By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Framing “Climate Change”: Denialism vs. Exterminism
In this simple post, I’m going to be taking the notion of climate change (or, as some like to call it, the Jackpot) as a given. I share Robert Pollin’s views, from the New Left Review:
Climate change necessarily presents a profound political challenge in the present historical era, for the simple reason that we are courting ecological disaster by not advancing a viable global climate-stabilization project. There are no certainties about what will transpire if we allow the average global temperature to continue rising. But as a basis for action, we only need to understand that there is . Climate change therefore poses perhaps the ultimate ‘what is to be done’ question.
(I think “non-trivial possibility” is capacious enough to take in the fact that although “the science” may be settled, we are making new discoveries every day; and that the complex systems in which we are embedded are quite possibly much smarter than we are. Nevertheless, given that “the continuation of life on earth as we know it is at stake,” “climate change” becomes one of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ruin problems: “Outcomes of risks have a non-zero probability of resulting in unrecoverable losses,” and (hence) where the Precautionary Principle should be applied.)
Those who urge that there is no, or little “basis for action” on climate change are generally categorized in polemic as “denialists,” employing “denial.” For example, from last week’s New York Times Magazine special issue on climate change:
The Heritage Foundation ought to know; for decades, it has demonstrated mastery of the dark arts of climate-change . This strain of influence peddling would be harmful enough had it managed merely to deepen the public ignorance about global warming. But denialism has had devastating downstream effects (to borrow an industry term). It has managed to defer meaningful consideration of nearly every urgent policy question that now awaits us, if we are serious about trying to stop this.
The most fundamental question is whether a capitalistic society is capable of sharply reducing carbon emissions. Will a radical realignment of our economy require a radical realignment of our political system — within the next few years? Even if the answer is no, we have some decisions to make.
From the Monthly Review:
Nevertheless, of the extent of the conflict between capitalism and the climate remains pervasive. Recently, former President Barack Obama, the World Resources Institute, and even radical economist Robert Pollin writing in New Left Review, have all separately supported the view that absolute decoupling of economic growth and carbon emissions is now feasible and has already been accomplished over several years in a handful of countries, including the United States. The implication is that, due to increasing efficiencies that will finally separate economic growth from carbon emissions, the goal of reaching zero carbon emissions mid–century is fully compatible with the continuing expansion of the capitalist system, to be accomplished by technical means, and without a wider ecological revolution that would mobilize the whole society and challenge existing social relations.
From James Hansen:
Atmospheric CO2 resulting from the emission scenarios of Fig. 26a is shown in Fig. 27a. Emission reductions in scenarios with declining emissions (reductions of 3% and 6% per year) begin in 2021, which is probably the earliest conceivable date for a substantial downward trend in global emissions to begin, given the of science by the current Executive Branch of the United States government and the slow pace of the Judicial Branch.
Despite the recent turn toward increased global authoritarianism and of scientific facts, we have also recently witnessed the heart-warming sight of marching Australian children, defying their Prime Minister’s instruction to stay in school. It may not be long until there is another chance at a day of reckoning. This time it must be clearer what young people and other life on our planet need to assure their future. We must be sure that thoughtful people at high government and industry levels have a good understanding of the climate change situation.
From George Monbiot:
Today, Extinction Rebellion takes to streets around the world in defence of our life-support systems. Through daring, disruptive, nonviolent action, it forces our environmental predicament on to the political agenda. Who are these people? Another “they”, who might rescue us from our follies? The success of this mobilisation depends on us. It will reach the critical threshold only if enough of us cast aside and despair, and join this exuberant, proliferating movement. The time for excuses is over. The struggle to overthrow our life-denying system has begun.
And Bill McKibben:
Obama’s Catastrophic Climate-Change Denial
This is not climate denial of the Republican sort, where people simply pretend the science isn’t real. This is climate denial of the status quo sort, where people accept the science, and indeed make long speeches about the immorality of passing on a ruined world to our children. They just deny the meaning of the science, which is that we must keep carbon in the ground.
Examples could be multiplied, but I’ll stop with McKibben. Now, why am I flagging a seemingly harmless word like “denial”? Let’s look at definitions and usage. From my Oxford English Dictionary (which I love, so I’m going to quote the whole entry):
[ORIGIN: from deny verb + -al1.]
1. The act of saying ‘no’; refusal of something asked or desired. e16.
Shakes. Tam. Shr. Neuer make denial; I must and will have Katherine to my wife.
2. A statement or assertion that something is untrue or untenable; contradiction; . l16.
B. Jowett The denial of abstract ideas is the destruction of the mind.
3. (A) disavowal, disowning; esp. refusal to acknowledge a person as leader etc. l16.
AV John 18 Peters deniall.
