‘We’re F#cked!’ Conceptualising Catastrophe

Galveston Aftermath (Image: Cody Austin)
Galveston Aftermath (Image: Cody Austin)

Climate change is often characterised as a ‘crisis’ but is it more accurately understood as a ‘catastrophe’? This is a question I’ve been pondering during the last few days at the 8th International Conference in Critical Management Studies at the University of Manchester. Along with colleagues Christian De Cock, Daniel Nyberg and Sheena Vachhani, I’ve been involved in organising a conference stream which pondered the meanings of catastrophe under the somewhat mischievous title ‘We’re Fucked! Conceptualising Catastrophe’.

The inspiration for this came from Stephen Emmott’s recent sell-out play 10 Billion. At the end of the play, having reviewed the different ways in which humanity has altered Earth’s climate, the Oxford professor (and expert in complex natural systems) states ‘I think we’re already fucked’. This is a sentiment that has been surfaced by others, including US geophysicist Brad Werner in a conference paper last year. Indeed, short of the expletive, the theme of humanity’s suicidal trajectory in the Anthropocene has been highlighted by writers such as Clive Hamilton, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot. This has been reinforced with increasing urgency by scientists around the world, with US climate scientist James Hansen this week publishing a paper highlighting that ‘conceivable levels of human-made climate forcing could yield the low-end runaway greenhouse effect’ including ‘out-of-control amplifying feedbacks such as ice sheet disintegration and melting of methane hydrates’.

While not specifically focused on climate change, our conference stream included papers exploring subjects as diverse as the breakdown of everyday objects, the historical collapse of the UK airship industry in the 1930s, and the global financial crisis as the end of capitalism. However, papers in the stream also surfaced deeper issues of what we mean by ‘catastrophe’ and its implications for humanity’s future.

For instance, regarding the difference between ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’, several speakers made the point that ‘crisis’ implies choice; ‘forks in the road’ by which we can shape future outcomes. By contrast, ‘catastrophe’ is more the end itself. Other speakers highlighted how it is often difficult to comprehend or know when one is in a ‘catastrophe’ until it is too late (again strong parallels with the dithering and obfuscation that characterises the political debate surrounding climate change).

‘Catastrophe’ can also be an important mechanism for the mobilisation of political action. For instance, one paper in the stream explored how the Australian mining industry had conducted an extremely successful media campaign against the proposed mining super-profits tax by arguing the tax would ‘destroy the economy’; a claim uncritically accepted by the mainstream media. Interestingly, in the debate over climate change communication there has been a rejection of ‘bad news’ and an argument that more positive messages are more effective in changing public attitudes. Irrespective of the veracity of such arguments, it seems that in some situations claiming ‘it’s the end of the world’ can be highly effective in mobilising a response, while in other contexts this generate merely a shrug of the shoulders.

Indeed, our reactions to ‘catastrophe’ are often highly ambivalent. On the one hand, we are appalled and horrified by cataclysmic events and the suffering they cause. And yet, in our visually-saturated world of 24-7 news media, we are also mesmerised by the spectacle and theatre of catastrophe. In relation to climate change for instance, the growing visibility of floods, bushfires, hurricanes and tornadoes provide both a horrifying and yet fascinating attraction.

Finally however, ‘catastrophe’ may also involve something far simpler than the popular representation of the Hollywood disaster film (e.g. the planet-killing meteor crashing to Earth). As Christian De Cock suggested (via reference to the German philosopher Walter Benjamin), rather than the cataclysmic event that changes everything, ‘catastrophe’ may in fact be more simply the missed opportunity through which the status quo is preserved. This seems particularly relevant to climate change, in which humanity’s failure to change from the path of ‘business as usual’ (despite numerous signs and warnings) appears the ultimate catastrophe. As the marvellous Kurt Vonnegut declared in considering our apparently doomed future as a species:

We probably could have saved ourselves, but were too damned lazy to try very hard…and too damn cheap.

Republished in RenewEconomy

14 thoughts on “‘We’re F#cked!’ Conceptualising Catastrophe”

  1. Climate change is often characterised as a ‘crisis’ but is it more accurately understood as a ‘catastrophe’?

    Climate change is not a catastrophe, nor a crisis, it is an additional stressor on many systems. Whether this leads to catastrophic behaviour of that system depends on the other stressors, on how robust the system is, which includes how well we were prepared for trouble.

