Friday, November 29, 2013

Elysium

The movie Elysium turned out to have it all: corrupt politicians, blatant inequalities, lethal doses of radiation and a new artificial world in high orbit where the rich play in their infinity pools while the poor are trapped down on an ecologically ravaged planet mired in violence, poverty and – you guessed it – rampant overpopulation.

Watching the movie on my flight down to New Zeeland for the sustainability panel at NZPSA, I think it is fair to say that Elysium speaks tons about the prevailing Zeitgeist. This is simply what many people on the Left think the future will be like. There is of course a certain irony in that the very reluctance of those same people to think creatively about the future could be part of what eventually creates a world like the one portrayed in Elysium. Yet, the Left instinctively rejects all notions of ethical and political responsibility. In their neo-Gramscian understanding of the universe, everything is determined by malign neoliberal elites anyway and the only thing they can do is to “resist” this hegemony by writing another book on energy descents, “resilience” or how we should all “hunker down” to survive the coming storm. Sigh.

Recently, I have become increasingly concerned about the prospect of such self-fulfilling Green-Left prophecies, add a wind mill or two. Unlike those on the Right who put infinite trust in the self-regulating abilities of markets, I think that the future is very much open to human agency in both good and not so good ways. Avoiding Dystopia will not be easy by any measure. A first step, still highly heretic for many on the Left, would be to recognize a more affluent and better educated world population as a resource and not primarily as a problem. A second, and probably yet more difficult step, would be to take active responsibility for the world and stop believing in different conspiracy theories. The reason that proposals for intentional localization, restricted mobility and degrowth have not caught on is not because of the Bilderberg group but simply because such self-defeating proposal do not resonate with people. As Bruno Latour writes:

”In addition to this lack of fit between the implied threats and the proposed solutions, there is something deeply troubling in many ecological demands suddenly to restrict ourselves and to try to leave no more footprints on a planet we have nevertheless already modified through and through. It appears totally implausible to ask the heirs of the emancipatory tradition to convert suddenly to an attitude of abstinence, caution, and asceticism – especially when billions of other people still aspire to a minimum of decent existence and comfort.”

This leads to the third and final step, namely to engage with creating new ideas for how to take the best of the 20th century – welfare capitalism, liberal democracy and ever greater measures of emancipation – and use these building blocks to bring about a future-oriented planetary civilization that more fully realizes the potential of each individual rather than confines us all to a stagnating prison of limitations. Instead of pitying the poor and moralizing about the rich (while paradoxically often engaging in the same kind of ecologically destructive behaviour!), the Left needs to move away from identity politics and reconnect with the Enlightenment programme of liberal tolerance, scientific curiosity and – most importantly – the belief in enduring social progress.

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