Slavoj Zizek: Lessons From the “Airpocalypse”

On China’s smog problem and the ecological crisis.

Slavoj Žižek

One of the most striking things about China's air pollution is how it has been normalized. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In Decem­ber 2016, smog in big Chi­nese cities became so thick that thou­sands fled into the coun­try­side, try­ing to reach a place where one could still see blue sky — this air­poca­lypse” affect­ed half a bil­lion peo­ple. For those who remained, mov­ing around began to resem­ble life in a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic movie: peo­ple walk­ing around with large gas masks in a smog where even near­by trees were invis­i­ble. The class dimen­sion played a cru­cial role: Before the author­i­ties had to close air­ports because of the bad air, those who could afford an expen­sive flight aban­doned the affect­ed cities. And, to add insult to injury, Bei­jing’s law­mak­ers con­sid­ered list­ing smog as a mete­o­ro­log­i­cal dis­as­ter, an act of nature, not an effect of indus­tri­al pol­lu­tion, to pre­vent blam­ing the author­i­ties for the cat­a­stro­phe. A new cat­e­go­ry was thus added to the long list of refugees from wars, droughts, tsunamis, earth­quakes, eco­nom­ic crises, etc. — smog refugees.

The airpocalypse in China is a clear indication of the limits of our predominant environmentalism, this strange combination of catastrophism and routine, of guilt-feeling and indifference.

Per­haps the most sur­pris­ing thing about this air­poca­lypse is its quick nor­mal­iza­tion: After the author­i­ties could no longer deny the prob­lem, they estab­lished pro­ce­dures that would some­how enable peo­ple to con­tin­ue their dai­ly life by way of fol­low­ing new rou­tines, as if the cat­a­stroph­ic smog were just a new fact of life. On des­ig­nat­ed days, you try to stay at home as much as pos­si­ble and, if nec­es­sary, walk around with masks. Chil­dren rejoice in the news that on many days schools are closed — an oppor­tu­ni­ty to stay at home and play. Mak­ing a trip to the coun­try­side, where the blue sky is still vis­i­ble, becomes a spe­cial occa­sion one looks for­ward to (there are already agen­cies in Bei­jing spe­cial­ized for such one-day trips). The impor­tant thing is not to pan­ic and to main­tain the appear­ance that, in spite of all trou­bles, life goes on …

Such a reac­tion is under­stand­able if we take into account that we are being con­front­ed by some­thing so com­plete­ly out­side our col­lec­tive expe­ri­ence that we don’t real­ly see it, even when the evi­dence is over­whelm­ing. For us, that some­thing” is a blitz of enor­mous bio­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal alter­ations in the world that has been sus­tain­ing us. In order to cope with this threat, our col­lec­tive ide­ol­o­gy is mobi­liz­ing mech­a­nisms of dis­sim­u­la­tion and self-decep­tion which go up to the direct will to igno­rance: a gen­er­al pat­tern of behav­ior among threat­ened human soci­eties is to become more blind­ered, rather than more focused on the cri­sis, as they fail.”

One thing is sure: An extra­or­di­nary social and psy­cho­log­i­cal change is tak­ing place right in front of our eyes — the impos­si­ble is becom­ing pos­si­ble. An event first expe­ri­enced as impos­si­ble but not real (the prospect of a forth­com­ing cat­a­stro­phe which, how­ev­er prob­a­ble we know it is, we do not believe will effec­tive­ly occur and thus dis­miss as impos­si­ble) becomes real but no longer impos­si­ble (once the cat­a­stro­phe occurs, it is renor­mal­ized,” per­ceived as part of the nor­mal run of things, as always-already hav­ing been pos­si­ble). The gap which makes these para­dox­es pos­si­ble is the one between knowl­edge and belief: we know the (eco­log­i­cal) cat­a­stro­phe is pos­si­ble, prob­a­ble even, yet we do not believe it will real­ly happen.

