Climate change and the crisis of capitalism

Mark Pelling, David Manuel-Navarrete, Michael Redclift

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Introduction Are established economic, social and political practices capable of dealing with the combined contemporary crises of climate change and intensifying economic inequality and global economic disruption? Will falling back on those wisdoms that have prefigured individual crises help identify ways forward, or simply reconfigure risk so that it may reappear in another guise in the future? This volume argues that the combination of global environmental change and the global economic downturn provides an opportunity for critical thinking and policy formulation by highlighting the co-dependence of socio-political and ecological processes. Crisis in this understanding signifies a point of instability in predominant structures, a precursor to impending threat, but importantly also an opportunity for the consideration and emergence of alternatives. Our starting point is a concern for global environmental change, which remains in the foreground of analysis, but we argue cannot be understood without engaging also with the drivers and consequences of current economic rounds of restructuring. A critical research agenda on crisis and risk management is called for, one that can approach risk management through development agendas, not as a stand-alone policy archipelago (Hewitt, 1983). Some progress has been made in examining the interdependencies of environmental risk and human development. Beck (1992, 2008) famously describes the rise of risk as a driving force for decision-making in Western consciousness and beyond as the Risk Society. One defining quality of risk society is the disassociation of risk and everyday life as hazards become harder to detect without scientific techniques and so more difficult to connect with existing popular and political movements and agendas for change or resistance (Beck et al., 1994). Global environmental change and climate change in particular are certainly examples of this with the scale as well as temporal dimensions of both making them invisible to daily life yet simultaneously, and increasingly formative of it and configured by it. This is a challenge of alienation and separation. In effect, there is an existential gap between what can be done to confront economic and environmental challenges (and there is much that could be done), and what culture and power determine is reasonable and proper for society to do. Some have likened to addiction society’s failure to acknowledge, let alone act as individuals or collectively, to address the combined economic and environmental crisis (Eckersley, 2007). This may be a pertinent metaphor but an over-simplistic one as well. The current crisis is so embedded in everyday behaviour justified by co-produced values and reinforced through habit that the very constructions of identity and notions of self - the signifiers of success, happiness, status, to say nothing of norms of social responsibility - have become part of the problem. This is demonstrably so in affluent societies displaying excess consumption but also in poorer societies where the direction of aspiration is clear. In responding to this challenge, one that transcends the usual disciplinary boundaries of politics, economics, sociology or psychology, we present an agenda that questions contemporary power relations and opens up the normative underpinnings of dominant and alternative modes of accumulation and social reproduction. This responds to a gap in predominant social science work on global environmental change which has, thus far, tended to focus on the detail of problem-solving or on mechanisms for changing individual attitudes and behaviour. This approach is in danger of missing the bigger picture - of describing capacities for incremental reform rather than processes through which alternative histories have and may unfold. A second trend in established thinking has been to present defensive visions of responding to change - be this in terms of resilience or adaptation - that seek perversely to protect the status quo. These conceptual contradictions are underlain by limitationsin existing analytical models that are inadequate, for example, in being unable to fully (or in some cases to even partially) capture power, competing visions and viewpoints, and inner worlds of emotion in analysing crisis and our relationships to it. This book asks how far the continued application of terms like resilience can improve our conceptualisation and empirical observation of socio-political structures and agency during crises - when such crises are themselves embedded in ongoing unsustainable and unjust development trajectories. Ultimately, we are interested in the prospects for new conceptualisations in framing transformation and alternative approaches to policy and political action, which promote ecological integrity, and procedural and distributional equity as part of living with and beyond crisis. This volume brings together 14 contributors, each a well-known expert and presenting a specific viewpoint on our common challenge. This range of viewpoints is necessary, as this introductory chapter argues, not only because the current crisis is multifaceted but also because it is part of the evolving history of multiple strands in human and environmental sciences. Getting to grips with the nature of crisis and thinking through responses that can enhance social justice and environmental security therefore requires a multidisciplinary envisioning. In addition to describing the character and drivers for the current expression of the continuing ecological-economic crisis we aim to explore the scope for pathways that can offer escape routes from ever more perpetual rounds of crisis and response. This includes analysis of existing policy frameworks and political decision-making at levels from the international to the individual, including examples of bottom-up, self-liberation. In all cases we find culture and identity are as important as economy and politics as resources and motors for change (and also of course as barriers to change). An approach that can examine the coevolution of capitalism from multiple standpoints is also an essential first step in recognising the equally varied and dynamic qualities of any potential responses that can confront the internal contradictions of capitalism (its drive for creative destruction), question core assumptions (growth) and identify alternatives in everyday life as well as those open to political and economic policy or market forces (from liberating social movements to ecological modernisation and the ʼnew green deal’). To achieve this, the book integrates perspectives from many viewpoints: development studies, socio-ecological systems theory, political theory, international relations, risk management and environmental sociology. Following this introductory chapter the book is organised into four parts. Part I reviews the conceptual and policy constraints imposed by dominant interpretations of sustainable development and resilience. Part II examines the potential of already existing alternatives that challenge established hierarchies in the powerknowledge nexus through localised and everyday actions. Parts III and IV deploy organisational, economic and political theory to explore the potential of macroeconomic and political alternatives and scope for a new politics of climate change. Within this chapter we frame the subsequent sections by first revisiting the social construction of global environmental change and then presenting three elements that make up a broad meta-framework within which to position the more detailed following chapters. The framework is derived from coevolutionary theory, discourses of austerity and fear, and a revision of socioecological agency and alienation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationClimate Change and the Crisis of Capitalism
Subtitle of host publicationA Chance to Reclaim, Self, Society and Nature
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781136507687
ISBN (Print)9780415676946
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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