Copenhagen and the politics of unsustainability

COP15 in Copenhagen has made a “modest start” to dealing with climate change – according to participants such as UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and NZ climate change ambassador Adrian Macey.

Oh, the irony of such half-hearted spin … COP1 took place in Berlin in 1995. Now, fifteen conferences later we’ve finally got around to making a start.

In fact, of course, Copenhagen has simply been a failure followed by much dissembling. Action has been deferred yet again by the politicians and their sheepish accomplices who have found it too hard to be decisive. They have chosen to leave “making a start” to someone else at some point in the future.

When, as everyone knows, it will all be far too late.

This is – let’s be honest – dangerously self-destructive behaviour: a recognition of the need for change hand in hand with an absolute refusal to change. It is the politics of unsustainability in the most disastrous form imaginable.

Ingolfur Bluhdorn, the originator of this idea of the ‘politics of unsustainability’, has recently provided a very accessible summary of his thinking in the eurozine (here). He writes:

Never before has the unsustainability of the current order and the inevitability of radical change been so widely acknowledged; nor, at the same time, has the structural inability and political unwillingness of advanced modern societies to become sustainable ever been more manifest.

As a result, individual citizens, policy actors and advanced modern societies at large need to invest ever more effort into reassuring themselves and their respective constituencies that eco-politics is still about the agenda of change towards sustainability. Against the background of rising social inequality, exclusion and conflict this is an indispensable mechanism of pacification.

This analysis, well worth reading in full, explains what went on at COP15 perfectly.

Towards the end of his article Bluhdorn reflects on how depressing his message must seem, but notes how important it is to shed light on the “contradictions and irrationality of the prevalent social values, practices and structures.” And then, with this knowledge, it is possible to “mobilise the norms of consistency and reason” against the irrational politics we are subjected to.

How might this mobilisation be achieved?

the renewal of the critical project would aim to repoliticise those key concepts that were once at the very centre of political ecology but have meanwhile been crowded out by the hegemonic discourses of technological innovation, resource efficiency and “green” economic growth.

For Bluhdorn, the key concepts are social and cultural notions as well as political ones:

  • emancipation,
  • integrity,
  • identity,
  • self-realisation,
  • prosperity, and
  • democracy.

These are the key concepts that frame the politics of unsustainability at every level in our society. Thus, as Bluhdorn says, for us to make any real progress towards sustainability, “it is imperative that these categories be repoliticised and their content and limitations redefined.”

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