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The Real Story of COP27
By rejecting the future, politicians drag us into the past
Last week I interviewed Ella Saltmarshe about the role of narrative in the fight to save our planet from our own destruction, and, more widely, the role it plays in shaping human history and, therefore, human future.
The power of narrative cannot be understated. Ella gives many examples of the different projects that she's working on about combating our short-term perception of time, and about creating story principles that we can use to craft the stories that we need to herald in a new future. She says a fascinating thing at one moment about how we currently seem to conflate capitalism with humanity, therefore making it increasingly difficult to imagine ourselves living in a system that is different from capitalism.
Stories are driven by character and plot, and when thinking of stories with which we can build a better world it is imperative we better understand the role we play in the creation of our own stories; the individual, the community, and even the performance of how we engage with stories—in my interview with Jon Alexander, he spoke of how cynical people are perceived as more intelligent in today’s Western culture.
Engaging with the future demands an engagement with story-telling, for this is all the future can appear to us as. This opens those who dare tell new stories of the future to easy criticism; there is much talk about how Extinction Rebellion, for example, do not have concrete demands or a concrete plan for the future. This, though, is part of Extinction Rebellion’s mandate—they don’t expect to make demands for citizenry, but demand that citizenry’s voices be heard.
However, for those who aren’t aware of this, XR’s lack of concrete demands facilitates an easy rejection, and almost validates a refusal to support the group. But, in that rejection, what story are we telling ourselves when engaging in that kind of rhetoric, in that kind of refusal? That somebody else needs to write the story for us; that a positive story cannot be written; that the current paradigm better than any possible imaginative exercise; that we expect someone to come along and save us from the situation we live in.
Such a position demands empathy—many people do feel disempowered and victimised by capitalism, especially as the wealthy gap and precarity increases.
But we live in a story we map onto the world in order to understand our experience. Therefore, what is important is not just the stories we tell, but also the stories we reject. We must consider that when we reject a narrative we implicitly accept another. By refusing to accept any kind of agency in creating a new story for the future, or refusing to accept that even the mere potential of it could be exciting, implicitly means that one is accepting the present as it is—at least that it is good enough where other alternatives are not.
Of course, scientists all over the world are warning us that the current paradigm is not good enough. In fact, the current paradigm is on track to lead to the sixth mass extinction.
Planet: Critical investigates why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it.
Critique vs Stories
It’s very common for people to be able to critique the economic system, critique the way that we are socially organised, critique environmental policies, for example, and yet still live within the paradigm and claim that there is nothing we can do about it. It is an astonishing position, to have the capacity to critique a thing and say in the same breath that there is nothing to be done, that one’s hands are tied. This highlights that there is an important difference between critique and analysis and narrative—between deconstruction and reconstruction.
We live in a story without realising it—Gramsci named this cultural hegemony, the idea of a prevailing common sense which maintains the status quo—but we act as if we live in an analytical critique, that we can somehow be separate to the story, as if we can objectively critique, and that therefore any intimation that there is ‘nothing to be done’ is factual and correct.
During the episode Ella and I discuss the fallout from the enlightenment, this focus on rational thinking and the very deliberate undermining of any emotional space, which, I believe, has been deliberately maintained in order to undermine the oppressed’s right to spaces; when a woman gets upset about sexism during a conversation about feminism or when a person of colour gets upset about racism during a conversation about race one way the oppressor can dominate those spaces whilst still seemingly hold space is to deny the oppressed’s right to their emotional response. Expecting the oppressed to not react to their oppression as a prerequisite for their right to engage in a dialogue about their oppression denies the right to that space; it is a way for the oppressor to maintain power.
The age of rationality, the age of the enlightenment, promised that facts will be listened to. And yet as any climate activists will know, facts cannot compete with spin. This, again, relates to this subtle but distinct difference between critique and narrative, between logos and mythos, as Ella would say. How do we combine those to move forward?
Better The Devil We Know?
One story surrounding humankind’s nature is that humanity is like a bacteria, a scourge upon the earth, and life would be better off without us. When we trot out that narrative, we are implicitly accepting that we cannot change ourselves and that, therefore, everything is fine exactly as it is — yes, it’s a shame for the natural world, but we are living according to our nature, so why should we put any effort into changing when it is fundamentally impossible? It’s a determinism which denies self-determinism.
Pushing back against the fundamental need to change (our beliefs, behaviours, economies, energy use, consumption etc) in the face of the climate crisis suggests that, essentially, it is better to die at the hands of the system we have than die in an attempt to change it.
COP27 was a colossal failure, with the cover decision watering down language fought for at Glasgow which even then was not enough. Our leaders have decided to call for parties to accelerate efforts “towards the phase out of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.
By accepting this language, leaders are rejecting change. They’re unequivocally rejecting a world in which we no longer depend on fossil fuels. Shockingly, such an idea isn’t even that radical anymore—renewables are the cheapest form of energy, peak oil was likely hit in 2018, our energy supply chains have been proven fragile, and the market is moving towards an electric world.
These people aren’t just denying us a future with the use of such language, they’re dragging us into the past, a past in which inefficient behemoth industries which can’t survive without government subsidies dictate their relevance to the weak-willed.
The fossil-fuelled age is over. The future is brighter, cleaner and waiting for investment. The story has been written by activists, by scientists, by civic groups. Rejecting it fossilises the very innovation which world leaders claim will save us, forcing us to live with bygone technology and ideas which were only ever useful for getting us here, today, and were never meant to be where we parked our development.
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