The emotional drivers of climate politics

What emotions drives us to political action?

In a crucial decade in the fight against climate change, this has become a candent question in the Spanish space of climate change politics [1].

As I mentioned previously in this webpage, Spain is currently living a debate between so called “collapsism” and “political ecologism”. The latest development of this debate has culminated in a book, Against the myth of ecological collapse, written by Emilio Santiago Muin (EMS from now on). In a previous post I’ve hinted at some of my thoughts on his view of the debate. Here, I’ll flesh out where exactly I think it falls flat.

I’ll focus particularly on what seems to be a key tennet of the book, destilled in chapter 6 (El papel de la esperanza en la ecología política). I say key, because it seems so have influenced the way other prominent members of Más País think about this issue. EMS has amply argued that political desire should be the goal of climate change activism (As Emilio puts it: “Necesitamos un ecologismo capaz de ilusionar”). Hope is at the front and center of that political thesis.

I’m not totally confortable with that vision. Essentially, my take is that hope is far from being an emotional driver of climate change politics enough to force a change in the fossilist statu quo.

In fact, focusing on hope is a red herring, insofar as hope is only part of a wider landscape of affects, among which it only makes sense many other more conflictive feelings that the climate crisis causes in us. Anger, grief, guiltiness, melancholy: they have a prominent place in how we process the horrors of climate change, and, in many ways, are the precursors of meaningful hope in climate politics - and, thus, precursors of action.

I’ll base my premise on research on grassroots climate activism: an already highly movilized force that embraces seemingly collapsist postures [2, 3, 4], yet one that manages to build radical hope (emphasis on the radical), community structures, and action from what seems like absolutely politically inoperant emotions. While some of them depart from naive sociological postulates, as the climate crisis gets bigger they are bound to be the seeds of bigger political reactions - both from climate action and negationism. We ignore a significant part of people’s emotional journey to political action (in this case, through non-violent protest) at our own peril.

Some starting premises

A short summary of EMS’s talking points, in case I am misinterpretting any:

I think several of these points are problematic.

Problem 1: the title

Has Emilio written a book about “colapso ecológico” or about “colapso energético”? Both are obviously interrelated problems with similar affective landscapes, but, as argued before, it’s a terrible title.

It’s also a very bad starting point within a right-wing denialist political climate.

Problem 2: the definition of collapse

I’m not too interested in this debate, but two quick notes:

  1. I think the point that collapse must be tied to sudenness despite most authors acknowledging it’d be more like a slow decline is a bit dishonest. A bit of a strawman.
  2. That said: EMS proposes failed State as a definition. But would a non-failed state have allowed for an existential crisis for humanity take place? From a relatively lax position, we are in front of already failed states, powerless against a fossilist culture and economy. A state that “can’t cover the basic needs of its citizens”… like the need for a livable future. Anyone who claims the contrary ignores the uncertainty and potential threats for Spain (and, specifically, its already desertified South) at their own peril.

Problem 3: an unrealist emotional landscape of ecological collapsism

Again, it boils down to the title: I find that conflating collapsism and peak oilism is more than problematic. It is only “an ecologism devoid of rebellion” in a very particular aception of the term.

See: ESM is a self-confessed ex-collapsist and former peak-oiler. He has claimed several times that his personal experience as a collapsist was shaken when the crisis of 2008 led to the 15-M movement in Spain instead of Gabriel’s horn oil moment. In his words:

El ecologismo sabrá leer mejor nuestro tiempo e intervenir en él si se preparara para cosas que se parecerán más al 15M que si vuelca sus esfuerzos en aprender a sobrevivir a un hipotético derrumbe de la civilización. Source

While I agree that the 15-M was a moment of hope, let’s also remind ourselves that it was called indignados. Hope was a result, not a consequence, of reaching a threshold of indignation, a tipping point, if I can be tongue-in-cheek: a moment of anger and frustration that lead to radical political action. A rapture of the learned helplessness of Spanish bi-party system.

With this in mind, contrast this key political movement with the emotional dynamics within Fridays for Future. It’s clear that the movement started by Greta Thunberg has done more than probably anyone else to put the topic of climate change at the table. And, yet, it departs from the same kind of broken emotions that drive collapsism: a sense of impending doom, anticipatory grief, a glimpse of a stolen future. What drives Greta and the rest of activists to action is an anger at a Business-as-usual future, the feeling that the tipping points of climate change, with their inertia, are imposing a generational pain that will certainly be worse than any of the ones we have suffered so far. An atlas of human suffering, in Guterres words.

