Chakrabarty’s Lifeboats, Again

Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘The Politics of Climate Change Is More Than the Politics of Capitalism,’ Theory, Culture & Society 34:2–3 (2017): 25–37

To recap:

Near the end of his seminal ‘The Climate of History,’ Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote this:

Climate change, refracted through global capital, will no doubt accentuate the logic of inequality that runs through the rule of capital; some people will no doubt gain temporarily at the expense of others. But the whole crisis cannot be reduced to a story of capitalism. Unlike in the crises of capitalism, there are no lifeboats here for the rich and the privileged (witness the drought in Australia or recent fires in the wealthy neighborhoods of California). (p. 221)

In the first issue of the Anthropocene Review, Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg published another much-cited essay (226 citations on Google Scholar to date) in which they quoted the last sentence—but not, nota bene, the first sentence—of the above, then said:

This is a flawed argument. It blatantly overlooks the realities of differentiated vulnerability on all scales of human society: witness Katrina in black and white neighborhoods of New Orleans, or Sandy in Haiti and Manhattan, or sea level rise in Bangladesh and the Netherlands, or practically any other impact, direct or indirect, of climate change. For the foreseeable future—indeed, as long as there are human societies on Earth—there will be lifeboats for the rich and privileged. If climate change represents a form of apocalypse, it is not universal, but uneven and combined. (pp. 66–67)

In ‘The Politics of Climate Change,’ part of an enormously impressive special double issue of Theory, Culture & Society to which I’ll certainly return on this blog, Chakrabarty outlines and replies to Malm and Hornborg’s critique. He writes:

It is possible that the lifeboat metaphor was too cryptic (and it clearly misfired for some readers) but my point was that climate change, potentially, has to do with changes in the boundary conditions needed for the sustenance of human and many other forms of life. […] Runaway global warming could, theoretically, warm up the planet to a point where humans would find survival difficult. The rich, for all their money, for example, would not find it easy to live in a world whose supply of oxygen had dried up; even they are subject to biological processes! (p. 31)

Along the way (pp. 30–31), Chakrabarty makes a couple of strategic observations. First: “I find it ironic that some scholars on the left should speak with an assumption similar to that made by many of the rich, who do not necessarily deny climate change but believe that, whatever the extent of the warming and destabilization of the climate, they will always be able to buy their way out of the problem!” Second: “if the rich could simply buy their way out of this crisis and only the poor suffered, why would the rich […] do anything about global warming?” For “the rich” to act on climate change, they need to perceive that “their enlightened self-interest” is at stake.

A few responses to all of this:

  1. Full disclosure: the jacket of my book sports a generous puff from Chakrabarty. I was delighted by it, because ‘The Climate of History’ was a game-changer for me in 2009, as it has been for many others, and I remain very indebted to it. Conversely, I think that Malm and Hornborg’s essay is an energising and useful but ultimately simplistic contribution.
  2. Chakrabarty’s direct response to M&H is a good thing in itself. There’s far too little lateral citation across the humanities and social/critical disciplines in general. Especially, there’s far too little constructive lateral citation. A much higher proportion of published scholarship should be taken up with accurately summarising and responding to the ideas of one’s allies and opponents. Analytic philosophy is the one field where that happens all the time, of course, and I think everyone else could learn from it. That’s what this blog tries to do.
  3. And yet… M&H are surely in the right about the “lifeboats,” specifically, even if they’re blind to the larger significance of the debate about the Anthropocene for critical ecological thought. Chakrabarty’s original metaphor wasn’t “cryptic,” but ill-chosen. Writing in 2009, remember, he said that “the drought in Australia [and] recent fires in the wealthy neighborhoods of California” were evidence that there are no lifeboats for the rich, and that’s what M&H objected to. Today, the 2008 California wildfires (which, in fairness, do sound horrible, and per Wikipedia killed thirteen people) have been replaced in his argument by the prospect of the planet running out of oxygen. M&H only said there would be lifeboats for the powerful “as long as there are human societies on Earth.” No oxygen means no society, I guess, so willy-nilly, Chakrabarty has conceded the point.
  4. The metaphor of the lifeboat is actually a more telling one than either side has acknowledged. No-one ever said “relax! we’ve made it into the lifeboat, so we’re as good as home and dry.” What if there are lifeboats for the rich, but the storm is still blowing and the lights of a rescue vessel can’t be seen on the horizon? In other words: isn’t Chakrabarty’s metaphor precisely an invitation to think about gradations, contingencies, and structures of risk, rather than about tidy binary oppositions between safe and doomed, rich and poor?
  5. If the “lifeboat” is a more useful conceptual resource than either side realises, “the rich and the privileged” is a more threadbare one— even as a first-order approximation—than either Chakrabarty or M&H acknowledges. This is the intervention I’d really want to make in their debate. It’s a basic radical dogma (a fertile one for PB Shelley, for instance) that the materially prosperous also suffer under capitalism, because they too are alienated from their best selves. The more completely they become consumers, the more diminished they are as citizens, or as spiritual and ethical beings: the sources of their wellbeing are repackaged for them as perpetually disappointing consumer commodities, their eusocial instincts cauterized by selfish individualism and the cash nexus, their primal attachments to the nonhuman world starved amid pesticide-splashed lawns in front of executive detached homes, etc. Sure, late capitalist ennui and guilt aren’t as bad as running out of oxygen, but if the starting point for your debate is “for how long will one social class continue to feel no ill-effects from the ecological crisis?” then you’re having fundamentally the wrong debate. “The privileged” are always already tainted by the crisis by virtue of their privilege. There can be no cut-off point within an ecocidal society after which “the rich” first begin to experience harm.
  6. Briefly and incidentally: there’s a larger critique to be made of Chakrabarty’s essay, and especially his key section on ‘Two Approaches to Climate Change” (pp. 26–29). Chakrabarty’s “two approaches” are a “one-dimensional” treatment of climate change in isolation, versus a species-based account of “a growing human footprint” or “ecological overshoot on the part of humanity,” much indebted to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Neither approach seems fully sufficient to me. Of course a climate analysis needs to be integrated with an account of the rest of the present catastrophe. But I don’t share Chakrabarty’s high opinion of Harari’s book, nor agree that the only way to achieve that integration is to prioritise a narrative of human evolution and “the expanding ecological footprint of humanity as a whole” at the expense of political economy to the extent that Chakrabarty seems to want to do.
  7. All this is relevant in the context of that nightmarish essay in New York magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” which has lit a fire of controversy over the last couple of weeks. What David Wallace-Wells spells out in that essay is the murderous practical detail of Chakrabarty’s “no lifeboats” scenario, or the prospect of transgressing the “boundary conditions” of human life as such before the end of the present century. The annotated edition of the essay that the magazine produced in response to the controversy makes it clear how densely researched it was, and how extensively Wallace-Wells had corresponded with climate scientists. But the annotations also show that he made at least some minor factual errors in the first version, and they highlight the points at which he’s justifiably been accused of rhetorical excess. The collective verdict at Climate Feedback was that the essay’s overall scientific credibility (at least in its first iteration) was “low.” In Jacobin, Daniel Aldana Cohen takes a different line of attack, arguing that the real and present danger on our present trajectory is geoengineered “eco-apartheid” rather than a flat-out warming catastrophe. Cohen’s argument makes a pair with M&H, just as Wallace-Wells’s essay is of a pair with Chakrabarty. What all four are grappling with (though none of them in ways I’d completely endorse) is the thing we might call the “lifeboats problem.” How can we understand, historically and constructively, the relationship between species-wide vulnerability to climate change and the threat of perpetuated and intensified ecological injustice? There’s hardly a more urgent question.
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