4 futures for how civilization could respond politically to climate change

Thinking about how higher education and climate change may intersect is a deeper topic that it might appear.  Because climate change is so vast and because higher ed is so complex and sprawling, all kinds of domains and issues enter the stage.

Today’s case in point is… planetary governance.

Yes, there’s a body of literature and a global debate about how to organize humanity’s responses to the climate crisis at the governmental level.  This is a major political science research topic, naturally.  And one of the most important works on this is Climate Leviathan (Verso, 2018) by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright.  In this post I want to draw out what I see as most exciting from that book, then offer some thoughts as to how it all connects with higher education’s future.

Climate Leviathan explores the future of governmental structures from a Marxist perspective, interwoven with centuries of political philosophy.  For example, the title signals the book’s engagement with Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651).  Theodor Adorno, Naomi Klein, Carl Schmitt, Tony Negri, and Albert Einstein (!) all play roles.

What anchors such a rich and wide-ranging exploration is a classic quadrant visualization.  Looking ahead, Mann and Wainwright offer four ways forward for human politics and government (29):

Quadrant 1

To understand what generated this set, let me pull back the visual so you can see the two major trends generating the “four potential social formations”:

climate leviathan quadrant -detail

The two generative trends are political settlements around economics (either pro- or anti-capitalist) and divergent models of planetary governance (unitary, like a world state, or dis-integrated into multiple, autonomous states, as we now have).  The interplay between these two trends via their extremes generates the four futures models pictured above.

What would the models look like if they described future realities?

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  Climate Leviathan sketches these out unevenly.

Climate Leviathan is a world state or strongly bound alliance of states, committed to preserving capitalism while adapting to (not so much resisting) climate change.  Mann and Wainwright see seeds of this in the Paris Accord (pre-Trump).  A combination of ecological and financial crises may speed the Leviathan’s way as authorities can declare emergencies which require extraordinary powers (151).

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Climate Behemoth: this is a world of nationalistic nation-states, each refusing to do anything to mitigate or adapt to climate change.  The authors see Trump and Bolsonaro as examples of this attitude.

(NB: the name of this one turns on a neat bit of linguistics, arguing that the word is actually plural, rather than singular, so it fits well with a plurality of states.

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  “behemoth is the plural of the Aramaic behema, ordinary cattle or beast”, 44 )

Climate Mao imagines, as you might expect, a Chinese government a bit more Maoist than it is at present, and able to influence much of the world.  Here we see a combination of anti-capitalist politics with a strong, unitary or alliance-dominating government.  It “reflects the demand for rapid, revolutionary, state-led transformation today.” (39) Signs of Climate Mao can be seen in China’s rapid, state-led development of solar power.  However, contemporary China seems equally committed to participating in Leviathan.

Climate X: ah, this is where the book gets controversial (for example).  The authors refuse to outline what such a future would look like.  Instead, they see a non-centralized, anti-climate change world order as a space of possibility that we need to create.  They do draw on some sources for suggestions, notably the tradition of left-wing insurgencies and of indigenous people’s movements (189).

…Climate X is a world that has defeated the emergent Climate Leviathan and its compulsion toward planetary sovereignty, while also transcending capitalism.

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  This is obviously a tall order… (173)

(X here is the unknown in math, as well as a kind of lexical refusal of order.)

Readers can imagine for themselves how each of these worlds could play out in detail.  Science fiction has offered visions of each.  Further, you might see a world formed by two or more of these formations occurring at the same time – i.e., China and One Belt, One Road embodying Climate Mao, NATO nations forming up into a Climate Leviathan, while several nations play Behemoth and pockets of X break out around the world.

What does this mean for higher education, if we assume for the moment that this quartet describes some likely futures?

To begin with, each offers colleges and universities a powerful renegotiation of many features of higher ed.  Mao and Behemoth can impose strictures on student recruitment and faculty/staff collaboration, while Leviathan would offer its own.  Each of those three could intervene in questions of curriculum or research.  Mao and Leviathan could seek to adjust campus carbon budgets, from disincentivizing travel to mandating the placement of carbon sequestration technology on campus.

At the same time this unfolding political order becomes the subject of research and teaching.  Mann and Wainwright stress that academic research is actually behind on climate change, “particularly the social sciences.”  (56) Increased academic study of climate change could then, in turn, get shaped by the emerging states, as Leviathan sees funding for certain kinds of scholarship and Mao prefers certain curricula.  Public intellectuals can intervene to help shape those political orders with all kinds of risks, on campus and off.

Academia may become a vital source for developing Climate X.  Colleges and universities have (for now) the freedom to research and teach into this topic with some creativity.  We also have a long tradition as a site of student unrest. This is by no means uniform or even widespread, but the capacity is there.  If climate activism trends as young as it seems to, institutions serving traditional-age students could become the seedbed of X.

What do you make of the Leviathan approach?  Have you thought of or read other visions for the future of politics in the climate crisis?  How does higher ed respond?

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2 Responses to 4 futures for how civilization could respond politically to climate change

  1. Joe Essid says:

    I’d prefer “Climate X,” but the authors leave out two possibilities I consider possible:

    1) GREEN MOB: A non-centralized, often violent response to the do-nothings and those who profit from denying climate change.

    It could take the form of radical, pro-environment movements at the ballot box or eco-terrorism, including lynchings and other assassinations of leaders who refuse to take action. It might also result in a new form of collectivism, with the climate-proles smashing elites’ cars, property, etc. Perhaps (a favored idea of mine) fair trials, on charges of Crimes against Humanity, for climate-profiteers who deny climate change, with their losing their wealth and freedom (life without parole would be in order).

    2) GEOENGINEERING: I fear this, but another response to “back to the wall” may be to deploy half-tested tech to abate or reduce Carbon Dioxide. There are a few SF scenarios about this gone well or badly, even tragically wrong.

  2. Bryan Alexander says:

    Green Mob – I can readily see this, and also see it feeding either into Climate X (which the authors don’t see as exclusively nonviolent) or Mao.

    Geoengineering – the authors almost dismiss this, assigning it to Leviathan but without much discussion.

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