“The Threatening Catastrophe: Responding Now” by Tucker Nichols. Copyright (c) 2015 by the artist.
What Can Trigger Transformation?
By Catherine Keller
Catherine Keller presented this plenary address for the SEIZING AN ALTERNATIVE conference, Section I: The Threatening Catastrophe: Responding Now (June 5, 2015). (For the PDF version, click here.)
You are not here because you need to be told that we face catastrophe. You are here because you think that we can still do something about it. You wouldn’t have come just for company in misery. But you do want to confront the future in wide and fresh alliances, yes? The 97% scientific consensus—yes you know already—that the climate is changing due to the rise of the planet’s average temperature driven by greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuels. However much time we have til the catastrophic effects kick in –of extreme weather, melting glaciers, intensified wildfires and droughts (welcome to California 2015)… You also glimpse the probable human devastation –in terms of mass hunger and climate migrations, with the inevitable mobilization of racist defenses and imperialist aggressions, intensified violence over dwindling resources. The climate issue is not one issue among many—nor does it trump our justice issues. It entangles them.
You know that the threat needs response now. But to change our collective ways of thinking and acting, to change government and corporate practices, seems to require long term transformation–too much time, too much improbability. Word is that we may have about 15 years to shift practices that have been developing for centuries, entrenched since the coal-fired industrial revolution and locked in since 1980 and the capital-fired Reagan-olution. [Reagan never met a millionaire he didn’t like and never met a tree that didn’t look like all the others.] There is too much to change way too fast: as Hamlet lamented, the time is out of joint. Naomi Klein, in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, has a chapter called Bad Timing. “It means there is a whole lot of stuff we have been told is inevitable that simply cannot stand. And it means that a whole lot of stuff we have been told is impossible has to start happening right away.”
The change can seem impossible. But, she adds, “nothing is inevitable.” As this section’s description puts it: “we do not believe that the extinction of the human race is inevitable.” Admittedly that is a pretty low bar for hope… So maybe you also ask with John Cobb “what actions now have the best chance of reducing the inevitable die-off and providing grounds for a healthier and more sustainable civilization for the survivors?”
Ok, so your tracks will all in different ways be digging and scratching for answers to that painful kind of question. This work takes courage. You might annoy the powers of denial. And it takes grieving what has been and will be lost. We don’t get to hope by avoiding grief. But hope is not optimism or pessimism: You will look like the spoilsport among optimists and the polyanna among pessimists. Hope is the embrace of the possible. In the face of what looks impossible. As did the terminating of legal slavery or of the nuclear arms race or of apartheid or of bans on gay marriage.
Am I even sounding Pollyannaish to draw that kind of precedents for this crisis? After all David Griffin has titled his important climate change book: Un-precedented. We might at best say that we have precedents for facing the unprecedented. But this Unprecedented CO2 crisis does make us acknowledge that catastrophe on a global scale is to an unpredictable degree now predictably unavoidable. That is a serious downer.
And that is what catastrophe means—literally—in the Greek: down—turning. Kata means ‘down.’ And totally. A catastrophe is an irreversible down-going. It does not however mean the end of the world. Or even of the species. In your tracks, as you seek solutions, you will agonize over specific threads of threat. But it is only worth the pain because there is a further twist to the down-turning. Catastrophe can be what turns us down –to earth. Of course this may mean dust-to-dust: picture the permanent dust storm and drought of the earth in the movie Interstellar. But like so much post-apocalyptic imagination that movie only finds salvation by rocketing off to start in another galaxy. The ultimate technological cop-out. It is the secular version of supernaturalist transcendence of the earth.
Dust to dust: the phrase liturgically means to facilitate mourning; to remind us that we are mortal, that we are like Adam made of adamah—dirt. It is not an image of dead matter but of the great recycling strategy of the planet. Turning down to earth is for us as a civilization now catastrophic because our philosophies, religions and sciences led us ever onward and upward, imagining ourselves minds transcendent of bodies, subjects mastering a world of objects: this is a posture of abstraction, with very concrete effects. Already in the 17th century Lord Chancellor Bacon declared the way of knowledge as power. Over the earth and all its creatures. It was the great modern misreading of the dominion passage in Genesis. In its modern form dominion funds the delusion of a smoothly separate subject dominating and profiting from a world of smoothly knowable objects. And what that subject doesn’t know is how abstract his [well mostly his] separation of himself from the actual world actually is. Nothing wrong with abstraction. But something delusional about mistaking the abstract separateness with the concrete. And so this is getting at the odd notion I am supposed to introduce you to in this lecture: the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. It is the habit we have of mistaking our abstractions for concrete realities. Of course this whole idea might sound pretty abstract. But it is my assignment.
