The gathering climate crisis is a frightening reality of contemporary South African life. Drought is blighting large swathes of the country while this past summer saw relentless heatwaves followed by destructive storms, an unmistakable sign of how domestic weather patterns are changing. Cape Town came perilously close to running out of water in 2018, with the grim possibility of the military being deployed to oversee the crowds of people queuing for water rations.
This is not the product of state capture or some uniquely South African social dysfunction. Of the hottest years on record, 18 of the past 20 have occurred since 2000, one key indicator of how humanity is facing a hellish near future of environmental breakdown through global warming, the collapse of ecosystems and mass extinction.
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that without aggressive, immediate political action to bring down carbon emissions in the next few years, the ensuing environmental turbulence will create unprecedented disruption of the material conditions needed to sustain organised human society on this planet. It could conceivably lead to the death of billions of people.
The shocking urgency of this existential threat has failed to translate into South Africa’s political discourse. Exploring the references to climate change in the 2019 election manifestos of the major political parties is telling.
The ANC’s manifesto gives as much space to ominous language about undocumented immigrants as it does to global warming. The EFF refers to transitioning to renewable energy, but provides no timeframe or details on how to achieve this. In the DA’s paper, climate change is acknowledged alongside the party promoting hugely destructive energy practices such as fracking and offshore drilling.
By contrast, the government’s scientifically conservative 2018 white paper on national climate change shows that life as we know it will change as the country becomes hotter, drier, more stretched for water and exposed to extreme weather events, with grim implications for the quality of life and economic production.
Political parties all promise a better life for their supporters while omitting that the most basic food and water systems are collapsing all around us.
Failure to react
Such myopia is sadly not unique to the South African political system. World leaders have failed grossly to react to scientific warnings that time is running out to begin a rapid and comprehensive transition to renewable energy, without which the natural environment will become increasingly inhospitable to human life.
While decarbonising societies over the coming decades is a vast undertaking, it is an achievable goal within the limits of current technology. Rather, the impediments are political and ideological.
Fossil fuel and other extractive industries co-opt policy through lobbying and donations, as evidenced in the US Republican Party’s proudly idiotic climate change denial and the revolving door between government and the mining industry in South Africa. And many politicians surely view themselves as part of a ruling class that can use their resources to shield themselves from environmental catastrophe.
But perhaps the biggest blockage to the needed changes is a commitment to an ideology of endless economic growth on a planet with rapidly diminishing resources.
The conventional logic is that environmental stability and economic wellbeing are tangled in a Gordian knot – steady growth demands further degradation of the environment, but responding to imminent ecological collapse will lead to job losses and economic stagnation.
Notably, the election manifestos of South Africa’s biggest political parties all subscribe to the panacea of growth, without questioning its implications. The difference comes only in how this magical goal will be delivered, with the EFF calling for more centralised state power and the DA promising to unleash the unregulated free market.
The mythology of growth is based on the premise that a rising tide lifts all boats and that wealth creation gradually filters down to benefit even the poorest and most marginal. How could anyone oppose such a laudable goal? But this runs up against a scientific reality in which this boat is about to sink, with the current model of resource extraction and consumerism disintegrating as the planet becomes uninhabitable.
Capitalism is facing a rapid destabilisation of the biological terrain on which the economy is based. How will a globalised market maintain itself in the wake of major economic hubs sinking under rising sea levels or being wiped off the map by city-killing storms, famines, pandemics and unprecedented migration as people flee dead zones?
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, cultural theorist Mark Fisher famously wrote that our contemporary ideological climate is defined by a sense of “capitalist realism”, the overwhelming feeling that neoliberal capitalism and its weakened democracy are the only viable social system and that “it’s impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”. Or, as the slogan Fisher helped popularise goes, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”.
Right now, alarm bells are going off around us, screaming out that it is precisely not imagining the end of capitalism that will ensure ecocide and the demise of humanity with it.
Regression, failure and inequality
Political economist Peter Fleming says that rather than creating better living standards, the globally dominant model of neoliberalism is characterised by regression and failure, with intensified desperation in the Global South, a return to 19th-century levels of inequality in the North and the rollback of democratic gains as politics retreats behind the bolted doors of privilege.
“Thriving amidst this neo-feudalist flood is a detached, largely secretive and unaccountable elite that holds massive amounts of power in the public and private sectors. For the first time in some years, their avowed interests stand directly, openly and stubbornly against those of 99% of the population, locked in a zero-sum game. What they gain, we lose. And they’ve gained a lot … The plutocrats and their state lackeys truly live far away, on dry land.”
While impoverished and working-class people struggle just to live, the shrinking middle classes are increasingly precarious and alienated. The ideology of endless growth chimes with the relentless cultural injunctions for individuals to think of themselves as atomised, private corporations, endlessly overworked and crushed under debt and anxiety.
Rather than unleashing productivity and creativity as fanatics and fantasists like economist Milton Friedman and writer Ayn Rand claimed, the marketisation of every aspect of life accelerates greed, narcissism and the worship of raw power. Sociopathic con artists such as US President Donald Trump and former South African President Jacob Zuma are the purest expression of this underlying value of self-enrichment at any cost.
Despite the grim reality of ecological and economic breakdown, neoliberal orthodoxy persists. Many commentators have used the metaphor of “zombie capitalism” to describe an ideological climate in which, while disastrously failing to work for the vast majority, these dominant economic models exist in an undead, still dangerous state to hunt the living.
There is a great irony here.
As the polar ice caps melt, the world’s mental landscape is gripped by an ideological winter, trapped in the ice of reaction and stagnation. For Fleming, our current paths point toward “a new dark age that spurns true innovation, favours a dreadful economic polarisation among the classes and widens what [author] Naomi Klein calls environmental sacrificial zones … a lonely winter of mankind”.
Fittingly, the most popular TV show globally in the past decade, Game of Thrones, features a vast army of the undead, relentlessly cannibalising all signs of life in its path and leaving a frigid wasteland in its wake.
As Klein puts it, “any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it’s understood as part of a much broader battle of world views, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of collective, the communal, the commons, the civil and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect”.
There are heartening signs of a new emancipatory politics organised around the environmental crisis. In the US, progressive Democrats are pushing for a Green New Deal, based on transitioning to renewable energy while creating decent work and rolling back the social damage caused by neoliberalism.
As scholar Ashley Dawson recently noted, this breaks the apparent contradiction between the environment and the economy, showing that improving living standards while avoiding climate breakdown is possible.
Simultaneously, movements such as the student’s climate strike and Extinction Rebellion are using civil disobedience and direct-action tactics to force governments into action, suggesting a growing militancy around global warming.
While forcing government action is absolutely vital, even deeper psychic transformations may be needed to survive the climate crisis.
Late capitalist society is in a death spiral of individual competition, constant work and anxious consumerism. In an era of deflated political consciousness, these seem like facts of life, the depressive gravity of a capitalist realism that cannot be overcome.
But as Fisher later said, the neoliberal and neoconservative politics that have defined world politics since the 1980s, and which are rapidly dragging us all down to a climate hell, were formed in opposition to the utopian possibilities that exploded in the 1960s and 1970s. Elites were threatened by a efflorescence of anti-colonial, feminist and libertarian communist ideas and practices, which outlined a new politics of communal joy and democratic control of everyday life.
While it’s impossible to magically reconjure such an optimistic period, such radical ideas can inform a progressive and emancipatory politics for a new era of climate chaos.
Neoliberal capitalism has eaten the future, offering nothing but continued misery and despair for the vast majority. In its place, we need an ambitious and rebellious politics that offers to regenerate our broken relationship with the planet and each other.