The Slovenian, Rome, and the Long Autumn of Humanity

By: Christopher Rienzi

As I write this, the G20 is meeting in the Eternal City to discuss climate change, among other agenda items. Most climate change discussion centers on scientific studies, reports, and policy proposals issued by think tanks and special interest groups ranging from oil companies to the Sierra Club. But it is important to step back and think about the frameworks we use to look at the ecological problems we face.

Slajov Zizek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst. According to Vice, “the most dangerous philosopher in the West,”[1] and he offers an interesting re-examination of the way we think about ecological issues. In lectures and some of his writings, Zizek makes clear that the problem isn’t climate change per se but the ideology of climate change. For Zizek, “ideology” is understood as a way a particular system is sustained; it is a subconscious phenomenon that we all take part in that helps shape the world we live in.[2]  Zizek à la Lacan understands that humans do not interact with the world as it is, but our interaction with the world is mediated by language.[3] Thus, ideology not only impacts the way we view the world but how we talk about it in the first place.

Environmentalists recognize that nature has inherent value and that nature is worth protecting for its own worth.[4] According to Zizek, this is wrong. We need to think about environmentalism “without nature.” Zizek writes

“A good counterpoint to such fantasies, based on the notion that nature is a balanced and harmonious cycle distorted by human intervention, is the lesson of an environmental scientist who came to the result that, while one cannot be sure what the ultimate result of humanity’s interventions into geo-sphere will be, one thing is sure: if humanity were to stop abruptly its immense industrial activity and let nature on Earth take its balanced course, the result would have been a total breakdown, an imaginable catastrophe. “Nature” on Earth is already to such an extent “adapted” to human interventions, the human “pollutions” are already to such an extent included into the shaky and fragile balance of the “natural” reproduction on Earth, that its cessation would cause a catastrophic imbalance.”[5]

Ecologist Enrique Leff writes that “ecosystems do not depend only on the biologic laws of evolution, being as they are rather affected and supradetermined by the economic appropriation of natural resources.”[6] Nature then becomes a subsidiary of “the vicissitudes of our social organization system…an element of our culture.”[7] Part of that culture is the production-and-consumption economic system driven by capital. Nature is not valued for its own worth but the in-itself worth as a source of raw materials and a deposit for waste. There is a general equivalence between Nature and Capital, and the ideological obfuscation of the two render environmental goals of the international community either all but meaningless or criticized as “too late.”[8]

Some scholars have begun defining the epoch we live in as the “Anthropocene” as distinct from the “Holocene” epoch.[9] The Anthropocene began during the Industrial Revolution and began a great acceleration of the human activity shaping the planet, unrivaled in previous epochs. As a result, mankind today “is the single major element interfering in ecosystem’s evolutive path.”[10] In this new reality, the Anthropocene, if we continue down the path we have, will threaten the very viability of civilization and even the existence of our species.[11]

It is understanding this backdrop that Zizek’s first critique of the environmental movement becomes clear; the environmental changes have surpassed the ability of mankind to mitigate or negate their impacts on the ecosystem. According to Zizek, the movement must be focused on the survival of the species and not trying to save what is around us.[12] Zizek writes, almost despairingly, that it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than any small change in the liberal-capitalist world order.

“Up to one or two decades ago, the production-Nature system (the productive exploiting relations maintained by mankind with Nature and its resources) was perceived as a constant, while everybody sought to imagine different formats for the social organization of production and commerce (fascism or communism as alternatives to liberal capitalism); today, as Frederic Jameson pointed out with sagacity, nobody is considering seriously the possible alternatives to capitalism, while common people’s minds are haunted by visions of the future collapse of Nature’ and the elimination of all life upon Earth. It seems easier to imagine ‘the end of this world’ than a much smaller change in our method of production, as if liberal-capitalism were the ‘reality’ that shall somehow survive even in the event of a planetary ecologic catastrophe…”[13]

The grim reaper’s scythe casts a long shadow over our pale blue dot. And this cultural discontent, the inability to envision a world beyond liberal-capitalism, causes an “uneasiness of nature.” Zizek writes, “with the latest advancements, this discontent passes from culture to Nature itself: it ceases to be ‘natural,’ the ‘dense’ and trustworthy background of our lives; it appears now to be a fragile mechanism which may explode any moment in a catastrophic way.”[14] The rhetoric of the environmental movement’s narrative embodies this fear when climate activists like Greta Thunberg say things like “if nothing is done,” “if things go on like this,” and “we are in the beginning of a mass extinction.”[15] The movement spastically asks itself and world leaders “how is it possible that the risk of seeing the end of human life upon Earth be not enough for us to make some change, even a modest one?”[16]

Those who ask are close to asking the right question. Badiou’s idea of “event” elevates the question to “why the environmental crisis was not the event capable of traversing the order of the hegemonic liberal-capitalist discourse to create some sort of ‘society of ecologist subjects’?”[17] The framing of the question in this way is the launch point to Zizek’s second critique of the ideology of environmentalism; our race to temporarily mitigate small-scale environmental problems and the tendency of individuals to internalize and take responsibility for society’s environmental impacts overshadows the greatest constraint to environmental progress–liberal-capitalism.[18] For example, look recently at the movement for individuals to adopt more re-usable straws to “save the turtles.” Yet, the greatest threat to turtles is not plastic straws used by your 5-year-old cousin at McDonald’s but fisheries bycatch, coastal development, direct take, systemic dumping of waste into the ocean of products more than just straws, and climate change.[19]