By turning up—up up and away, in a delusional transcendence of our earth , our civilization has produced a catastrophic down-turning. That is ironic. So we need the reverse irony: catastrophe turning us down to earth in a way that does not wipe us out but transforms us. Of course seizing an alternative will one way or another involve a massive turning down — of the energy. But also I have imprinted on my mind something Cobb said to me when I was a student, on a walk, here–35 years ago,: “what we need is enough ecological catastrophe that people wake up, and not so much that it is too late.” Still true? Catastrophe can be a catalyst.
To trigger concrete action, however, talk of the climate remains too abstract for many: gets mixed up with weather, or with those teensy numbers like 2 degrees. Ecology gets hidden—increasingly intentionally– by getting abstracted from the human and economic realities in which it is –very concretely–entangled. Here comes again the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: we mistake the notion of “the environment” for a smooth object of knowledge and manipulation, separable from our culture, ourselves. The very language of global warming, the Anthropocene, climate change, can get too smooth, can’t it: which is why Whitney Bauman , who is in my track, prefers to call it “climate weirding.” The catastrophic weirding can, he thinks, be faced in a prismatic—not just green—and so queerly resilient way.
It is this colorful spectrum of issues and alliances that I think we are about here—that bears the hope of a livable way down-to-earth. Our alternative is not about a single issue. However tempting it is to say that climate change trumps all of our other movements and vital concerns—race, sexuality, class, war… that is the sort of self-defeating zero sum game that progressives must unlearn really fast. I had to learn this about my feminism decades ago vis a vis race, sex, religion–ecology. Our righteous single-issue simplifications are fighting stereotypes, but they become another way of misplacing our concreteness. But our concreteness remains incredibly complex. Of course we can’t help conveniently simplifying the world with abstractions, we use them several times a sentence. The problem is how they turn into cookie cutters chopping the universe into us/them/man/woman/culture/nature/ good/bad/ humans/animals etc., etc., etc.
Naomi Klein puts it perfectly: “the environmental crisis—if conceived sufficiently broadly—neither trumps nor distracts from our pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency.” For instance, she writes carefully about the colonial synergy of racism, classism and the civilization built on extraction [starting with coal]. So our extractivist civilization offers up peoples and cultures along with their habitats as “sacrifice zones.” The ethicist Cynthia Moe Lobedo works similarly on the race debt of climate change.
To be really concrete: the particular entanglement of the nonhuman and human systems of the earth in the system of global, corporate capitalism, so-called neoliberal capitalism, is what is producing the catastrophe and is what must be changed.
Already in the ‘80s Cobb tracked this interlinkage in the ground breaking work For the Common Good:Economicsfor Community, Ecology and a Sustainable Future. He conspired with economist Herman Daly to expose how the discipline of economics has justified our system of increasingly unregulated capitalism. Everything that is not calculable in terms of growth and profit is called an “externality.”— irrelevant to the system. That includes human wellbeing or misery, the beauty of a city or a landscape, species survival or extinction, ecological sustainability: All external to the purely numerical calculations that produce wealth. In this way economics insulates itself from other disciplines, even politics, let alone ethics or ecology.
In other words, they showed that neoliberal economics is the major planetary instance of –you got it–Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness. With money, we think we are trading in concrete goods and services: but capitalism reduces exchange to the quantifiable abstraction of money and washes everything else out of view. Like a tidal wave. The liberation theologian Joerg Rieger wrote A Rising Tide to expose the fallacy that the rising tide of economic growth lifts all boats. //With Pacific island states in immediate jeopardy, the metaphor of rising seas shows its more concrete truth now!
And the CO2 addicted transnational corporations—maneuvering with our president’s full support for the Transpacific Partnership at this moment—are systematically extracting themselves from all social and democratic accountability. And the mass of the North American public buys in to the system—or is just trying to get through the concrete challenges of each day.
This does not sound hopeful. But here lies the secret of This Changes Everything…Klein recognizes that “the kind of counter-power that has a chance of changing society on anything close to the scale required is still missing. It is a painful irony that while the right is forever casting climate change as a left-wing plot, most leftists and liberals are still averting their eyes, having yet to grasp that climate science has handed them the most powerful argument against unfettered capitalism since William Blake’s ‘dark Satanic Mills’ blackened England’s skies (which, incidentally, was the beginning of climate change).” The mining of coal fired up the industrial revolution and modern economics. But the point is that the planetary threat is now evident—and the economic causes are clear to anyone with eyes to see. So here is what she thinks:
“The double jeopardy of social injustice and global warming should not discourage us. Climate change, with its rising flood waters—“could become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well….It is a matter of collectively using “the crisis to leap somewhere that seems, frankly, better than where we are right now.” In other words, wait for it! This joint capitalist-climate crisis can trigger transformation. Catastrophe can turn into catalyst.
