I am what I am; I will be what I will be.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change

Sanjay Chaturvedi and Timothy Doyle; Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pp. xvi; 247. ISBN 978-0-230-24961-5 (hardback); ISBN 978-0-230-24962-2 (paperback)

When I started reading Sanjay Chaturvedi’s and Timothy Doyle’s book, Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change, the discourse the book generates immediately took me to a specific set of discomforting memories and my present circumstances on the planet, both of which are enmeshed in issues of climate change. On one hand, the authors’ lucid and sometimes apocalyptic prose reminded me of the climate-change-related haunting images that are crystalized in my mind ever since watching Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth and Jeff Orlowski’s 2012 documentary, Chasing Ice. On the other hand, the second location this reading took me is the suffocating and poisonous environment of Delhi, its citizens, its industrialists and politicians have collectively created for themselves and have thereby ushered in a kind of grey, unhealthy and environmentally compromised present, of which I have become an unwilling prisoner.  

These kinds of unpleasant realities documented in the book as well as what was circulating in my own mind are amply captured by book’s haunting cover of a temporally frozen moment of stillness devoid of life, which offers a kind of visual indication of what is to be expected in the book. Obviously, this is not a pleasant theme, and it is certainly not of the future. It is about the potential lack of a future, where all of us are centrally implicated.

In intellectual terms, the book is located squarely in the midst of the relatively new disciplinary domain, ‘critical geopolitics’ which emerged in the post-1980s period. But self-consciously, the authors are offering a perspective on and from the global south (2015: 5-7). In doing so, they are actively pushing the convectional boundaries of their own disciplines, Political Science and International Studies, which in my mind is clearly a necessity in the context of 21st century academic practice. Early in their text, Chaturvedi and Doyle suggest, “critical geopolitics needs to pay far more serious and systematic attention to how imaginative geographies, anchored in fear, are deployed at the service of objectification, embodiment and instrumentalization of abstract risks, threats and dangers” (2015: 10). What they urge is for the systematic scrutiny of the strategies used for this abstraction, and the politics embedded in them. Partly, it is in this discourse and the system of camouflage it throws up much of the crucial issues of climate change are often made invisible and exiled from public collective consciousness. 

Through the eight chapters of their book, Chaturvedi and Doyle have weaved a master narrative on how climate change transpires in the wake of global warming and where these processes and politics might lead, without the rhetoric and the noise of fear, but with evidence as available and theoretical postulation as necessary. Their emphases vary from ‘Terrorizing Climate Territories and Marginalized Geographies of the Post-Political’ to ‘Violence of Climate Markets’ and ‘Climate Security and Militarization: Geo-economics and Geo-Securities of Climate Change’, which specifically captured my attention.

For me, the eight chapters in the book work as stand-alone explorations of specific and often under-discussed issues of global warming in our part of the world. Through these chapters, the authors explain the highly charged politics in the context of which global warming actually works across various geographies. Their investigation presents illustrations of the unsettling conditions upon which we sit at present and not too often seeing what the future holds in the midst of global warming and resultant climate change. The image of the world they create is truly disheartening. But at the same time, Chaturvedi and Doyle warn quite earnestly that fear itself has catastrophic possibilities as fear-driven discourses on climate change can easily lead to new kinds of dependencies and new forms of domination. Above all, they bring to our attention the ways in which understandings of 'climate security' could become militarized, which itself creates multiple scenarios for global insecurity. 

Particularly in the global south and more so in South Asia, issues of environmental security and climate change are hardly core concerns of public discourse. In this context, the two authors present some of the most significant environmental issues people face in the global south by bringing to the stage of discourse specific cases, where they acquire performative value, which narrate stories that can affect large populations. Precisely due to their exploration of specific cases, which after all affects real people, the book at times employs a clear register of ‘anger.’ But how else can one discuss climate change without a sense of anger, angst and urgency on one hand, but also in the backdrop of rational theoretically informed thinking, all of which the two authors employ in weaving their text.

What is crucial in any discussion on climate change today is to understand how a vocabulary of terror is often used to address issues of climate change as a quotidian practice. This is most obvious in discourses of politics and media practice. The authors deal with this issue in considerable detail referring to how technologies of control, systems of regulation and domination comfortably existing within the present global system dominated by a neoliberal and post-political sensibility, which end up reproducing untenable asymmetries with regard to economic growth and human development within which people in the global south often become unwitting victims. 

As they progress in their narrative, what Chatuvedi and Doyle basically ask is weather the dominant discourse on climate change and global warming could be re-configured in such a way as to formulate a more legitimate and responsible forum where issues of environmental justice and sovereignty would be taken more seriously as they deserve, rather than eclipsing them in the din of neoliberal political arguments on both climate and nature, which are necessarily lineally bound to a reductionally perceived idiom of simple profit. In this context, they also pose the question if the discourse on climate change could somehow provide an audible voice to global peripheries, which includes our own region, and in this new configuration, if this idealized forum could offer more nuanced and reasonable avenues for emancipation. 

The propositions they make as concerned academics and the hope these propositions offer make sense to me at the level of both ideology/idealism and necessity/survival. But core issues in this discussion should also revolve around how receptive the global periphery itself is to these concerns. After all, the poisonous air that I breathe today in my treelined suburb of Delhi is not necessarily merely a product of neoliberal profit-making from the global north. More realistically, it is the result of unbridled and unregulated industrialisation and urbanization, which the Indian nation state itself has allowed within its own discourses of nationalism and as by-products of fantasies in becoming an industrially-enabled regional supper power. And two of the most obvious casualties in this state of affairs are the people within the boundaries of the nation state and the natural environment in which they live. In this context, I wish the book paid more attention to the enhanced ‘messiness’ of climate change and environmental degradation authored by states in the global south itself within their own parameters and concerns of nationalism and regional contestations of hegemony and profit.

Overall, the picture of global warming and climate change that Chaturvedi and Doyle paint is not a pleasant one. It is is fearful and truly unpleasant. But it is also real. But they are not in the business of generating fear and rhetoric. In the midst of the tragedy of human-made climate change the two authors have presented, they also offer possibilities of hope arguing for an increased and more reasonable understanding of the environment, not simply as an entity that could be changed at will as power politics and profit ventures might perceive, but as a multilayered system of living which includes people as well as other living beings which together construct our bio-system. For them, that ideal place should have the ability to provide secure access to global citizens irrespective of their national location to basic nutrition, reasonable health-care and shelter, and the necessary security to practice their livelihoods, which are not detrimental to themeless or the planet in which they live.

For me, what Chaturvedui and Doyle have attempted to do is to provide a script for both the history of climate change as we understand it now and possibilities for the future if reasonable people might be able to capture the momentum. As the sun refuses to shine upon my garden due to a smelly layer of fog and as the flowers in my garden are reluctant to blossom, their script metaphorically offer a moment of hope amidst hopelessness. But I am not sure if the time for hope has already eluded us.

Sasanka Perera
Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi

(Initially published in India Quarterly 72(4) 423–430, December 2016)

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