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We’re f*cked! Conceptualising the climate catastrophe

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Climate change is often characterised as a ‘crisis,’ but should it be more accurately understood as a ‘catastrophe’? This is a question that colleagues Christian De Cock, Daniel Nyberg and Sheena Vachhani and I explored at the recent Critical Management Studies conference at the University of Manchester, in a stream with the somewhat mischievous title “We’re F*cked! Conceptualising Catastrophe.”

The inspiration for this came from Stephen Emmott’s recent sell-out play 10 Billion. At the end of the performance, having reviewed the different ways in which humanity has altered Earth’s climate, the Oxford professor (and expert in complex natural systems) states ‘I think we’re already f*cked’. This is a sentiment that has been surfaced by others, including US geophysicist Brad Werner in a conference paper last year.

Indeed, short of the expletive, the theme of humanity’s suicidal trajectory in the Anthropocene has been emphasised by writers such as Clive Hamilton, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot. This has been reinforced with increasing urgency by scientists around the world, with US climate scientist James Hansen recently arguing that “conceivable levels of human-made climate forcing could yield the low-end runaway greenhouse’ including ‘out-of-control amplifying feedbacks such as ice sheet disintegration and melting of methane hydrates.”

Our conference stream on ‘catastrophe’ extended beyond climate change, exploring subjects as diverse as the disintegration of daily life, and perceptions of the global financial crisis. However, papers also explored deeper issues of what we mean by ‘catastrophe’ and its implications for humanity’s future.

For instance, several speakers flagged the distinction between ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’, in that ‘crisis’ implies choice; ‘forks in the road’ by which we can shape future outcomes. By contrast, ‘catastrophe’ denotes the end itself. Other speakers highlighted how it is often difficult to comprehend or know when one is in a ‘catastrophe’ until it is too late (again strong parallels with the dithering and obfuscation that characterises the political debate surrounding climate change).

‘Catastrophe’ can also be an important mechanism for the mobilisation of political action. For instance, one of the papers in the stream explored how the Australian mining industry had conducted an extremely successful media campaign against the proposed mining super-profits tax by arguing the tax would ‘destroy the economy’; a claim uncritically accepted by the mainstream media.

Interestingly, in the debate over climate change there has been a rejection of ‘bad news’ messaging and an argument that positive communication is more effective in changing public attitudes. Irrespective of the veracity of such arguments, claiming ‘it’s the end of the world!’ can be highly effective in mobilising a response in some situations, while in other contexts this receives a mere shrug of the shoulders.

Indeed, our reactions to ‘catastrophe’ are often highly ambivalent. On the one hand, we are appalled by cataclysmic events and the suffering they cause. And yet, in our visually-saturated world of 24-7 news, we are also mesmerised by the spectacle of catastrophe. In relation to climate change, the growing visibility of floods, bushfires, hurricanes and tornadoes provide both a horrifying and yet fascinating attraction.

Finally however, ‘catastrophe’ may also involve something more fundamental than the popular representation of the Hollywood disaster film (e.g. the planet-killing meteor crashing to Earth). As the German philosopher Walter Benjamin noted, rather than the cataclysmic event that changes everything, ‘catastrophe’ may in fact be more simply the missed opportunity which preserves the status quo. This seems particularly relevant to climate change, in which humanity’s failure to divert from the path of ‘business as usual’ (despite numerous warnings) appears the ultimate catastrophe. As the marvellous Kurt Vonnegut declared in considering our apparently doomed future as a species:

“We probably could have saved ourselves, but were too damned lazy to try very hard…and too damn cheap.”

Christopher Wright is Professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School and Leader of the Balanced Enterprise Research Network (BERN), christopher.wright@sydney.edu.au

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  • Sid Abma

    Mr. Wright. What do you believe has to be done to reverse the way we are going, to make a difference.
    If we were to get out of laziness and get energetic, please provide some numbers of CO2 reduction and tons of global warming that would have to be accomplished, in order to make that difference.
    To say we are f#####d and not give a bit of a solution does not get anyone motivated.
    Get us motivated. Be a part of the Change.

    • Kim Cleverly

      Sid, I believe there is no “answer” to your question. Because we (and Science) do not fully understand the positive feedback loops (and because of the nature of our ecosystems) at play it really COULD be too late already or maybe won’t be as bad as we fear. As mature sentient beings it is our job to make choices that are responsible to the future even when there are no linear relationships and no easy to calculate probabilities. Your honour, and mine, call us to act even in the face of that uncertainty. My hope is that more and more people will choose to be honourable because they love their children and the future. Perhaps there is still a chance we will choose that. I take action each day based on the proposition that even if it is too late it is honourable to try. My 2 cents and my best to you as you wrestle with this grievous and painful subject.

    • Christopher Wright

      Sid,

      We need dramatic reductions in GHG emissions (well above the current targets that we are failing to meet). We will also need to leave at least 80% of remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground (something that seems inconceivable for most politicians). To give you an idea of how grave the situation is, this excellent lecture by Professor Kevin Anderson From Universit of Manchester last year is a wake up call (he notes we will clearly exceed 2 degrees and even 4 degrees will require dramatic change): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RInrvSjW90U

      In a week when even the small changes we have made in Australia are now being torn up – one has grounds for despair I think.

  • John P

    What to do?
    A fair question.
    I don’t claim to be able to tell the future but I have been around long enough to see how politics works.
    On this basis I knew I would want to make my own arrangements. And so I did.

    And now I live in a zero emissions house.
    It costs very little in terms of cash.
    And my comfort levels have never been higher.
    My electricity virtually falls out of the sky so I collect it and put it into storage.
    It is already there when I want it.

    Our politicians are reluctant to act on climate change as it would mean winding up our fossil fuel exports – our only real foreign exchange earner.
    It’s pretty simple really.

    • Nick B

      While admirable, to be smug about personal lifestyle change and believe it is some sort of realistic solution to the catastrophe is rather narcissistic…yes if everyone lived in a zero-emission home things would be somewhat better, but what’s the chances of 100% of the country/world doing that or affording to do that on their own unsupported initiative?

      • John P

        Foiled!
        Here I am thinking I have disguised my overweening smugness only to be caught out!

        But the reality is that we can not expect the political class to do the decent thing so we need to do it ourselves.
        Across Australia there are thousands of people either individually or in groups acting to make a difference!
        Here in Victoria, many of them I know personally – I have had a hand in designing and installing their renewable energy power plants.
        This is a serious matter as we all should know from the ever increasing violence of weather systems – not just here in Victoria but more widely.

        The really big threat is from climate structures that incorporate feedback loops that will ultimately frustrate any attempts we subsequently make to respond to the climate change threat once we realise that it is there.

  • WittoStevie

    I partially agree with that last sentiment. However, IF we were as intelligent as we think we were, we would save one HELLASCIOUS chunk of change if we actually dealt with it BEFORE it becomes a geo-engineering thing. For we all know that engineers suck, when working with REALITY.