4. Law. The opposing by a defendant of a charge etc. made against him or her. e18.
5. A drawback, disadvantage. dial. m18.
6. Bridge. A bid intended to show weakness in response to one’s partner’s bid. e20.
(If there’s an evolutionary chokepoint, I want to be sure to bring the OED through it.) Clearly, in all the usage examples above, sense 2 is meant: “Refusal to acknowledge the existence or reality of a thing.” There are two problems with this. First, at least in the American political context, it’s just a fancy way for liberals to do their favorite thing, which is to call their opponents stupid (which in at least some areas — say, maintaining political and financial power — conservatives most definitely are not). More broadly, the focus is on the denier; the state of mind of the individual (“in denial“). The focus on the individual is even more evident in the cultural context. Alchoholics Anonymous:
Denial: to admit or accept that he or she is an alcoholic. Denial is one of the symptoms of the disease of alcoholism that makes recovery so difficult. There is a saying in AA, ‘Alcoholism is a disease which convinces you that you do not have it.’ Also, there’s a joke that goes, “She’s called Cleopatra – the Queen of Denial”
A person. Both denotation and connotation of denial and denialist put the focus squarely on the individual’s internal, even psychological state. Is that any way to attack a system?
That brings me to exterminism (exterminator), which I propose as an alternative to denialism (denialist). (I am indebted to alert reader Grant not once but twice for bringing the term in context to my attention, although it only clicked for me the second time.) The term was at least popularized by the great E.P. Thompson (The Making of the English Working Class, Whigs and Hunters) during campaigns against the nuclear arms race in the 1980s and the geopolitics of the Cold War. I’m going to strip away that context (probably unfairly) and go straight to his definition. From Verso, “Notes on Exterminism, The Last Stage of Civilization (Part 2)“:
Exterminism designates those characteristics of a society — expressed, in differing degrees, within its economy, its polity and its ideology — which thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes. The outcome will be extermination, but this will not happen accidentally (even if the final trigger is “accidental”) but as the direct consequence of prior acts of policy, of the accumulation and perfection of the means of extermination, and of the structuring of whole societies so that these are directed towards that end….
It seems not inappropriate to characterize a system of social relations that has produced “a non-trivial possibility that the continuation of life on earth as we know it is at stake” as exterminist. Further, with exterminism we have, not simply individuals with (who among us…) psychological issues, but agents. Antagonistic agents: The exterminators and the exterminated. I think that’s clarifying. Returning to the first example of denialism that I quoted:
The Heritage Foundation ought to know; for decades, it has demonstrated mastery of the dark arts of climate-change denialism. This strain of influence peddling would be harmful enough had it managed merely to deepen the public ignorance about global warming. But denialism has had devastating downstream effects (to borrow an industry term). It has managed to defer meaningful consideration of nearly every urgent policy question that now awaits us, if we are serious about trying to stop this.
Despite the adjectives (“dark,” “harmful”, “devastating,” not “serious,” doesn’t calling the Heritage Foundation flaks “denialists” rather let them off the hook? Why not a rewrite:
The Heritage Foundation ought to know; for decades, it has demonstrated mastery of the dark arts of climate-change
denialismexterminism. This strain of influence peddling [notice how mild “influence peddling” seems now] would be harmful enough had it managed merely to deepen the public ignorance about global warming. But denialismexterminism has had devastating downstream effects [as one would expect!] (to borrow an industry term). It has managed to defer meaningful consideration of nearly every urgent policy question that now awaits us, if we are serious about trying to stop this.
Wouldn’t it be more truthful to at least imply that the exterminists at the Heritage Foundation are putting the lives of millions of people at risk, as opposed to saying that they’ve managed to “defer meaningful consideration of nearly every urgent policy question”? Yes, I do understand that one musn’t be strident, but I don’t really see a reason to be gentle with the Heritage Foundation; they’re doing far worse damage than the tobacco, well, exterminsts (and some of them are the same people). Of course, the Heritage folks are mere hirelings; their paymasters are exterminists, too. For example:
Every year, the world's five largest publicly owned oil and gas companies spend approximately $200 million on lobbying designed to control, delay or block binding climate-motivated policy.
— Paul Dawson on Climate Change (@PaulEDawson) April 15, 2019
$200 million? That’s all?
My one concern with “exterminism” is euphony; to this American ear, “exterminationism” has a more pleasing sound. An alternative would be omnicide, but I think that lacks agency, somebody doing the exterminating.
 One perspective I would like to see in climate change discussion the idea that we should save as many people as possible. Obviously, the 0.1% who plan to rocket off to Mars, or who are all-too-obviously making plans for human dieback with robots and AI — the fact that they’ve bought their own bullshit and crapified the engineering on their own lifeboats doesn’t mean that’s not their impulse — hardly share that perspective. Less obviously, some cohorts in the 10% are concerned with “population control” (not that they themselves will be subject to this, since after all they’ll be setting up the complex eligibility systems needed to administer the project for others). That’s all well and good — I did give myself some wiggle room on carrying capacity with “as many as possible” — but I have the uneasy sense they intend as few as possible.
 From AA, we branch out into pop psychology generally; for example Kubler-Ross’s model of the Five Stages of Grief, the first of which is denial.
 The parallel to Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism is no doubt intentional. Fascinatingly, Thompson speaks of “addiction to exterminism,” psychologizing the concept in exactly the way I have decried. Thompson writes: “But exterminism itself is not a ‘class issue’: it is a human issue.” I think that’s just a touch wooly. You do not, I suppose, have opium without the Opium War, but you do not have the Opium War without an Empire; the ships, the guns, the bureaucrats, the bills of lading, the insurance, the trade monopoly.