Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Simulative politics

When it comes to global climate change, political leaders everywhere seem to agree on the need for radical and immediate action. Survey data from the industrial countries also confirms that there is a striking consensus between political elites and the general electorate “that it is time to stop talking about things and take decisive action”.

However, as shown by Dale Jamieson in his revealing article “An American Paradox” (Climatic Change, 2006, 77:97-102), when those surveyed are confronted with specific policies with definite costs, their commitment to green reform seems to vanish. Likewise, on the political level, talk seems to be cheap but real action frighteningly expensive as few politicians are willing to seriously challenge the core principles of consumer capitalism.

According to Ingolfur Blühdorn, this observed discrepancy can be attributed to “simulative politics”. According to this notion, politicians repeatedly make the case that serious action is necessary, yet lack any genuine will to carry out that action, believing that the prescribed “cure” would ruin their political future.

Though Blühdorn has built an intricate theoretical framework around these ideas (which I will not be able to give justice to here on the weblog), let us crudely examine some of the premises of this argument:

1) Climate change is an urgent problem
2) Political leaders know what “real” action would look like
3) “Real” action would be painful and include, inter alia, an end to consumer capitalism
4) Instead of this “real” action, political leaders engage in “simulative politics”

I believe that if we think of it in these terms, our politicians immediately come out looking a bit better. Though most of us would agree on the first premise, the other premises remain contestable to say the least. First, though some green writers may have articulated visions of what an ecotopia would look like, the transitional politics that would lead us to these fluffy green lands seem dubious at best, especially from a global perspective. Thinking of how difficult it was to reach international agreement on the (much watered-down) Kyoto-treaty, we can only imagine how difficult it would be to reach agreement on dramatic cuts in economic activity. Even more disturbingly, with a world population approaching seven billions it is uncertain that even such dramatic cuts would suffice to ensure long-term sustainability.

Much of my research has been focused around the second and the third premise. Contrary to many in the “green camp”, I would say that we know very little about what real and meaningful action would look like. Green thinking often presupposes a computer-game-like command of resources and people, that the fabric of society will remain intact throughout any transition and that it is possible to simply “scale back” the material metabolism of our societies. Contrary to this, history suggests that crises rarely lend themselves to planning and that, more often than not, grand plans built around sacrifice may lead to coercive if not totalitarian politics once the original idealism is extinguished.

With all this in mind, the practice of “simulative politics” should not come as a surprise to anyone. Instead of some secret Naomi Kleinesque conspiracy, I believe that our political leaders are just as confused as the rest of us about what a positive global future would look like and, especially, how to move from here to there. Though I often give the impression of certainty regarding a Star Trek-like global federation, I have to admit that, if anything, that image is about direction rather than destination.



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