Against the path taken by the arrow of time, already shot from our industrial bow, frustration and indignation work as a driver towards different futures. Grief does not work here as a depolitizing resignation, but, rather, as a necessary step in the conscience of loss that leads to action. In other words:

Overall, the negative, more painful emotions expressed by climate activists, especially grief, may be seen as the starting point and condition of their counterhegemonic struggle 1

In fact, I’d argue that these are the main emotional drivers of most climate activism in europe: even in its name, Extinction Rebellion denotes an affective attitude of combativeness when faced against a future that has catched up with us. Nowhere better than in the slogan there is no time can we see the temporal dimension of climate protests; the feeling of being locked out of alternative, desirable futures; of having our imagination constrained to future multifaceted misery by the present. We have already overshoot - these political movements work, emotionally, in the terrain of fights against almost unsurmontable odds. In other words:

Some argue that we are consequently witnessing a shift from ‘apocalyptic’ to ‘postapocalyptic’ environmentalism. While the former portrays ecological crises as looming on the horizon, the latter describes the spread of ‘environmental activism based on a catastrophic loss experienced as already having occurred, as ongoing or as impossible to prevent, rather than as a future risk or threat’ 2

That same study [2], a survey of post-apocalyptic imaginaries in XR activists, reveals that most of them do commune with a vision that Emilio Santiago would probably call “collapsist”. Despite that, since action is mitigation-oriented, they remain a political/activist force. Engaging in community-building and adaptative social action is a way to not so much act against climate change as to react collectively to a collection of grieving emotions via the building of alternative hyperlocal futures. Those are the source of hope [2], as a counteract to the generalized affection of loss.

The notion of radical hope is not separate from these negative emotions: it stems from them - it’s a hope for what is left [3]. Remember that the very This is not a drill: An extinction rebellion handbook, one of the main documents of XR, has a Doom and bloom, adapting to **collapse** chapter (emphasis mine). This is an interiorized emotional dynamic in a wide range of climate activism movements:

Anxiety and fear – in the sociological sense, the emotional counterparts to a relative inability to prevent a negative outcome (Kemper, 2006) – is therefore for good reason the emotional catalysts of movements that counteract negative developments such as a global climate collapse. [4]

Outside of the climate space, this has been the case of several other protest groups, like the guillets jaunes in France [4].

In essence:

Emilio seems to understand this, and rather criticizes the extent that this complex landscape of emotions is extensible to a wider set of the population:

Q: Sin embargo, los colectivos ecologistas más movilizados en España o Europea, como Extinction Rebellion o Futuro Vegetal, sí tienden a una ideología y discursos colapsistas, ¿no?

A: Claro. Esto es como en medicina: lo que separa el veneno del antídoto es una cuestión de dosis. En pequeñas dosis, el discurso colapsista puede ser interesante, porque genera algo que no nos sobra, que es la rabia y la impaciencia.

Pero hay que darse cuenta de que esto va a ser así para grupos muy pequeños que pueden tener un papel fundamental para movilizar y cambiar el sentido común, pero los cambios sociales no se basan en movilizaciones pequeñas, sino en construir grandes mayorías sociales

I think that what he’s against is different. I might be wrong, but I think he’s refering to learned helplessness, which EMS actually cites in chapter 6 and I think is a better analogous of this state of mind.

Problem 3: rising ties, and climates of resignation

Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon where a subject interiorizes passive behaviours in the face of repeated unability to face a negative outcome. For example: a tortured prisoner might not try to scape even when offered a clear exit after prolonged psychological abuse.

Learned helplessness comes from a trained sensation of powerlessness: the idea that you can’t change anything with your actions, that they are irrelevant. A barrage of bad news and the feeling of being locked in into a future would slowly make you learn that your actions don’t matter, since, no matter what happens, the Earth is doomed and we have to learn to die in the Anthropocene. A constant fear for a sudden collapse that never really realizes, and a paralizing fear that never yields.

…or that was the idea some time back, when the theory was formulated. More modern takes of learned helplessness 5 show that paralization in front of a thrat is a natural, hard-wired reaction. What is learned is the capability of taking control of a dire situation.