Klein is clear about the concrete means of transformation: Blockadia! This is a real and happening set of social movements standing up to the fossil fuel extraction giants, a coalescence of multiple coalitions no longer waiting for governments to act or markets to find green solutions, but willing to put their collective bodies in the way of exctractivist progress. She stresses the moral force of these emergent coalitions between first peoples, indigenous groups with environmentalists and farmers and students around the world. Many of them are in the Pacific NW, like the activists of the Shell No! blockade. These are very concrete instances of creative entanglement, weaving a glocal web: The relationality is highly intentional: for instance, a statement of gratitude now up on the 350.org website was sent to the NW activists from the Pacific Climate Warriors who in traditional hand-carved canoes paddled into the port of Newcastle in Australia to blockade one of the largest coal-shipping terminals in the world. They were met by thousands of people on land. This is catalytic agency bubbling up from below.
David Griffin adds another view on needed agency. Unprecedented offers the best, most concretely deployable map of our climate situation there, and does so in three sections: Unprecedented Threats, Unprecedented Challenges and Failures, and then—What is to be Done. He mostly is in synch with Klein on what the transition to clean energy and the abolition of dirty energy will involve. Yet for him activist movement from below is how we may provoke the needed action from above. He is asking the president to declare a national emergency. It is James Hansen who announced that “we have a planetary emergency” that could destroy civilization. Griffin draws the irrefutable inference: “Because the destruction of civilization would involve the destruction of the United States, the planetary emergency is obviously a national emergency.” Emergency action is needed now. Then for instance “all fossil fuel subsidies will be turned into subsidies for the various types of clean energy.” “A price [would] be put on carbon” with a means to prevent the carbon free from overall costs to poor and middle class citizens…” And he bullet points the roles that academics and activists and religious groups and the media /would play.
This may sound like a top-down approach: but unless we would foolishly depend on a US president acting as Griffin directs, his view does not contradict but complements Klein’s emphasis on blockadia. He concretizes our political possibilities.
And his proposal is now itself supplemented by another trigger of transformation: a voice that seems to come from high above, but has turned down into dramatic solidarity with the common. Whatever our religion or irreligion, we may now celebrate the fact that the most influential single voice of moral authority on the planet, that of the pope, will release the new encyclical on June 16: titled “on the care of our common home.” Francis proposes an “integral ecology” that encompasses concerns of economic justice, true human development, and global solidarity. Not all Catholics are happy: Rick Santorum wants the Pope to “leave science to the scientists.” Interesting coming from a guy who thinks 97% of scientists are wrong about climate science. The candidate is also ignoring the fact that Francis is a trained scientist, holding a Master’s in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires. [And you know it is not that the religiopolitical right actually ever separates religion from science or politics: it just remains in denial of the concrete entanglements of ecology, economy and social justice.]
Klein, Griffin, Francis: these are thinkers not confusing abstractions with actualizations but using abstractions for actualization. And that is the Whiteheadian point. We do not need to shift from thought to action—we need to activate, to enact, our the thinking of the common good. What was once held in common was turned into commodity; with Vandana Shiva we insist on making peace with the earth as we reclaim the commons. So it is interesting that the activist Klein writes at the conclusion of her book that : “any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews: a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect. “
That is why you are here in Claremont; you are co-creating the commons.
Can we imagine and activate our planetary commons as a fabulous patchwork of local collectives, slowing down to earth and at the same time interacting in speedy global networks, constructing new kinds of relations and coalitions, holding governments responsible—to rise to the occasion of planetary emergency? And isn’t this a fast-slow recreation of who we each are: we will not be egoes cooky cut into separate consumer units. You are not a separable knowledge/power identity remaining abstractly the same through time: you are each a happening of becoming. You are improvisational in the sense Jay McDaniel performs globally in the Jesus, Jazz and Buddhism website. For you are mindfully resourced by the stunning complexity of relations—good bad and neutral– which make you up at this very moment. —roots entangled in each other, really a rhizome. Like Pando Populus. Like this happening commons.
Each track will be an improvisational becoming. Very concretely here and now, aiming at concrete effects across the live collective that is the earth. To be catalysts in the face of catastrophe we need superb stories, images, ideas: abstractions that are recognized as abstractions. Then they can serve not as distractions and extractions from the concrete but as possibilities for actualization of the concrete.
What is key is that the concrete work of each of your tracks not get misplaced. So let me in the time remaining to me let me name each one of the track themes—and make a micro-link to ye olde fallacy of misplaced concreteness. [[ And this is also a pretext for asking you to stand up if you will be participating in a particular track….]]
 Catastrophic Climate Change
This has been the focus of my remarks, so I will only add this: with Tom Hayden teaming up with DG, there will be no danger that climate change will be abstracted from the ferment and evolution of social movements, from issues of race, of war and peace, and even—this is after all the author of the Hayden Act—of the concrete lives of misplaced animals. Go to it!
The Technological Response: Geo-Engineering
This track will not be promoting phantasmagoric last minute techno-fixes. Klein writes that the risks of geoengineering scenarios sound abstact but must be reckoned with now. “That’s because if geoengineering were ever deployed, it would almost surely be in an atmosphere of collective panic with scarce time for calm deliberation. Its defenders concede as much. Bill Gates describes geoengineering as “just an insurance policy.” “We would very likely not be dealing with a single geoengineering effort but some noxious brew of mixed up techno-fixes—sulfur in space to cool the tempetare, cloud seeding to fix the droughts it causes, ocean fetilization in a desperate gambit to cope with acidifiation, and carbon-sucking machines to help get off the geo-junk once and for all.” This kind of attempt to fix catatastrophe, the down turning, from the great human above. The movie Snowpiercer depicts the risk: it takes place in the aftermath of the technosci answer to global warming. The coolants brought on a deep freeze that rendered life on earth extinct—except for survivors on a train running on the worst kind of class horror.
Nonetheless technology remains crucial to our turning down to earth—through breakthroughs in affordable solar and wind and other sensitive innovations. Kevin O’Brien and Forest Clingerman will lead refelction on technologies not abstracted from the complex body of the planet, but working cannily within its shifting, weirding, delicate interactions.
 The Threat of Massive Hunger
For most of us here, real hunger—as opposed to voluntary fasting or dieting—is itself an abstraction. Yet the desire for the next meal (maybe lunch now) is as concrete a sensation as we mammals experience. The fallacy of misplaced concreteness exhibits its most agonizingly concrete symptom in this threat:
As Lester Brown put it in Full Planet, Empty Plates: “Food is the weak link in our modern civilization—just as it was for the Sumerians, Mayans and many other civilizations that have come and gone. They could not separate their fate from that of their food supply. Nor can we.” So can the food catastrophe turn to catalyst as more folk in the global North recognize our entanglement? Really tangled…The author of Poison Spring is leading this track. Evaggelos Vallianatos has exposed how the EPA actually colludes with the chemical-industrial complex to poison our lands and waters—our food sources– with ever more toxic chemicals. //
And of course–tangles within tangles– the great chemical industrial fixes of fossil fuel driven agribusiness are partly responsible for the changing climate of which drought is the most pressing effect… And then the acidification of the oceans, with seafood the main source of food for more than 3 billion people. So. ”Feeding some 9 billion people by mid-century in the face of a rapidly worsening climate may well be th greatest challenge the human race has ever faced.” [Romm 2011 in DG 97]. Can the concreteness of local alternatives make a serious difference? Track 3 is on it…
 Just Peacemaking: Response to Threats of Catastrophe
Led by Paul Bube and Jay McDaniel, this track will explore how just peacemaking is not—just peacemaking! Of course climate change and hunger mobilize folk for war. And nowhere does the insanity of our civilization haunt us more vividly than in the undead specter of nuclear war. Talk about the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: we displace sheer evil onto an enemy, and good onto ourselves, with such cookycut stereotypes that we can contemplate annihilating them without harming ourselves. The alternative principle was given its greatest US idiom by MLK: “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” He articulates an ontology for nonviolence: “all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” That inescapable network replaces misplaced concreteness; and it is not accidentally related to early process thought. Nor to Ghandhi. As Jay McDaniel tracks it in Ghandhi’s Hope, multiple religions and cultures learn to move from catastrophic competition to catalytic cooperation.
