climate hauntologies: notes on reading carbon removal through Mark Fisher
I. Fossil realism
Capitalist realism, writes Mark Fisher, is “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it.”
Climate change intersects with this.
On one hand, there are emergent forms of climate realism / climate doomerism — that it’s unrealistic to think we will mount a response to climate change, or that we can’t imagine a response.
On the other hand, we may see fossil realism emerging: that it’s unrealistic to think we can imagine an alternative to fossil fuels. That they are so embedded in our infrastructure, imbricated in the pattern of how all things modern grow, in our financial system and institutions, that they can’t be removed, or something like that.
So far, though, the environmental movement has done a pretty good job of making a coherent imaginary about renewable energy. They have fought hard to make this an imaginable, tangible thing to strive towards — to a point.
The problem is that we will soon be up against various limitations of what wind / water / solar can do — social limitations, land use conflicts, critical minerals, etc. To keep warming below 1.5°, and probably 2°C, we need wind/water/solar and a bunch of ands — and nuclear, and carbon capture, and what the Swedish government refers to as “supplementary measures”, aka carbon removal. We will need all the ands even though some of them do not fit into what mainstream environmentalists view as the good life.
Varieties of realism about carbon removal abound as well. You may hear technoeconomic realism: Carbon removal isn’t realistic, it’s not mature technology, it will never be built at scale, it costs too much, it’s magical thinking. You may hear (from the same people) a sort of entrenched interests realism: If carbon removal does happen, it’s only by fossil fuel interests, they own it and will control it.
Both of these may be true. What I want to point out here is the inconsistency of these forms of realism, because they are not applied to the challenge of full decarbonization, technically nor politically. Wind/water/solar, on the other hand, must be viewed as fully realistic.
This sort of selective realism seems common on the Left, which has a broader failure to draw lessons from recent world events and think about what they mean for global decarbonization. The Arab Spring and how it ended, first and foremost. But we can think about other currents too. I remember celebrating New Year’s Eve in 2012 in Istanbul, at an artist warehouse party; Turkey’s artistic energy and economic rise seemed unstoppable. Just a year and a half later: the police crackdown at Gezi Park which left several dead, and in the years that followed, consolidation of authoritarian power. I remember Addis in 2013 — the dizzying energy of new construction, the sense, again, that young people in the country were going to have open horizons. The trajectory seemed clear; a senseless conflict that would displace millions did not seem in the cards.
We have seen a decade of rising authoritarianism and the disappointing failures of the promises of globalization (much of which was predictable, in left critiques of globalization).
But we have not integrated these disappointments, facts, events, and trends into climate strategy.
Thinking about climate seems to proceed along local lines; when the global enters, it’s in the context of solidarity, of echoing calls for climate justice and climate finance from developing nations. It’s like we expect the same strategies that failed in these other places in the 2010s to also deliver climate action. We need a new way of thinking about this. Otherwise, we’re left with fossil realism and climate realism.
II. The slow cancellation of the future
Carbon removal is thoroughly haunted.
Hauntology has to do with the agency of the virtual: that which acts without (physically existing), per Mark Fisher. Finance, capital. But also: ideas overshoot, promises of emerging technologies, models: these act without physically existing.
There are two directions in hauntology, Fisher reminds us.
“That which is no longer, but remains effective.” Visions from the past.
“That which has not yet happened, but which is already effective.” Anticipations of the future.
That which is no longer, but which still acts: boomer environmentalism. That is, climate action is haunted by a previous generation’s dreams of what a good environmental future would look like.
The ghost: is focused on the individual consumer / brings an individual subjectivity. Carries a thread of antimodernism. Localizes, goes along with folk politics, the small-scale, the idyllic rural or suburban. Upholds the nature / society binary.
What good environmental future does it look towards? Something (apologetically) green-consumerist, with local food. Non-industrial, not really urbanized, village harmony; inflected by communes despite the fact that they didn’t work at scale; psychedelics and individual self-improvement despite five-year-old Susan at High Kindergarten at the end of Slouching Towards Bethlehem; individual self-improvement expressed as green virtues.
In the 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism”, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus called out a part of this problem: the nature-society binary. They criticised environmentalism for failing to include people; for thinking of the environment as a thing, making environmentalists into a special interest group. They asked: “Are existing environmental institutions up to the task of imagining the post-global warming world? Or do we need new institutions founded around a more expansive vision and set of values?”
Wait, but don’t we now have an urban, intersectional environmentalism? Isn’t it youth-led, Indigenous-led? Shouldn’t the new intersectional environmentalism solve the problems Shellenberger and Nordhaus pointed out almost 20 years ago?