Recall the siege of Sara­je­vo in the ear­ly 1990s: The fact that a nor­mal” Euro­pean city of half a mil­lion inhab­i­tants will be encir­cled, starved, reg­u­lar­ly bombed, its cit­i­zens ter­ror­ized by sniper fire, etc., and that this will go on for 3 years, would have been con­sid­ered unimag­in­able before 1992 — it would have been extreme­ly easy for the West­ern pow­ers to break the siege and open a small safe cor­ri­dor to the city. When the siege began, even the cit­i­zens of Sara­je­vo thought this is a short-term event, try­ing to send their chil­dren to safe­ty for a week or two, till this mess is over.” And then, very fast, the siege was nor­mal­ized.” This same pas­sage from impos­si­bil­i­ty to nor­mal­iza­tion (with a brief inter­me­di­ary stage of pan­icky numb­ness) is clear­ly dis­cernible in how the U.S. lib­er­al estab­lish­ment react­ed to Trump’s vic­to­ry. It is also clear­ly at work in how state pow­ers and big cap­i­tal relate to eco­log­i­cal threats like the ice melt­down on the poles. The very same politi­cians and man­agers who, until recent­ly, dis­missed the fears of glob­al warm­ing as the apoc­a­lyp­tic scare-mon­ger­ing of ex-Com­mu­nists, or at least as pre­ma­ture con­clu­sions based on insuf­fi­cient evi­dence, assur­ing us that there is no rea­son for pan­ic, that, basi­cal­ly, things will go on as usu­al, are now all of a sud­den treat­ing glob­al warm­ing as a sim­ple fact, as part of the way things are going on as usual” …

In July 2008, CNN was repeat­ed­ly show­ing a report The Green­ing of Green­land,” cel­e­brat­ing the new oppor­tu­ni­ties that the melt­ing of ice offers to Green­lan­ders — they can already grow veg­eta­bles in the open land, etc. The obscen­i­ty of this report is not only that it focus­es on the minor ben­e­fit of a glob­al cat­a­stro­phe; it also plays on the dou­ble mean­ing of green” in our pub­lic speech (“green” for veg­e­ta­tion; green” for eco­log­i­cal con­cerns), so that the fact that more veg­e­ta­tion can grow on the Green­land soil because of glob­al warm­ing is asso­ci­at­ed with the ris­ing of eco­log­i­cal aware­ness. Are such phe­nom­e­na not yet anoth­er exam­ple of how right Nao­mi Klein was when, in her Shock Doc­trine, she described the way glob­al cap­i­tal­ism exploits cat­a­stro­phies (wars, polit­i­cal crises, nat­ur­al dis­as­ters) to get rid of the old” social con­straints and impose its agen­da on the slate cleared by the cat­a­stro­phe? Per­haps, the forth­com­ing eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ters, far from under­min­ing cap­i­tal­ism, will serve as its great­est boost.

What gets lost in this shift is the prop­er sense of what is going on, with all the unex­pect­ed traps the cat­a­stro­phe hides. For exam­ple, one of the unpleas­ant para­dox­es of our predica­ment is that the very attempts to coun­ter­act oth­er eco­log­i­cal threats may con­tribute to the warm­ing of the poles: the ozone hole helps shield the inte­ri­or of the Antarc­tic from glob­al warm­ing, so if it is healed, the Antarc­tic could quick­ly catch up with the warm­ing of the rest of the Earth… One thing at least is sure. In the last decades, it was fash­ion­able to talk about the pre­dom­i­nant role of intel­lec­tu­al labor” in our postin­dus­tri­al soci­eties — how­ev­er, mate­ri­al­i­ty is now reassert­ing itself with a vengeance in all its aspects, from the forth­com­ing strug­gle for scarce resources (food, water, ener­gy, min­er­als) to envi­ron­men­tal pollution.

