Permacrisis? What permacrisis?

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‘Permacrisis’ – meaning ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity’ – was this week named the Collins English Dictionary Word of the Year for 2022. It is one of 10 new words included in the dictionary for the first time, alongside ‘partygate’, ‘sportswashing’, ‘lawfare’ (the use of legal proceedings to intimidate or hinder) and ‘warm bank’ (a heated building to which people who cannot afford to heat their homes can go). Such additions can be useful indicators of change in society and, seen from this perspective, this year’s crop is especially interesting. They are a glass held up to a society in which crisis follows crisis with unrelenting, hope-sapping regularity, always hurting the poorest the most; a society marked by growing inequality where poverty is deepening at the bottom and privilege amassing at the top. The currency of ‘permacrisis’ could be said to reflect the sheer awfulness of the past few years: the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and now escalating energy prices and the cost-of-living crisis. People are tired of volatility and upheaval and long, understandably enough, for a return to normality. But I suspect that, more profoundly, it speaks too to the feeling that such crises represent the new normal, the reality of life for most people in a world characterized by obscene levels of poverty and inequality, climate despair and political indifference and corruption (now so common in our politics that we have ceased, by and large, to remark on it). Increasingly, we are caught between the realization that change is desperately needed and our seeming incapacity to do or be anything different.

So much for the ‘end of history’, but perhaps this, in the end, is what it looks like. The world is at an impasse. We need a new story, new ways of making meaning. We need change, of a radical sort, if we are to survive the worsening climate crisis and save our overheating world. The source of much of our current hopelessness is our failure to see how this could possibly happen. Despite the dire warnings of climate scientists, activists, and international actors such as the United Nations, state-level politics remains in thrall to a neo-liberal, market-driven extractivist narrative. The privatisation of the global commons continues apace (though the election of Lula in Brazil represents a glimmer of hope, albeit it a faint one). Inequalities continue to grow, both within and between countries, sentencing hundreds of millions of people to desperate, inescapable poverty, most of them in parts of the world worst affected by climate change. And while COP27, the latest UN climate conference (taking place in Egypt from 6–18 November), offers a fleeting opportunity to change direction, the kind of change we need is almost certain to be thwarted by the fossil fuel lobby, narrow state interests among wealthy countries and climate denialists. For all the good intentions – and, I know, there are many sincere, good-hearted people who contribute and press hard for change – the conference resembles one of those streaming-service series, endlessly prolonged by its producers even though it should have finished year ago.

In the UK, the new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gave an indication of the importance he attaches to the issue by withdrawing from the conference (though he later changed his mind, apparently remembering that ‘long-term prosperity depends on climate action’ – an odd thing to have forgotten!). Nevertheless, his initial willingness to ignore the issue and focus instead on the UK (as his team briefed) is an unhappy sign, not only because it suggests a half-hearted commitment to climate action but also because Mr Sunak evidently does not expect any positive headlines to come of it. This is not surprising, I suppose, given the UK’s recent record – as chancellor, Sunak provided tax relief for investment in oil and gas extraction at the cost of £1.9 billion a year to the taxpayer – and the increasingly urgent calls for action from the UN. But it is also, I would suggest, indicative of who the new PM really represents: the tax-avoiding, polluting, billionaire elite of which he is a mid-ranking but assuredly loyal member. It is simply not possible to square support for the fossil fuel industry with a commitment to a green future. It’s silly to suggest otherwise. In fact, it is harmful, perhaps, in the end, more harmful than the brutal climate isolationism of Trump and his supporters.

