By Liam McLoughlin 25/2/14
“Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and f**k the prom queen”. And so it was in The Rock that Sean Connery made one of the most obscure and confusing calls for a politicised response to climate change ever seen in a Hollywood blockbuster. Losers use the language of economics and ethics to call for climate action, while winners discuss the structural causes of climate change and tell tales of a more just world. This article gives credit to one of the most underestimated movie quotes of all time.
Know Your Enemy
More than any other US film industry, Hollywood shows us that all good stories have an enemy. Hannibal Lecter and The Wicked Witch of the West are not just ingenious embodiments of evil devised by the world’s biggest imperialist project, they bind the audience together in a vicarious struggle against forces of darkness.
In a 2012 article for Rolling Stone, climate change campaigner and handball champion Bill McKibben, echoing Carl Schmitt, mined this innate human interest in stories of friends and enemies. Typical of one so good at handball, McKibben wrote “a rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies. As John F. Kennedy put it, ‘The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He's helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln'. And enemies are what climate change has lacked”. McKibben then fired a few powershots at the fossil fuel industry, calling it “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilisation”.
McKibben is right to search for an enemy responsible for climate change, but blaming the fossil fuel industry is like blaming Vader's arm for Obi-Wan’s death. The fossil fuel industry is an outgrowth of a deeply rotten system which has far exceeded its used by date.
In a powerful speech to Canada's largest private sector union, Naomi Klein draws a clearer picture of the enemy: “our current economic model is not only waging war on workers, on communities, on public services and social safety nets. It’s waging war on the life support systems of the planet itself”. Make no mistake, the enemy of a safe climate is our current economic system based on extraction and expansion, and the political system which continues to subsidise and safeguard this materialist model of civilisation.
Klein, like Connery, calls for an alternative to this model. 30 years of free market politics has destroyed our collective imagination and only by awakening this sleeping giant will a safe climate become possible. For Klein, “We can’t just reject their project. We need our own project”.
Climate change delivers: “it is a civilisational wake-up call, a powerful message – spoken in the language of fires, floods, storms and droughts – telling us that we need an entirely new economic model, one based on justice and sustainability”. Indeed, “climate change is the most powerful weapon progressives ever had in the fight for equality and social justice”, but the question remains, how can we best tell the story of this struggle?
A City of Two Tales: Climate Action and Climate Justice
Imagine the emotional resonance of Batman and Robin: Battlefield Earth, and you have approximated the effectiveness of “climate action” as a narrative frame. As discussed in the first episode, “climate action” is a consensual story of economics and ethics, with a tedious script, no villain, no interesting characters, nor anything of interest to audiences anywhere.
Climate action leaves us with a baseless hope in our political leaders, the distant shrieking of a Tuvaluan refugee, and the repressed fearful voices in our heads screaming “we’re all going to die”.
Climate justice, however, is the most ripping yarn you’ve never heard. It is a political thriller based a true story, that those least responsible for the catastrophic impacts of climate change suffer most from its consequences. Endangered species, inhabitants of Pacific Islands and millions living in the lowlands of Bangladesh contribute nothing to the problem, yet these are the populations most vulnerable and least able to adapt to more extreme floods and cyclones, to rising temperatures, and increased sea levels. This tale of social and environmental injustice is a screenplay to be written in a political register that connects with the innate human fascination with heroes and villains.
Climate justice activists have a clear understanding of the enemy: the underlying extractive logic of capitalism. They recognise that climate injustice results from historical, social and power relations which perpetuate economic domination and ecological destruction, power structures which will do so indefinitely until challenged.
This challenge will only come from a mass movement which agitates for radical change. This movement would not just demand reduced emissions, but tell an exciting story about transforming our systems of energy extraction and generation, production, distribution, consumption, waste, finance and governance.
The Story We’ve Been Waiting For
In her interview after winning gold for Australia in the 100m freestyle at the 1956 Olympic Games, Dawn Fraser quoted international relations theorist EH Carr, who said “any sound political thought must be based on elements of utopia and reality”. Although a dreadful answer to the interviewer’s question “How did you swim so fast?” our Dawn must have hidden her thinking cap beneath her swimming cap that fateful day, because she was bloody right.
Dawn knew as well as the next Olympic freestyle champion that smart political thinking requires both rigorous critique and the ability to tell stories with a vivid utopian imagination. Perhaps it was during a productive training session that Dawn realised utopianism alone is naive, remaining a baseless fantasy, while without utopianism, critique is sterile, devoid of any wellsprings for change. And if there was ever a woman who knew about water, it was Dawn Fraser.
The influence of Australia’s loudest swimming legend is obvious throughout the climate justice narrative. The Bali Principles of Climate Justice denounce “the role of transnational corporations in shaping unsustainable production and consumption patterns and lifestyles, as well as their role in unduly influencing national and international decisionmaking”.
The People’s Agreement of Cochabamba, made at the 2010 World Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, will never be accused of mincing words: “the capitalist system has imposed on us a logic of competition, progress and limitless growth. This regime of production and consumption seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming everything into commodities: water, earth, the human genome, ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, the rights of peoples and life itself”.
These activists are also no slouches in understanding the subtext of Sean Connery quotes, offering political and economic alternatives for a sustainable human future. The US based Mobilisation for Climate Justice calls for the “total systemic transformation of our society” by “keeping fossil fuels in the ground”, envisioning “re-localisation of production and consumption, prioritising local markets and cooperative economies” as well as adopting “decentralised utility systems and community controlled clean renewable energy”.
Similarly, Naomi Klein sells climate change as every lefty’s wet dream. She has convincingly argued that the extent of the climate crisis justifies many of the left’s recurring utopian fantasies: reviving the public sphere, returning to planning, restraining corporations, re-localising production, delegitimising consumerism and taxing the filthy rich.
In light of these visions, to anyone who doubts the existence of viable alternatives to our current nightmare, I would just say any one of these excellent catch phrases, but mainly “I don’t think so”:
Professor of Media and Culture Stephen Duncan argues that “truth and power belong to those who tell a better story.”
Sean Connery knew it, Dawn Fraser knew it.
It’s time to tell a better story, and that story is climate justice.
This is the second article in a four part series on the politics of climate change. Episode III shows why creative extremism is a great strategy to pursue climate justice: