it, may be true, but it doesn’t signal how to engage with the problem, the terrifying problem, the hard problem, to steal a term from David Chalmers.
Part of the powerful’s power lies in how powerful they seem; their untouchability, their separateness. Staring into the eyes of the powerful is like staring down the barrel of the gun. What can you do?
You can come up against such power, you can point at it and name it, but there is nothing else that you as an individual can do. That is where collective action becomes so important. I believe it is another reason as to why the powerful wish to protect capitalism, a system which individualises people to such extent they forget that they have the power as a collective.
The re-politicisation of these spaces offers up some agency: We can refuse to engage with debate in a certain way, we can refuse frameworks, party lines. We can go on ideological strike.
Joining a political debate beyond ideology is critical. Ideology is a very easy space to exist in; one can never be wrong, and your opponent can never be right. But political spaces, spaces where action can be taken, where results are tangible, where you need to work together, this we can aim towards by re-politicising these discussions and spaces as a way of reclaiming agency in the march of history. This could stop us falling prey to ideological weaponisation which neutralises collective action in spaces where the problem is not ideological: the climate crisis is very real, its main driver is our economic system, our economic system is protected by corrupt politics, who take handouts from the powerful to protect their interests. This isn’t an ideology; it’s a system.
The other really interesting thing that Robbie is researching is how to find common ground with those who share intentions but disagree on actions. Let’s look again at the carbon market: Some people working on these frameworks, protocols and policies do so because they know the dangers of climate change and want to help. They genuinely believe they are doing the right thing. But because they are using a market based solution, which has a terrible track record of making things worse, someone like me will disagree on the action they are taking to make the world a better place. Despite a shared intention, our mutually exclusive understanding could potentially undermine a vital discussion.
Interestingly, framing the problem in this way reveals true intent. For example, if this person’s intention is to protect the world’s forests they will probably be amenable to hearing evidence of how 80% of carbon credit projects have resulted in human rights and land rights abuses. However, someone who’s intent is to protect capitalism at all costs will force the debate into an ideological space to discuss the merits of capitalism vs whatever. But there is nothing ideological about evidence: environmental regulations have a tremendous history of regulating environmental protections and the market. So why don’t people want to hear it?
Zizek did a lot of work on the potency of ideology: we identify with our ideology, we become our ideology. Again, for disempowered people, the one thing we can hold onto in the world and take ownership of is our opinion. It may be low-hanging fruit, but for many it’s the only tree left in the garden.
But, following Zizek’s argument, if we do identify with ideologies to the point of enmeshing our sense of self with our beliefs, then attacking another’s ideology will never work because it is seen as an attack on the self. To effectively engage in an analysis of someone’s ideology, perhaps one needs to offer a lifeboat upon which they can hold as you articulate the inaccuracies in their worldview—in their very self.
Perhaps that lifeboat can be the shared intention from which one begins the debate, the common ground; neither conservative nor liberal values are so alien when broken down to their most fundamental parts: taking responsibility; providing care.
Common ground is for the collective. Without it we cannot create a path towards the future.
Planet: Critical investigates why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it.