    The additional stress on any individual system is typically not that large. However, it could exceed the range of stress the system was “designed” for and climate change puts a stress on such a huge range of systems. Combined I would expect that mitigation is a much better and cheaper option as adapting all those system (if possible at all) or suffer the losses of the breakdowns.

    If the term “crisis” conveys that we have an option and “catastrophe” does not, would then “crisis” not be the better term? We have a choice. We can solve global problems. Fighting the hole on the ozone layer is a beautiful example.

  2. Victor,
    I agree with your sentiments re the urgent need for radical mitigation of GHG emissions (as you note the scale of climate change induced impacts is such that ‘adaptation’ is going to be near impossible in a business as usual situation). While I cling to the hope that it is a crisis in which we have choices, my growing darkness on this issue is that in studying corporate and government responses to climate change, there is very little meaningful action. In an earlier post I outlined the role of political myths in driving this denial (particularly the promotion of corporate capitalism as best placed to ‘solve’ climate change). I really hope you’re right and humanity will get its act together and respond in an urgent and fundamental way (as per your example of the ozone hole), however current evidence suggests otherwise.

  3. I think it is time for honesty in the discussion, and exploring the worst case scenarios is now timely now necessary.

  4. I’m of the view that we need to be optimistic about solving this problem. If things look too bleak, then we risk falling into a fatalistic frame of mind which then leads to a complete failure to act. If we don’t have an optimistic view of the situation then people will start saying “why bother?”

    I don’t think we should hide the gravity of the situation though, just that it needs to be combined with the message that we can do something about it.

    BTW, thanks for commenting on my blog recently. Your comment very strangely went to my spam folder in wordpress and I’ve only just seen it and moved it.

    1. Rachel,
      Yes agreed. In the introduction to our conference stream, Christian De Cock quoted from Margaret Attwood’s book “Payback” – where she outlines how people respond to catastrophe in different ways (in this case how people in the Middle Ages responded to the Black Death). She notes how some sought to protect themselves through selfish actions, while others gave their lives willingly to help others. Some saw the plague as an excuse to ignore normal moral codes (drinking and partying), while for others it increased their religious fervor. In likelihood, I think we’re seeing all of these responses and more starting to play out as the reality of climate change emerges in popular consciousness.

      It’s going to be interesting to see how humanity responds to this. Beyond the physical impacts (heat, storms, disease, war), I wonder how our modern sensibilities will cope psychologically with what is to come? I’ll post more on this in a few weeks.

  5. ETYMOLOGY is a very useful tool for deeper understanding of word meanings that run deeper than at the ‘normal’ conscious level of psychology, or the current accepted meaning.
    catastrophe (n.)
    1530s, “reversal of what is expected” (especially a fatal turning point in a drama),
    from Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophe “an overturning; a sudden end,”
    from katastrephein “to overturn, turn down, trample on; to come to an end,”
    from kata “down” (see cata-) + strephein “turn” (see strophe).
    Extension to “sudden disaster” is first recorded 1748.

      1. A good example may well be the Titanic ‘catastrophe’? Through the point of view of 1530s, “reversal of what is expected”. The reality may well in fact be perfectly ‘expected’.
        You can research this online easily: The basics seem to be the ‘rich owner/paymaster’ interfered with the ‘engineers’ known science’ at both the planning and building stages. Why? To save costs, to increase carrying capacity (ROI), and to improve the ‘amenity’ for the ‘first class’ passengers. The engineers protested to no avail. Some quit I believe.
        Issues included: using 3rd grade not 1st grade Rivets. Cutting down on double skin hull sections. Cutting down on the number of air-lock sections under the water line. Changing the structural design in the multi-floor open space halls. Reducing the number of Life rafts (well known of course) but also the functional design of the mechanics for launching the life rafts which remained. [The Costa Concordia still had that problem 100 years later btw. Look it up.]
        Of course when the Commission was held into the ’causes’ of this Titanic tragedy by the ‘establishment’ well it was all an unfortunate ‘misfortune’ where no one was responsible nor liable in any way. The owner of the White Star Line got off Scot free. The passengers and the Insurance companies did not.
        It was merely an ‘act of god’ perhaps? Nah, more likely it was only a natural disaster (blame the iceberg psychology) that no one could have foreseen.
        Now, I am sure your colleagues will not miss the direct comparison here to the decades of the amber flashing light warnings given out by Climate Change Scientists Chris. Best of luck with your good work. 🙂

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