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.