End of the world, or a New Hope

15. 3. 2017

Claus Leggewie, Harald Welzer, Koniec świata, jaki znaliśmy. Klimat, przyszłość i szanse demokracji (The End of the World as We once Knew it: the Climate, the Future and the Prospects for Democracy), Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2012

History was supposed to have ended its course, or at least this is what Francis Fukuyama promised us in the year 1989. This was the time when the Soviet empire was falling into ruin; the bipolar cold-war world was giving way to a new system of globalization, with an underlying free market ideology supported by the visible fist of the American army. Barely two decades later, in the very heart of the brave new world, a crisis broke out, whose end is still nowhere to be seen. Fukuyama, who in the meantime has become a relatively aged gentleman, seems to have lost his confidence, which he used to have several years ago. Now, he prefers to speak not of the end of history, but rather of its future. Allegedly, history has a future, as he revealed in “Foreign Affairs“ magazine; since today the very basis and existence of liberal democracy is under threat. The growing economic inequalities in the world, which are most visible in the states with central positioning, like the USA, have called into question the legitimacy of the democratic order.

We have seen the police disperse the “Outraged“, protesting against social and economic injustice in Chicago and New York. In Quebec, the government has introduced a special regulation to help deal with demonstrating students. Whereas capital is still leading us by the nose and thumbs its nose at the outrage of the Outraged; Facebook’s debut on NASDAQ has ended in a huge scandal and investigating bodies are now checking if it was a scam. But the police truncheons land on the backs of the protesters, while bankers pay themselves new bonuses and the politicians convince their People that there is simply no other way out, but to tighten our belts.

However, if this was just about democracy in trouble as a result of the economic and financial crisis positive future scenarios could be relatively easy to come up with. After a momentary economic downturn, the machine could return to its normal growth, thus oiling the wheels of democracy and, again, bringing history to its agonizing condition, which has happened repeatedly in the history of capitalism. Yet this time this will not be the case, so claims German researchers Claus Leggewie and Harald Welzer, in the pages of their book Koniec świata, jaki znaliśmy. Klimat, przyszłość i szanse demokracji (The End of the World as We once Knew it: the Climate, the Future and the Prospects for Democracy).

It will not happen this time because the current crisis is, in fact, a mega catastrophe and economic difficulties are not the major issues of concern but rather symptoms of a serious disease plaguing the social-economic-political system. Even if the helmsmen of capitalism manage to get economic production going and bring some positive dynamics into GDP ratios, the remedy will only accelerate a far more essential threat: an environmental disaster, which is inevitable, given that climate change is caused by the human activity.

And the researchers have been able to sketch scenarios of an apocalypse with growing precision. In May 2012, when Leggewie and Welzer presented their book in Warsaw, the Club of Rome published a paper by Jorgen Rander called “2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years”. Randers co-authored the famous report entitled “Limits to Growth”, from 1972, which was the first systemic analysis of the links between human activity and ecosystems. According to the “Limits to Growth”, a book ridiculed by skeptics who referred to it as a classic example of improper forecasting, the world was to end in 2000, as a result of raw materials shortages and environmental degradation. However, the publication from 1972 was not a forecast. It presented several scenarios of how reality could develop depending on the strategies pursued by societies. Apocalypse was just one of the possibilities for the world, which would have taken place in the event of a continuation of “business as usual“, i.e. growth based on the exploitation of fossil fuels which, among others things, resulted in greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.

The new work by Randers contains upgraded scenarios, as well as a reminder that the time left for the dangerous possibility to materialize is running short with the apparition of catastrophe looming for people living in 2012. And Randers is not the only proponent of this view. He does have allies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency which regularly publishes World Energy Outlook reports. The last edition, from 2011, conveys a clear message: mankind has almost lost the opportunity to achieve the goals of climate protection. The main purpose pointed out by the scientists who belong to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is to reduce CO2 emissions to such a level that global warming does not exceed 2 degrees centigrade.

The problem is that the world‘s energy production facilities already emit 80% of the maximum CO2 emissions which we can produce if we do not want to exceed the threshold of 2 degrees. And, assuming everything stays the way it was when it comes to development policies pursued by developed and developing countries, as soon as 2017, we will reach the safety threshold indicated by the researchers. From the IEA report it follows clearly that accomplishing the goal of 2 degrees is barely possible. Actually, we would need to put in considerable effort in order to inhibit an increase of the average temperature in the atmosphere of 3.5 degrees Celsius. The IEA, known for its conservative inclinations, concluded its paper with the woeful statement: “If we do not change direction now, we are likely to end up where we are going.“

And this is the point: we do know our direction. We know where we are coming from, and still, we behave like moths, consequently heading for a confrontation with impending doom. We keep telling ourselves, despite the facts, that the light we can see on the horizon is the bright light of a happy future and not a flame, which will consume our selfdestructive civilization. Leggewie and Welzer have no doubt that the crisis which we are facing now is in its roots an anthropological crisis or a crisis of culture. Culture provides us with symbols and codes through which we try to comprehend the world around us, interpret the future, engage in discourse and it motivates us psychologically to act. It’s culture that shapes our ideas of a good life and its purpose.