 Economic System Transformation
Do we agree that Seizing an Alternative means the redirection of the economy toward a COMMON GOOD? Toward a sustainable future for humans living responsibly and diversely in our common home, oikos, (that is the Greek for the eco of economy or ecology). Climate weirding is outing the substitution of abstract quantities—like money—for the concreteness of the common good. So can we embrace the improbable hope right of new coalition between those seeking economic justice and those blocking corporate extractivism. Is there a pathway emerging, complex, uncertain, adventurous–winding along the edge of chaos? If there is these trackers are among its trailblazers. This track , adventurously led by David Lewitt, is committed to discerning the path “to a humane, ecological, global economy by 2030.” Does the number sound fallaciously concrete? I don’t think so. It is naming the 15 years that the changing climate may grant us, for reinventing the planetary commons.
 Political Collapse
Nations with their deceptively absolute boundaries are the modern poster children for the fallacy of misplaced political concreteness. But the same fallacy, operating in the abstraction of the GDP, paradoxically empowers the corporate weakening of good domestic laws and protections, as we see in the fast tracking TPP. As democracy is hijacked by corporatocracy, the life of nations falters. And some states fail. And here a catastrophic concreteness shows its face in the interaction between climate change and failing states. Let me read one example, a Huff-Po piece from the Fall [by Charles Strozier]:
“As the Obama administration undertakes a highly public, multilateral campaign to degrade and destroy the militant jihadists known as ISIS, ISIL and the Islamic State, many in the West remain unaware that climate played a significant role in the rise of Syria’s extremists. A historic drought afflicted the country from 2006 through 2010, setting off a dire humanitarian crisis for millions of Syrians. Yet the four-year drought evoked little response from [Bashar] al-Assad’s government. Rage at the regime’s callousness boiled over in 2011, helping to fuel the popular uprising. In the ensuing chaos, ISIS stole onto the scene, proclaimed a caliphate in late June and accelerated its rampage of atrocities …” Read Parenti’s Tropic of Violence for a map of the many situations in which reporting abstracts religious violence from underlying climate change issues. But with John Culp’s dauntless leadership this group will focus on promising movements and experiments– especially at the local level. Movements down—to earth! Yes!
And even more relief is on the catastrophe-horizon:
 Organizing for Change and Sustaining Involvement
The point of this track, we read, is the experiential life of the environmentally aware and active person: how do you survive emotionally, morally, and spiritually when we are in the midst of a slowly, irrevocably unfolding disaster? .. [ Consider that each person at the conference has to confront the bad news and what it means for life on earth.] How are we to remain active and alive, whole and sane, in the face of the truth?” And yet Roger Gottlieb seems never to cease interlinking the forcefields of climate, global warming, disability, sexual injustice, religious violence, and doing so precisely in order to discern the delicate network of alternatives. Turning catastrophe into catalyst may require not just public action but some wild thinking, contemplative practices, nonhuman companionship, storytelling strategies, surprising affections.
These tracks are running simultaneously but not in abstraction from each other. So I hope each one of you, in each of your tracks, will keep your vulnerabilities in mind; that you participate in a collective griefwork. And hopework. Which is all about your entanglement in an endless network of mutuality. We are here to catalyze the vision and the practice of our improvisational interrelatedness amidst what Whitehead calls the democracy of fellow creatures; or what Vandana Shiva calls planetary democracy.
To become together triggers of transformation of what is unsustainable, we do need to sustain our own and each other’s involvement. Long term, so that we can respond now. //
A climate change poem for today: Extinction by Jackie Kay
We closed the borders, folks, we nailed it.
No trees, no plants, no immigrants.
No foreign nurses, no Doctors; we smashed it.
We took control of our affairs. No fresh air.
No birds, no bees, no HIV, no Poles, no pollen.
No pandas, no polar bears, no ice, no dice.
No rainforests, no foraging, no France.
No frogs, no golden toads, no Harlequins.
No Greens, no Brussels, no vegetarians, no lesbians.
No carbon curbed emissions, no Co2 questions.
No lions, no tigers, no bears. No BBC picked audience.
No loony lefties, please. No politically correct classes.
No classes. No Guardian readers. No readers.
No emus, no EUs, no Eco warriors, no Euros,
No rhinos, no zebras, no burnt bras, no elephants.
We shut it down! No immigrants, no immigrants.
No sniveling-recycling-global-warming nutters.
Little man, little woman, the world is a dangerous place.
Now, pour me a pint, dear. Get out of my fracking face.
May 15 2015 Guardian
Klein considers the despondent question “How can you persuade the human race to put the future ahead of the present?” And she answers [wait for it]: “you don’t. You point out…that for a great many people, climate action is their best hope for a better present, and a future far more exciting than anything else currently on offer.”