Even when we pro­fess the readi­ness to assume our respon­si­bil­i­ty for eco­log­i­cal cat­a­stro­phes, this can be a tricky strat­a­gem to avoid the true dimen­sions of a cat­a­sat­ro­phe. There is some­thing decep­tive­ly reas­sur­ing in this readi­ness to assume the guilt for the threats to our envi­ron­ment: We like to be guilty since, if we are guilty, then it all depends on us, we pull the strings of the cat­a­stro­phe, so we can also save our­selves sim­ply by chang­ing our lives. What is real­ly dif­fi­cult for us (at least for us in the West) to accept is that, as indi­vid­u­als, we are reduced to a pure­ly pas­sive role of those who can only sit and watch what our fate will be — to avoid such a sit­u­a­tion, we are prone to engage in a fran­tic obses­sive activ­i­ty, recy­cle old paper, buy organ­ic food, what­ev­er, just so that we can be sure that we are doing some­thing, mak­ing our con­tri­bu­tion — like a soc­cer fan who sup­ports his team in front of a TV screen at home, shout­ing and jump­ing from his seat, in a super­sti­tious belief that this will some­how influ­ence the outcome.

It is true that the typ­i­cal form of fetishist dis­avow­al apro­pos ecol­o­gy is: I know very well (that we are all threat­ened), but I don’t real­ly believe it (so I am not ready to do any­thing real­ly impor­tant like chang­ing my way of life).” But there is also the oppo­site form of dis­avow­al: I know very well that I can­not real­ly influ­ence the process which can lead to my ruin (like a vol­canic out­burst), but it is nonethe­less too trau­mat­ic for me to accept this, so I can­not resist the urge to do some­thing, even if I know it is ulti­mate­ly mean­ing­less.” Is it not for the same rea­son that we buy organ­ic food? Who real­ly believes that the half-rot­ten and expen­sive organ­ic” apples are real­ly health­i­er? The point is that, even if they real­ly are health­i­er (and many of them prob­a­bly are), we buy them because by way of buy­ing them, we do not just buy and con­sume a prod­uct — we simul­ta­ne­ous­ly do some­thing mean­ing­ful, show our care and glob­al aware­ness, we par­tic­i­pate in a large col­lec­tive project.

We have to fin­ish with such games. The air­poca­lypse in Chi­na is a clear indi­ca­tion of the lim­its of our pre­dom­i­nant envi­ron­men­tal­ism, this strange com­bi­na­tion of cat­a­strophism and rou­tine, of guilt-feel­ing and indif­fer­ence. Ecol­o­gy is today one of the major ide­o­log­i­cal bat­tle­fields, with a whole series of strate­gies to obfus­cate the true dimen­sions of the eco­log­i­cal threat: (1) sim­ple igno­rance: It’s a mar­gin­al phe­nom­e­non, not wor­thy of our pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, life (of cap­i­tal) goes on, nature will take care of itself; (2) sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy can save us; (3) leave the solu­tion to the mar­ket (high­er tax­a­tion of the pol­luters, etc.); (4) super­ego pres­sure on per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty instead of large sys­temic mea­sures: Each of us should do what he/​she can — recy­cle, con­sume less, etc.; (5) maybe the worst of them all – worst in its ide­o­log­i­cal effects — is the advo­cat­ing of a return to nat­ur­al bal­ance, to a more mod­est, tra­di­tion­al life by means of which we renounce human hubris and become again respect­ful chil­dren of our Moth­er Nature.

Does the pre­dom­i­nant eco­log­i­cal dis­course not address us as a pri­ori guilty, indebt­ed to moth­er nature, under the con­stant pres­sure of the eco­log­i­cal super­ego-agency which address­es us in our indi­vid­u­al­ty: What did you do today to repay your debt to nature? Did you put all news­pa­pers into a prop­er recy­cle bin? And all the bot­tles of beer or cans of Coke? Did you use your car where you could have used a bike or some means of pub­lic trans­port? Did you use air con­di­tion­ing instead of just open­ing wide the win­dows?” The ide­o­log­i­cal stakes of such indi­vid­u­al­iza­tion are eas­i­ly dis­cernible: I get lost in my own self-exam­i­na­tion instead of rais­ing much more per­ti­nent glob­al ques­tions about our entire indus­tri­al civ­i­liza­tion. Plus one should note how this cul­pa­bil­i­ti­za­tion is imme­di­ate­ly sup­ple­ment­ed by an easy way out: recy­cle, buy organ­ic food, use renew­able ener­gy, etc., and you no longer have to feel guilty, you can enjoy your life as usual.