However, for the time being, we live in a suicidal culture whose fetish is economic growth, defined in terms of development and improvement in living standards, measured by total consumption. You really don’t need to look far to find a confirmation of this vision. Take the Polish debates on the EU energy-climate package and the resulting obligation to cut down on CO2 emissions. We often hear the following argument: Poles consume far less energy per capita than Germans or the French. Why don’t we postpone the debate on emission caps to the moment when we have reached a comparable level of energy consumption to our wealthier neighbors.

A very simple logic underlies this argument and it’s hard to question. First of all, it refers to the conviction inculcated by our culture: that quality of life must go hand in hand with quantitative consumption ratios. And therefore, how can you justify the campaigns to counteract climate change and, consequently, to cut down on consumption? Obviously, this will be interpreted as a neocolonial assault by the economically developed center on the poorer periphery and semi-periphery, who in turn, would like to live life to the fullest as well, making use of all the perks offered by consumer civilization, such as air conditioners, cars and intercontinental travel. Thus, while Western Europeans, driven by their environmental awareness, switch their cars for bicycles, the Chinese, excited by their growing wealth, behave the other way round.

It is no secret that this is pure madness: this model of development is not sustainable even if it turns out that the climate catastrophe scenario was far-fetched. The reason is that we are faced with other environmental challenges which can be best described in terms of ecological footprint. The footprint is a measure of human demand for resources and services on ecosystems. Analyses have shown that for many years already, mankind has lived on credit at the expense of the environment, consuming above the planet’s regeneration potential. The Earth is thus gradually becoming more like Easter Island.

The question is: why, knowing that, can’t we take adequate measures and why all the attempts we’ve made so far have misfired? Certainly, we are taking some action, like improving energy efficiency and searching for new energy sources. But this is all too little and too late. Again, explanations for this state of affairs can be found in our culture. During the discussion of the book by Leggewie and Welzer organized in Warsaw, one point was raised: that not only Poles, but, more generally, the population of Central Europe, is opposed to the changes and sacrifices which have been deemed necessary in order to save our future. Well, we simply have a different mentality. The very notion of crisis is deeply rooted in our culture and history and going through an apocalypse is actually a generational experience, which, so far, each generation has managed to survive with the help of God. Why should it be different this time?

Essentially however, as follows from the book, we are not that much different than the “more conscious“ inhabitants of the West. After all, we are all stuck in the culture-bound mentality which assumes that “our whole reality is still based on the status quo, therefore everything revolves around the center of gravity which is the here and now, experienced unconsciously and with no attentive presence.“ So, if we want to make a difference, which would be demonstrated by adequate political steps, we need to change ourselves and our consciousness. This is not easy, but not impossible either. Take a look at the history of capitalism and you will easily see that the “spirit“ changed many times together with the respective culture and system of values.

The history of the Polish transformation shows, in turn, how plastic the axionormative sphere can be. Undoubtedly, one of the major phenomena of the transformation was the revolution in work ethic. In the course of only one decade, Poles turned into the most “protestant” European society putting the value of work on a pedestal along with work-related qualities like steadfastness, punctuality and reliability.

The careful optimism represented by Welzer and Leggewie is, consequently, not groundless. Not only is a culture shift necessary, but it is also feasible. And we can see more and more harbingers of it, both at the level of individual attitudes as well as in the discourse structuring our experience of reality as narratives reinforced by symbols which encourage us to act. The GDP fetish is under attack from a growing number of economists and politicians are also beginning to notice its weaknesses. Is that enough to transform not only the culture, but also the political sphere to such an extent that democratic institutions regain their legitimacy and are no longer held hostage by oligarchic capital? As of now the answer is not clear. Let me conclude by quoting a line from a philosopher close to Francis Fukuyama’s heart, Hegel, who famously wrote that, ”The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling dusk.“

Edwin Bendyk

is the president of the Batory Foundation in Warsaw, a commentator for the Polityka weekly, and the author of numerous books, the latest of which is W Polsce, czyli wszędzie. Rzecz o upadku i przyszłości świata [In Poland, or Everywhere. On the Collapse and Future of the World] (2020).

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