Britain ceased to be a proper democracy some time ago. Perhaps it never was one. Its politics have been taken over by the super-rich and the country is run, by and large, for their benefit, at substantial cost to everyone else. Money buys access to politicians, including the PM, and there is a revolving door between government and capital, including the fossil fuel industry. Favoured chums are rewarded with knighthoods or seats in the Lords or lucrative contracts against which delivery is optional (the main point being to get public money into private hands). There is also a revolving door between the national parliamentary press lobby and 10 Downing Street, which helps ensure the rich can continue to punish the poor for their own mistakes without anyone really noticing. In fact, the real story of the past decade has not been the story the papers tell, that of ‘tough decisions’ made to plug the gap in the national finances. It is the story of the massive redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, all sustained by the bad-faith rhetoric of austerity and the friendly compliance of client journalists (those constant advocates of growth and markets). Meanwhile, the country’s health service continues to fall apart, schools are starved of funding, wages decline, and local authorities struggle to provide the most basic of basic services. Worst of all, business goes on as usual, while the climate crisis worsens, and politicians ramp up the rhetoric about climate activists and refugees and legislate to make protest a criminal offence. It’s almost as if the country they are preparing for is not the greener, sustainable one of ministerial rhetoric, but a darker, scarier future, in which the poor and stateless pay the price of climate catastrophe, trade unionism is all but outlawed and protest is illegal. Welcome to Fortress Britain. You’re not welcome.

The truth, I suspect, is that most politicians no longer believe that a fairer, more equal world geared to human flourishing, planetary sustainability and wellbeing is possible or worth trying for. Perhaps they believe that a compromise between fossil fuel extraction and a sustainable future really is possible. I don’t know. It is certainly a lucrative thing to believe, if you have the stomach for it. Maybe they believe climate change is, as one prominent pundit put it last week, ‘just weather’. More likely though, they believe that they will be safe. They think they have an exemption. There is a lifeboat but it’s not for everyone. They simply cannot imagine that their lives of comfort and privilege will ever end. Surely, when the time comes they will not be left on the shore? However you try to explain it – whether through indifference, complacency, greed or venality – it is clear that the inaction of our leaders will prove fatal for communities in the South. It will create mass movements of people in search of habitable land. They will come to our door and, most likely, we will turn them away, or try to. Then, one day, and much sooner than we expect, the chill winds of the climate emergency will come to our shores. People will want to get out. But there will be nowhere to go. No one will open their doors to us. They have nothing to give us. Such is the fruit of indifference.

While I was writing this post, a representative of the Kogi people, an Indigenous group from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia, appeared on a news programme I was casually watching. It was strange because I had only recently come across them and had been reading about their beliefs. It was an odd, awkward televisual encounter, but nonetheless pleasingly authentic. This man, whose words were repeated by an interpreter, had a warning for the non-Indigenous people of the world: that unless we changed our relationship with the planet, we risked losing it altogether. Although traditionally reluctant to engage with strangers, the Kogi wanted to help us – their job, as they saw it, was to guard the world, and the world was dying, through our actions and indifference. It was not the first time they had communicated this message, but it was perhaps the first time they had offered to work and share their knowledge with us.

I found this very moving. For the Kogi, the Earth is like a living body, on which everything is connected. We are intimately related to each other, and to the land. To damage one part is to damage the whole. Yet we have become so disconnected, both from each other and from the natural world of which we are a part, that we harm both without compunction or thought. We live thoughtlessly, distractedly. But it is not our fault. We have lost so much, forgotten so much. The great question of our time, to my mind, is how we foster these connections, how we reinvest them with life and meaning, in a world which is deeply inimical to them; a privatised, commodified world in which we relate to one another not as sisters and brothers, friends and lovers, but as subjects and consumers, bosses and workers. How, in such a world, do we make a space for connection? How do we begin to live differently? How do we join forces and defend ourselves and the planet? How do we practise hope, so it doesn’t turn into despair? It is easy, as climate accords collapse and countries retreat into isolationism, to feel that there is no chance. Well, perhaps there isn’t. The world is sick, and we are too. But we cannot give up. We have at least to try to enlarge the space in which we can come together with joint purpose. We have to claim those spaces or make them ourselves. We have to push at the limits of the commons. We have to listen and connect, bringing our environmental concerns together with our learning and our activism and our knowledge and our truth to make something that wasn’t there before. We have to start something, and just see. Because trying and failing is better than simply failing. And because there is nothing else, nowhere else to go, no other source of love and light. There is just us.

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