Yes, these movements are new, and the focus on environmental justice is new, and it is remaking both established environmental NGOs and policy. Environmental justice and intersectional environmentalism are the biggest things to shake up environmentalism in decades.
How is intersectional environmentalism’s vision of the good future different from boomer environmentalism’s?
I cannot see the obvious answer to this. We could say: It centers people; more specifically, it centers justice, and people of color and disadvantaged communities, people who experience structural inequality, in the past and in thee present. It looks at these social structures and seeks to change them. And you and I kind of have a sense of what that means.
But try explaining that to a skeptical person from some other place, who’s asking, “What do all those words really mean? What does centering justice look like to me on the ground?” And there’s a sense that these general ideals, values, and ways of seeing have not been fully translated to a vision of a good future that can mobilize voters or entire communities towards building the new.
The Climate Justice Alliance talks about “building a Just Transition away from extractive systems of production, consumption and political oppression, and towards resilient, regenerative and equitable economies”; stating that “Localized democracies that champion community rights to energy, land, water, and food sovereignty are the best answers to combating exploitation.”
Is it beautiful, or is it filled with NGO buzzwords that have been fully appropriated by capitalism already? I am caught. Is it still inflected by or subsumed within boomer environmentalism, rather than truly new? It feels like it could be. If so — why?
There are at least four possibilities. The first is simply that this is a new vision of a specific good environmental future, one that is animating people and building a cultural form, and my sense of it is just off.
The second is that perhaps this is just what people of all generations want: “resilient, regenerative and equitable economies rooted in place-based webs of social and ecological relationships” — and it’s not unique to boomers; it’s something more universal, and they have no claim on it.
A third explanation for this has to do with the political economy of our imaginary-making machinery. Simply, not enough funding and resources have actually flowed to environmental justice groups and groups led by youth, Indigenous people, and people of color. Perhaps resource-strapped groups and communities have been so busy fighting an onslaught of existing and upcoming polluting infrastructure that their resources have gone more to defense rather than details of what they are working towards.
Perhaps NGOization is at work, too. And perhaps the funding that does flow to these groups is controlled by philanthropies made up of boomer environmentalists, which acts on outputs in subtle ways.
One of the most identifiable visions of the future that the new intersectional environmentalism has contributed to is the Green New Deal. I showed “A message from the future”, the short film with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to my students last semester. A lot of them found it moving, indicating that it might work as a cultural vision — but none of these students, mostly environmental studies majors, had seen it before.
The reality is that the new intersectional environmentalism has failed thus far to become a wider cultural movement. We can’t blame its failure entirely on Joe Manchin.
Rather, the contemporary media ecology has crashed its chances of flowering, because the contemporary media ecology is gestural.
Capitalist realism is a pervasive atmosphere, and moral critique only reinforces it; gestures against it only reinforce it, writes Fisher. “So long as we believe capitalism is bad, we are free to continue” on our way — so long as we perform that it is bad, we have liberty to go about our lives in it.
This is the same with the anti-fossil-fuel gestures: performing being against fossil fuels reinforces the industry’s power.
Matt Yglesias observed in a controversial essay that philanthropy in the wake of the Waxman-Markey failure decided to “invest a lot of money in creating a simulacrum of a vast and highly energized social movement funding lots of groups to ‘do grassroots activism’ without genuinely building accountable membership organizations,” creating a Potemkin Village version of grassroots mobilization that delivers some benefits by fooling journalists but doesn’t really change things.
This gestural resistance without wider coalition-building is a problem. An analysis of the future of the Sunrise Movement by Jonathan Guy and Sam Zacher in Jacobin observed that “The emphasis on media attention-getting stunts — a textbook application of the Momentum model — was perfectly suited for the pre-Biden era. Yet as the action turns from setting the political agenda to winning and implementing policy over the long term, Sunrise’s existing model has clear limitations. It remains largely dis-embedded from American society, unable to form the mass organization and ideological assent required to structurally transform the economy within ten to fifteen years — which we absolutely need to do to realize a livable future.”
Politics and wide buy-in don’t matter if your objective is to build a brand, and not do politics. Brand-building in the social media era isn’t achieved by appealing to a wide audience. There is a major confusion about objectives here; politics has always been about influence, but being an influencer is not correspondingly about politics.
When I was trying to think about how to describe where environmentalism was, and the term “intersectional environmentalism” occurred to me, I googled it, since it was obvious that people would have called it that already. What I found is one of these contemporary hybrids: is it a movement? A concept? A brand? An NGO? It is a 501c3. It 414K followers on Instagram and it has merch. Its founder is an influencer with sponsorships; Grist wrote about this, and quoted environmental justice advocate Robert Bullard as asking, “But how does it apply on the ground in communities that are fighting environmental racism?”
Mark Fisher described how the latest form of capitalism involves a turn from belief to aesthetics and from engagement to spectatorship, leaving us, as Fisher described, the “consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.”
Yet another explanation for the failure of contemporary environmentalism to be new and widely moving is the wider exhaustion identified by Fisher: new cultural ideas are not really being generated, and environmental imaginaries are just one more instance. Fisher attributes some of this in high-rent cities and more — “Neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new-middle-class.”
“We remain trapped in the 20th century. The slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations.”
This is how we end up with a second haunting.
That which has not yet happened, but which is already acting: doomerism. The climate apocalypse is unfolding unevenly, and for some people, regions, and ecosystems it is already here; yet a complete climate breakdown is still in the future.
Why does it have such purchase on contemporary imaginations?
“Environmental catastrophe provides what a political unconscious totally colonized by neoliberalism cannot: an image of life after capitalism,” writes Fisher. Perhaps that is part of its appeal.
Fisher compares capitalist realism to “the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion.”
Climate Twitter is rife with this mood. Obviously, climate change is a sharp danger, but it’s clear to an observer that something more is going on here than reacting to a danger, something religious in nature which is seeps into and shapes daily interaction.
Futures that failed to materialize and remained spectral: the haunting that future people will feel.
Knowing we could have organized to put carbon back in place but did not. No geospheric return.
What will they feel when they look at our stock photos of the few direct air capture plants or YouTubes of the soil carbon advocates? Will it be like looking photos of May ’68 or the Whole Earth Catalog while “Ashes to Ashes” plays in the background? Or just rage? Will they be able to make sense of NIMBYism? Will they understand how a civilization which figured out how to CRISPR plants and go to the moon and build skyscrapers and subways and third wave coffee shops … just went on to decide that building these particular sets of machines and practices was a bridge too far?
Boomer environmentalism is a moral hazard
When it comes to carbon removal, there is no more frequent question than that of moral hazard: the idea that carbon removal will reduce the will to mitigate, give a free pass to emitting, and so on.
It is worth it to catalog the potential formulations of moral hazard:
Carbon removal reduces the will to mitigate.
Adaptation reduces the will to mitigate.
Solar geoengineering reduces the will to mitigate.
Solar geoengineering reduces the will to fund real adaptation.
Solar geoengineering reduces the will to fund carbon removal infrastructure.
Carbon removal reduces the need to research solar geoengineering.
Carbon removal distracts from adaptation.
The tenuous existence of tail-probability scenarios of mitigation via small-is-beautiful demand reduction and socially improbable steep-cliff cuts, championed as “still possible!” even as they recede from view, reduce the urgency of funding adaptation.
The tenuous existence of tail-probability scenarios of mitigation via small-is-beautiful demand reduction and socially improbable steep-cliff cuts, championed as “still possible!” even as they recede from view, reduce the will for RD&D on carbon removal.
The tenuous existence of tail-probability scenarios of mitigation via small-is-beautiful demand reduction and socially improbable steep-cliff cuts, championed as “still possible!” even as they recede from view, reduce the will to research solar geoengineering.
What to do?
All climate philanthropy should fund artists and relationship-builders and platform reform.
Forget the white papers on MRV and research agendas and policy blueprints for scale-up and all the workshops that go into those papers. It’s not going to do anything. Just work on this problem of compelling visions of the good environmental future, and work on the program of platform reform so that it’s even possible to share a vision of anything.
The government too should be putting billions into public engagement programs, yes multiple billions, if we want to see any infrastructure built — and that’s not just carbon removal, that’s transmission lines and hydrogen pipelines and all the things. The philanthropists and NGOs and lobbyists need to get serious about this. People do not understand the scale of the energy transition and why it needs to happen in their backyards and what a heat pump is and why there will be residual emissions. The communications crisis needs to be solved before the climate crisis can be. Communications not just in the sense of information (people lacking information) because communication is a two-way, reciprocal, ritualized process. The billionaires who dealt the final blows to the system of communications need to pay to repair it just like the fossil fuel companies need to pay up for climate repair. They won’t want to fund it because they can’t control the process or the outcomes, but that’s the situation in the spring of 2022.
Venice, CA / Buffalo, NY / 2022