Anoth­er trap to be avoid­ed is the mor­al­iz­ing anti-cap­i­tal­ism — all the talk about how cap­i­tal­ism is sus­tained by the ego­tist greed of indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ists for more pow­er and wealth. In actu­al cap­i­tal­ism, per­son­al greed is sub­or­di­nat­ed to the imper­son­al striv­ing of the cap­i­tal itself to repro­duce and to expand. One is thus almost tempt­ed to say that what we real­ly need is more, not less, enlight­ened ego­tism. Take the eco­log­i­cal threat: no pseu­do-ani­mistic love for nature is need­ed to act here, just a long-term ego­tist inter­est. The con­flict between cap­i­tal­ism and ecol­o­gy may appear to be a typ­i­cal con­flict between patho­log­i­cal ego­tis­tic-util­i­tar­i­an inter­ests and the prop­er­ly eth­i­cal care for the com­mon good of human­i­ty. Upon a clos­er look, it imme­di­ate­ly becomes clear that the sit­u­a­tion is exact­ly the oppo­site one: It is our eco­log­i­cal con­cerns that are ground­ed in the util­i­tar­i­an sense of sur­vival: They sim­ply stand for the enlight­ened self-inter­est, at its high­est for the inter­est of the future gen­er­a­tions against our imme­di­ate inter­est. The New Age spir­i­tu­al­ist notion of the sacred­ness of life as such, of the right of envi­ron­ment to its preser­va­tion, etc., plays no nec­es­sary role in our eco­log­i­cal aware­ness. If we are look­ing for the eth­i­cal dimen­sion in this entire affair, it is to be found in capitalism’s uncon­di­tion­al com­mit­ment to its own ever-expand­ing repro­duc­tion: a cap­i­tal­ist who ded­i­cates him­self uncon­di­tion­al­ly to the cap­i­tal­ist self-expan­sive dri­ve is effec­tive­ly ready to put every­thing, includ­ing the sur­vival of human­i­ty, at stake, not for any patho­log­i­cal” gain or goal, but just for the sake of the repro­duc­tion of the sys­tem as end-in-itself. Fiat prof­i­tus pereat mundus (let prof­its be made, though the world per­ish) is what we pre­sume to be its mot­to. This eth­i­cal mot­to is, of course, weird, if not out­right evil — how­ev­er, from a strict Kant­ian per­spec­tive, we should not for­get that what makes it repul­sive to us is our pure­ly patho­log­i­cal” sur­vival­ist reac­tion: a cap­i­tal­ist, inso­far as he acts in accor­dance with his notion,” is some­one who faith­ful­ly pur­sues a uni­ver­sal goal, with­out regard for any patho­log­i­cal” obstacles.

So what is to be done, as Lenin would have put it? In his What Hap­pened in the XXth Cen­tu­ry?, Peter Slo­ter­dijk pro­vides his own out­line of what is to be done in the XXIst cen­tu­ry, best encap­su­lat­ed in the titles of the first two essays in the book, The Anthro­pocene” and From the Domes­ti­ca­tion of Man to the Civ­i­liz­ing of Cultures.”