So, rather, we are speaking of how to teach and learn to take control of a future that seems locked in. The whole gist of this crisis is that is has a weird temporal essence: our actions today are affecting the outcomes decades down the road - a perfect moral storm.

How has ecologism reacted in Europe to this locked-in future? By miriad of climate change protest grasroots groups that are sprouting all over the continent. And, while some of the do participate in what one could naive sociological premises, they all tend to place a strong emphasis in democratic methods of decission-making, sort of in the same spirit as the 15M: popular assemblies, direct democracy, associatism, and the like.

Of course that these are not platforms with power to act against climate change mitigation, as EMS claims. If you ask me why, it’s probably because1) mainstream ecologism has been unable to stop this situation since the 70’s and 2) we are following increasingly Malm-ist positions, where protests are scalating via attacks against symbolic fossilistic private property. In any case, these are forms of retaking control of the future. EMS, speaking about these rising tides, claims in the book that:

El problema es que estas crecidas del pueblo no se activan frotando la lámpara mágica de la movilización social.

And that is right! But compared to previous examples (like the never-coming proletarian revolution of so many marxists), the, well, material circumstances of the planet, will get worse by all projections. We know this will likely affect large ammounts of population in the future. It doesn’t take a sociologist to understand that, as time will aggravate the problem, we are to expect more activism and escalation - and, with it, new political waves around climate change. Sadly, also more denial, retardism and xenophobia as well.

As it reads right now, it’s almost as if EMS resents that activists are doing their thing instead of getting into politics. Which is fair, but also seems to forget, for that to happen, politics has to give an amiable outlet to activists willing to act on that front, not acuse them of being “politically inoperant”. By writting this book, EMS feels like violating the principle of radical solidarity that binds all these movements together: a non-judgement of the form of protest as long as it rows in the general direction of acting against climate change. It also ignores the potential benefits of a radical flank effect in opening the Overton window in the present, but also, more importantly, in the future. Or would Más País speak of climate change if the window hadn’t opened in the wake of climate change activism?

Anyway, speaking of the State…

Problem 4: Right and State

Related to the problematic of the State is the problem of the Right/Far-Right.

Emilio is concerned that, by adopting an apocalyptic framework of climate change, we are claudicating the State to the right and negationists. Which is a fair concern, given the news these days. But there are some problems with this approach:

[…] deflect these emotions through irony, teasing humor, and cynicism, steering conversations to safer, more mundane topics. [they will be] unable to sustain anger by finding someone to blame.

… Or, worse yet, they will find someone to blame, but the answer will not be pretty. Recognize these strategies as those of the right and extreme right.

Additionally: taking anything away cars/meat/flights/etc will generate moral shock and anger [4] in a movilizing way. We have seen this in the rise of conspiracy thinking regarding chemtrails in Murcia as a consequence of droughts, for example. Any party with the political ambition to ride the emotions of climate change in society should acknowledge and act on them, IMHO.

To summarize problems 3 and 4:

Some conclussions

EMS is confusing the end station of his own emotional journey (that he actually shares with many of the most active colleagues in ecologism, collapsists or not) with the means. Hope is what’s left to counteract a myriad of other emotions. Ic est, by ignoring the nuanced, complex emotions of politics (some of them destilled in collapsism), there is a part of climate politics that is:

  1. Resignifying pessimism as a politically inoperant attitude, challenging the emotional journey of those already politized in the grassroots climate space.
  2. Thus alineating a significant sector of climate activism that might be otherwise interested in building mitigation strategies from political spaces within Más Pais.
  3. Trying to catch votes from a public that might not need to feel hopeful (again, radical hope only makes sense in the face of steep odds; that is, as a counterweight to other emotions).
  4. This is a view informed by an hyper-local perspective: that of participation in a leftist party with climate change ambitions in Madrid, in face of a right-wing rise, post 15M. Emotionally, the notion of hope itself, unattached of other emotions more related to the dire future project we have collectively built, are more likely byproducts of the long-gone 15M cycle than the construction of new affective frameworks in the wake of climate change.


[1]: N. A.: I personally don’t really like conflating ecologism and climate change politics. I think they are slowly becoming different traditions with goals that are not as similar as one would think so. I’ve drafted some of my thoughts on my personal identity as as activist of climate change rather than an ecologist on a post here. [1]: [2]: [3]: [4]: [6]: