Richard Widick (12/5/17)
Climate of Empire is a book manuscript in progress—a critical, theoretical, global ethnography of the human rights revolution, as it is embodied in what I call the international climate wars, in which I see converging peoples, labor and environmental movements (all of the social forces of emergent global civil society) increasingly focused on climate change and global warming.
The research question at hand: How and to what effect are new media transforming reflexive modernization (Giddens 1990, The Consequences of Modernity) by enabling the channeling of attention and information back to the centers of global accumulation from the people and places where the externalized social and environmental costs of world system expansion continuously accumulate and generate grievances?
In 2017, that channel (of collective, social attention) is increasingly focused on The Spectacle of the unfolding climate crisis and its reflection, or rather embodiment, in the UN climate talks, which together increasingly become the figure through which critical cultural imaginations confront the difficult global political economic (development) dynamics of the 21st century.
“The spectacle,” wrote Guy Debord in 1967 (updating Marx’s crucial teaching that capital is not a thing, not just money, but rather a social relationship), “is not a collection of images; it is a social relationship mediated by images.”
Application of Debord’s insight to the problem of global warming, climate change and emergent global climate governance yields the central thesis of Climate of Empire: Earth’s climate is not a collection of atmospheric conditions and weather events; it is a social relationship mediated by emergent human technologies, economic, public and political institutions, and the consequent transformation of atmospheric conditions and weather events.
Turn on the news, watch the hurricane and drought reports, tune in to the wars of north Africa and the civil unrest in South America … what appears are images of the changing weather patterns, the disasters of uneven fossil-fueled maldevelopment, the legacies of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and finally, crucially … the still rising post-World War II, UN-driven liberal, institutional apparatus for the political-economic self-governance and economic management of development (what used to be called modernization).
Concretely, consider the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs-cum-International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank (WB), World Trade troika of pro-globalization development policy.
As the collective effort of The Victors of WWII, these UN institutions represent the universal project of engineering a global empire of democratic, republican governance—an empire explicitly designed to deliver maximum peace and security, but implicitly organized around assumption idea that progress toward that maximum of peace and security is uniquely dependent on infinite economic expansion.
As I investigated the history of this emergent apparatus of global economic governance, it occurred to me deeply focused the Nations had become on a narrowly economic definition of development—but parallel to this history another, similar and necessarily derivative institutional arrangement can be discerned: institutions of emergent global environmental governance are likewise being constructed.
As it turns out, the successful development of global economic expansion is registering effects not just in economic production (the so-called development index), but also in environmental quality—a new domain of negative externalities generated by economic development.
Students of international relations, development studies, economics and sociology must all now be aware: it is no longer possible to study the phenomena of economic globalization as if this new domain of consequences is not inscribed at its center precisely by being external (or rather by being cast outside the logic of development).
On the contrary—economic globalization is the globalization of externalized environmental/social costs.
The continuous public sphere spectacle of economic development conferences is simultaneously the spectacle of external environmental/social costs.
There can be no domain of economics—moving forward there can only be environmental/social economics.
For this reason, Climate of Empire studies the spectacle of the UN climate talks as a symptom not just of emergent global environmental governance, but first and foremost an effect of emergent global economic governance, and the catastrophic wars that so deeply shaped the Victors profound commitments to the liberal international order.
Finally, by combining these formulations we derive the following: The spectacle of Earth’s climate faltering under anthropogenic global warming is not a collection of images of weather events and atmospheric conditions and the planet-killing 20th century technologies of tar sands, oil, and gas; it is the social relationship of the global empire of UN-driven “development” (capital) mediated by images of extreme weather events and changing atmospheric conditions and the planet-killing 20th century technologies of tar sands, oil, and gas.
In the course of this research I have participated in the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle 1999; in the World Social Forums convened in Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2005, and Caracas, Venezuela, 2006, and the United Nations Climate Talks in Durban 2011, Doha 2012, Warsaw 2013, Lima 2014, Paris 2015, Marrakech 2016 and Bonn 2017; the UN General Assembly’s special Climate Ambition Conference of 2014; and I have travelled to Vietnam and China to investigate the global commodity supply chains of the handbag, footwear and apparel industries.
Here is a short audio statement of the central thesis of Climate of Empire.
The Battle in Seattle, World Trade Organization 5th Ministerial Conference, Seattle, Washington, 1999
World Social Forum 5, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2005
World Social Forum 6, Caracas, Venezuela, 2006
Ho Chi Min City (Saigon), Vietnam, 2009
Guangzhou area, Guangdong Province, China, 2009
COP 17, Durban, South Africa, 2011
COP 18, Doha, Qatar, 2012
COP 19, Warsaw, Poland, 2013
New York City, UN Climate Summit and People’s Climate March, September 2014
COP 20, Lima, Peru, December 2014
Next up: Paris, COP 21, one month of field research (November 20 – December 20).