Anthro­pocene” des­ig­nates a new epoch in the life of our plan­et in which we, humans, can­not any longer rely on the Earth as a reser­voir ready to absorb the con­se­quences of our pro­duc­tive activ­i­ty: We can­not any longer afford to ignore the side effects (col­lat­er­al dam­age) of our pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, they can­not any longer be reduced to the back­ground of the fig­ure of human­i­ty. We have to accept that we live on a Space­ship Earth,” respon­si­ble and account­able for its con­di­tions. Earth is no longer the impen­e­tra­ble back­ground of our pro­duc­tive activ­i­ty, it emerges as a(nother) finite object that we can inad­ver­tent­ly destroy or trans­form to make it unliv­able. This means that, at the very moment when we become pow­er­ful enough to affect the most basic con­di­tions of our life, we have to accept that we are just anoth­er ani­mal species on a small plan­et – what enforces this accep­tance is our very glob­al destruc­tive pow­er. A new way to relate to our envi­rons is nec­es­sary once we real­ize this: no longer a hero­ic work­er express­ing his/​her cre­ative poten­tials and draw­ing from the inex­haustible resources from his/​her envi­rons but a much more mod­est agent col­lab­o­rat­ing with his/​her envi­rons, per­ma­nent­ly nego­ti­at­ing a tol­er­a­ble lev­el of safe­ty and stability.

Is the very mod­el of ignor­ing the col­lat­er­al dam­age not cap­i­tal­ism? What mat­ters in cap­i­tal­ist repro­duc­tion is the self-enhanc­ing cir­cu­la­tion focused on prof­it, and the col­lat­er­al dam­age done to the envi­rons not includ­ed into costs of pro­duc­tion is in prin­ci­ple ignored — even the attempts to take it into account through tax­a­tion (or by way of direct­ly putting a price tag on every nat­ur­al resource one uses, includ­ing air) can­not but mis­fire. So in order to estab­lish this new mode of relat­ing to our envi­rons, a rad­i­cal politi­co-eco­nom­ic change is nec­es­sary, what Slo­ter­dijk calls the domes­ti­ca­tion of the wild ani­mal Cul­ture.” Till now, each cul­ture edu­cat­ed and dis­ci­plined its own mem­bers and guar­an­teed civic peace among them in the guise of state pow­er, but the rela­tion­ship between dif­fer­ent cul­tures and states was per­ma­nent­ly under the shad­ow of poten­tial war, with each state of peace noth­ing more than a tem­po­rary armistice. As Hegel con­cep­tu­al­ized it, the entire eth­ic of a state cul­mi­nates in the high­est act of hero­ism, the readi­ness to sac­ri­fice one’s life for one’s nation-state, which means that the wild bar­bar­ian rela­tions between states serve as the foun­da­tion of the eth­i­cal life with­in a state. Is today’s North Korea, with its ruth­less pur­suit of nuclear weapons and rock­ets to hit with them dis­tant tar­gets, not the ulti­mate car­i­ca­ture of this log­ic of uncon­di­tion­al Nation-State sovereignty?

The moment we ful­ly accept the fact that we live on a Space­ship Earth, the task that urgent­ly impos­es itself is that of civ­i­liz­ing civ­i­liza­tions them­selves, of impos­ing uni­ver­sal sol­i­dar­i­ty and coop­er­a­tion among all human com­mu­ni­ties, a task ren­dered all the more dif­fi­cult by the ongo­ing rise of sec­tar­i­an reli­gious and eth­nic hero­ic” vio­lence and readi­ness to sac­ri­fice one­self (and the world) for one’s spe­cif­ic Cause. The over­com­ing of cap­i­tal­ist expan­sion­ism, wide inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion and sol­i­dar­i­ty should also be able to trans­form itself into an exec­u­tive pow­er ready to vio­late state sov­er­eign­ty, etc. Are these not all mea­sures des­tined to pro­tect our nat­ur­al and cul­tur­al com­mons? If they do not point towards com­mu­nism, if they do not imply a com­mu­nist hori­zon, then the term com­mu­nism” has no mean­ing at all.

Slavoj Žižek, a Sloven­ian philoso­pher and psy­cho­an­a­lyst, is a senior researcher at the the Insti­tute for Human­i­ties, Birk­beck Col­lege, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don. He has also been a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at more than 10 uni­ver­si­ties around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, includ­ing Liv­ing in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dream­ing Dan­ger­ous­ly and Trou­ble in Paradise.
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