Normality: there can be no turning back, says John Barry.

Like buses, crises (and the opportunities that can accompany them) seem to come in threes.  First, we have Brexit and now the real possibility of a no-deal Brexit since the landslide election of Boris Johnson’s Conservative party. Second, the Covid-19 pandemic and the uneven manner in which governments, populations, businesses, trade unions and others, have responded, have devastated lives, communities and economies. Finally, looming above both of these is the planetary crisis – climate breakdown and the erosion of the life-supporting systems of the earth.  Not only do we face all three crises, but they are also interrelated in complex and unpredictable ways, such that addressing any one of them could have impacts on the others. Throw in right-wing populism, xenophobia, post-truth politics and “fake news” and this is the turbulence we live in. 

Lest you get depressed too early in reading this, there is good news; we have seen some progress on green issues. The climate crisis in particular has crept up the political agenda.  This can be observed in the rise of social mobilisations such as the Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Strike for Climate movements that unexpectedly emerged in the past year.  We can point also to the “green wave” which saw support for Green Parties across Europe increase in the 2019 European elections.   

But I want to draw attention to the rise and importance of non-state actors and action, issues and forms of cooperation (existing and potential) organised around responding to the planetary crisis at local and global scales. Too often, the media, academia, think tanks and public discussions focus on the state, corporations/business, and large organisations such as churches and trades unions.  This is to the neglect of civil society, and localised political actors and agency.  These local, non-electoral, non-policy, often more confrontational, oppositional, decentralised and grassroots forms of “small-p” politics are now very visible around our planetary calamity.  

“Governments blithely press ahead with ecocidal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) economic growth which has long passed its sell-by date.”

At the state and “big P” politics level, we witness a form of wishful thinking and simulative green politics, as governments blithely press ahead with ecocidal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) economic growth which has long passed its sell-by date as an adequate, never mind ecologically appropriate, societal goal.  This wishful thinking is the dominance of unwarranted optimism, based on technology, in framing solutions to the climate crisis within mainstream public debate and especially policy thinking.  This can be seen in the serious attention, consideration and funding given to science fiction-like proposals for carbon capture and sequestration or geo-engineering proposals such as solar radiation management. 

The simulative green politics I am speaking of here is in the rhetoric and public acceptance in the UK, at national, regional and local government levels, that there is a planetary emergency but nothing is done. The response by states to the pandemic, now that is what a real emergency looks like. 

Relatedly, think about how the unprecedented existential crisis our species faces is presented as a normal policy challenge that can, and must only, be framed and presented as such.  However, the planetary emergency is a “state of exception” and not something that can, be or ought to be, shoehorned into the normal policy process and its incremental reformist logic. As if the planet and its non-human occupants care whether policies are acceptable to the electorate. 

Going beyond this narrow policymakers’ framing of the range of actions is what it means to “listen to the science” as Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion movement suggest. We should follow that  provocative and radical path, remembering that radical simply means getting to the root cause of a problem, and this has been solely lacking in nation states in addressing the global ecological crisis. 

The core state imperative of endless GDP growth, has now moved into territory where it is dysfunctional and dangerous. Addressing our planetary crisis calls for more structural economic transformation, not greenwashing business as usual. 

We have now reached a stage where serious debate is given to Elon Musk’s dreams of colonising Mars, but someone proposing that we need to move beyond capitalism and liberal democracy is viewed as utopian, misguided, dangerous or politically immature.  More worryingly we have reached a stage where our young people, perhaps most clearly evident in those involved in the Youth Strike for Climate movement, can now more readily imagine the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism. It is shameful that climate anxiety and apocalypticism is felt by many young people and they do not have a vote. Thankfully they have a voice.    

“Think about how the unprecedented existential crisis our species faces is presented as a normal policy challenge.”

We live amid turbulence well beyond the chaos related to the UK’s exiting the European Union. As a species we are leaving the climatic stability of the geological era known as the Holocene, for the unstable Anthropocene – the “age of the human”, that is, an era of our making. But turbulence is needed to reimagine economics. Dissent, disagreement and discord should be encouraged.  

There are at least three reasons for this. Firstly, any just transition to a post-carbon, post-capitalist society will produce winners and losers, which will require conflict along with sustainable change. Disagreement needs to be included not marginalised or suppressed, as part of effective and democratically legitimate problem solving.   

Secondly, within our thinking about economics and the policy prescriptions that follow from that thinking, more than ever we need pluralism and challenges to the dominance of neoclassical economics. Revealing the ideological assumptions underpinning mainstream economics, opens up a long overdue opportunity for debate and discussion between different forms of political economy. We live in democracies after all, in which we have differences as to how the state should operate. So why should it be any different in respect of the economy?  The pandemic, as befits a major crisis, has made once marginal proposals possible and worthy of serious debate, whether they be universal basic income, a jobs guarantee, the nationalisation of parts of the economy or the rethinking of state finances as suggested by Modern Monetary Theory.  We need to maintain and defend this space against the calls for a return to normal – to the dominance of neoclassical business as usual.  Normal was the problem.  

“The pandemic has made once-marginal proposals possible and worthy of serious debate.”

Finally, the oppositional, non-conformist and sometimes outright confrontational character of non-state actors like Extinction Rebellion contains the energy and insight for improvement and societal progress. As George Bernard Shaw astutely commented: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world  to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.  Perhaps, just perhaps, with “our house on fire” (Thunberg) it might be time for us to be unreasonable and do what is necessary?

John Barry

John is Professor of Green Political Economy at the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queens University Belfast. He has a BA and MA from University College Dublin and …

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