We as a society have failed to (or subconsciously avoided) “to see that radical social change is a prerequisite for a globally impactful mitigation of environmental problems.”[20]

For Zizek, the “event” is the emergence of a new master-signifier.[21] A master-signifier is a Lacanian term borrowed by Zizek, in which language is seen as self-referential (language only refers to language), and the endless chain of signifiers is only halted by a master-signifier. The master-signifier points to itself and not any other signifier. It is devoid of meaning but is a point where other signifiers stabilize themselves.[22] This “event” is not an “event,” but a “failed event,” for it did not accomplish the goal of turning biopolitical humans into environmentalist subjects. This “failed event” is mentioned by several as when humans first went to space and looking down saw the Earth and when the first pictures of Earth’s finitude were laid bare in satellite photographs.[23] Since then, we have been using a variety of semiotic stop-gaps where the logic is “the substitution of older products and processes by newer ones, in a competently managed manner.”[24] “[F]or example, of the role played by electric cars in the automotive industry: they are an insignificant part of a huge and highly pollutant global industry, but they provoke the displacement of the meanings of the whole industry.”[25] No more smokestacks but clean air and green fields.

This is precisely what “sustainable development” is, an outgrowth of the environmental movement and popular among environmental discourse. A rhetorical reassurance that we can have it all! Economic growth? No problem! Conservation? Easy! Social Justice? Why not? Under “sustainable development,” no painful changes are necessary. The preservation of the capital structure and acknowledging the environmental crisis neuters the reality of death and meaninglessness of the system into a new round of consumption.[26] Buy these “politically correct” manufactured products used without child slavery! Buy these vegetables; they are made without GMOs! Order this electric car and save the planet! Liberal-capitalism changes to stay the same. Therefore, our trajectory will remain the same no matter what the political leaders declare in Rome, quarterly reports from Fortune 500 companies may express, or even what regulators promulgate from their bureaucratic Mount Olympus.

In response to this bleak conclusion, Zizek betrays Hegel’s cardinal rule of philosophy, that the owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk. Zizek’s solution is “radical politicization.” There is no reconciliation between Capital and Nature; it wasn’t even a possibility.[27] We need to traverse the fantasy of the ideology we are so dedicated to preserving and militantly politicize the environmental crisis by affirming the “failed event” as the “event.” New meanings, solutions, and policies become open and shift with consolidated discourse.[28]

As we shed the ideological trappings of the environmental movement, we can conceive of new realities and possibilities. This new mindset informs how we legislate, how judges rule, treaties are drafted, how we vote and how regulators regulate. Maybe we will succeed. Maybe we won’t, but time waits for no one.

Twas their own hubris that ended their reign, their belief that they were the pinnacle of creation that caused them to poison the water, kill the land, and choke the sky. In the end, no nuclear winter was needed just the long heedless autumn of their own self-regard.[29]

Image from: Total Slovenia News

[1] Vice Staff, Slavoj Zizek, Vice News (Oct. 4, 2013), https://www.vice.com/en/article/dpwzjj/slavoj-zizek.

[2] Slajov Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989).

[3] Id.

[4] Philosophical discussions in the lab: Žižek criticises ideological ecology, The Quantitative & Applied Ecology Grp. (June 5, 2018), https://qaeco.com/2018/06/05/philosophical-discussions-in-the-lab-zizek-criticises-ideological-ecology/.

[5] Slajov Zizek, Living in the End Times 94 (2012).

[6] Vinicius Prates, The Anthropocene Diet: Perversions of Consumers Facing the Environmental Crisis, 11 Int’l J. of Zizek Stud. 3 (2017).

[7] Id.

[8] Stuart Braun, Paris Climate Pledges ‘far too little, far too late’, Deutsche Welle (May 11, 2019), https://www.dw.com/en/paris-climate-pledges-far-too-little-too-late/a-51110205.

[9] Prates, supra note 6, at 2.

[10] Id. at 2.

[11] Id. at 5.

[12] Philosophical discussions in the lab, supra note 4.

[13] Slajov Zizek, Mapping Ideology 7 (1996)

[14] Slajov Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes 430 (2011)

[15] NPR Staff, Great Thunberg’s speech at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, NPR (Sept. 3, 2019), https://www.npr.org/2019/09/23/763452863/transcript-greta-thunbergs-speech-at-the-u-n-climate-action-summit.

[16] Prates, supra note 6, at 6.

[17] Id. at 7.

[18] Philosophical discussions in the lab, supra note 4.

[19] Threats to Sea Turtles, State of the World’s Sea Turtles, https://www.seaturtlestatus.org/threats-to-turtles.

[20] Philosophical discussions in the lab, supra note 4.

[21] Slajov Zizek, Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept 121 (2014).

[22] Adam Kotsko, Žižek and Theology 30 (2008)

[23] C.W. Porto-Gonçalves, A Globalização da Natureza e a Natureza da Globalização 11 (2006).

[24] Prates, supra note 6, at 9.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 12.

[27] Id. at 14.

[28] Id.

[29] Love Death + Robots: Sonnie’s Edge, (Netflix March 15, 2019).

2 comments

  1. This is an incredible blend of philosophy into a perspective offered for the future to rid itself of “ideological trappings of the environmental movement.”

  2. Insightful and engaging read, as discourses about alternative environmental law strategies will require a second look at what the function of that paradigm should be. The link between development and sustainability is philosophically problematic.

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