According to the environmental activists of Extinction Rebellion (XR), we must decarbonize by 2025, otherwise we will confront the death of our future.1 Their demand, based on recent science stressing the limited timeframe before the planet crosses irreversible tipping points leading to climate catastrophe, poses new imperatives—not just to political engagement, but also to scholarship unaccustomed to operating in post-Anthropocene emergency conditions.
Indeed, long-established humanities practices founded upon distanced observation, critical thinking, and slow research are now threatened by urgency activist temporality and its explicit ends-oriented politicization. If we care about life on earth, there appears no alternative but to participate energetically, in the same way that many scientists, renowned in the past for their political neutrality, have recently come to push for policy shifts, even embracing direct action and getting arrested at protests where research and advocacy converge. Exemplary is Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of XR, who originally trained as a molecular biophysicist before entering movement organizing and advocating civil disobedience.2
Yet rather than abandon historical consciousness and critical thinking in the embrace of pressing climate response, we should recommit to those very resources now more than ever—or so I will argue. Far from outmoded, those resources are imperative in helping us determine future courses of action. This remains true politically no less than art historically, in carefully considering, for instance, how aesthetic practices and media, including XR's, operate in the context of climate emergency, how emergency is defined, and how we might productively amplify and join those struggles.
One might first direct critical analysis toward XR's claims, scrutinizing how the group moves from abstract statistics (atmospheric carbon measured in parts per million) to arguing for urgent political action. “Unfortunately, because of years of delay and inaction we have reached a crisis where we will only meet our [carbon] targets if we … take urgent emergency action!,” they write.3 Their definition of emergency rests largely on the basis of forward-looking climate modeling and coming environmental threats, from which follows their argument for the necessity of civil disobedience to bypass corrupted governmental politics beholden to industry interests: shutting down roads, gluing themselves to buildings, performing funerals for the future. All are mediagenic direct actions designed to get government to declare and act upon climate emergency.
Other activist groups, more attuned to social justice frameworks of political analysis, however, insist on situating environmental breakdown within long histories of colonial oppression, land dispossession, and the ongoing structural violence of extractivism and petrocapitalism. As the research and activism of environmental justice have taught us, these forces disproportionately impact frontline communities who have suffered decades or even centuries of sociopolitical, economic, and environmental inequalities. They are the ones, much more than the well-resourced, who are, and have been, devastated by global warming and extreme weather events, and have sustained years of exposure to toxicity, failing infrastructure, and ecosystem breakdown, with options for adaptation or moving elsewhere often lacking. For them, the rebellion against extinction is something altogether different than present struggles for decarbonization.
It is for this reason that aligned activist groups operating internationally under the name Wretched of the Earth—invoking Franz Fanon's mid-twentieth-century anti-colonial militancy—have been so forceful in their criticisms of XR, refusing to view climate emergency solely in the future tense. Indeed, as they write of the current climate threat:
The bleakness is not something of “the future.” For those of us who are indigenous, working class, black, brown, queer, trans, or disabled, the experience of structural violence became part of our birthright. Greta Thunberg calls world leaders to act by reminding them that “Our house is on fire.” For many of us, the house has been on fire for a long time: whenever the tide of ecological violence rises, our communities, especially in the Global South are always first hit. We are the first to face poor air quality, hunger, public health crises, drought, floods, and displacement.4
The resulting rupture is one major divergence in emergency politics today—between XR's decarbonization activism, and Wretched of the Earth's social justice ecology—where we see clearly that environmentalism represents a scene of profound disagreement.5 Rather than proposing a shared, universal political horizon, environmentalism forms a rift-zone of conflict and antagonism, with one's emergency threatening to erase another's, potentially compounding oppression, and making solidarity across difference ever precarious. In other words, there is more than one rebellion against extinction.
Just how we understand climate emergency, and by extension the Anthropocene's political geology, leads as well to radically different approaches to art, activism, and scholarship. With the above historical insights in mind, it becomes urgent in the wider context of emergency demands, in my view, to carefully consider these larger disagreements and their stakes, especially in assessing artistic practices that take on activist and interventionist dimensions. Instead of supporting apolitical neutrality, as with dominant strains of much traditional science and humanities scholarship, such critical analysis operates by amplifying justice-based frameworks growing out of long histories of environmental justice movements that stress a complex socioecological understanding of climate breakdown. The imperative is to break through superficial understandings of emergency that limit our purview to near-future impacts, and instead comprehend present conflicts in light of long entangled social and ecological formations. In fact many experimental aesthetic practices, operating at the nexus of environmental studies and social justice activism, are doing just that.
For instance, consider Climate Crimes, Adrian Lahoud's 2018 media-based installation that maps the global circulation of aerosol emissions that are fossil fuel byproducts, drawing on data compiled by NASA, which details their short-lived and highly geographically localized impacts.6 The piece implicates the United Nations Climate Summits and contests their abstract negotiation of future warming limits to a matter of 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius average above preindustrial levels. In reality, certain regions of the world (especially in Africa and Asia) will be heated to a much greater extent. The recognition of such uneven warming led the Sudanese diplomat Lumumba Di-Aping to accuse industrial regions of the Global North, and by extension UN climate negotiators, of practicing “climate genocide,” a position that informs Lahoud's project. Or take Arthur Jafa's video Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death (2016), a searing compilation of dashcam and cell phone recordings of police brutalizing African Americans, where “climate” designates an expansive socioecological category of racial oppression as much as of catastrophic environmental conditions. Indeed, one of the video's short passages shows a couple of figures struggling through floodwaters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, an unnatural disaster precipitated by the convergence of extreme weather, racial inequality, and infrastructure breakdown.7
A different but related approach is offered by the London-based research collective Forensic Architecture, who investigate cases of state and corporate violence visited upon colonized, disenfranchised, and militarily oppressed communities worldwide.8 Recent work has included Herbicidal Warfare in Gaza (2019), a website-based report comprising videos and texts that document Israel's use of glyphosate in border zones of this colonized area, where chemical weapons are deployed against vegetation in acts of settler atmospherics drifting into Palestinian territory in order to secure Israeli lands; and Triple Chaser, also from 2019, which includes a video that exposes the activities of tear gas manufacturer and Safariland CEO Warren B. Kanders, leading to his being ousted from the Board of Trustees of the Whitney Museum of American Art as the result of concerted social movement opposition to the cultural institution's “artwashing” of military profiteering. In this latter case, the spread of tear gas used to quell social uprisings all over the world, as shown in the video, defines the weaponization of the atmosphere via antidemocratic state and military securitization.
Lastly, consider the Otolith Group's Infinity minus Infinity, an experimental film from 2019 that addresses geology from a distinctly politico-ecological perspective, wherein the crimes of racial capitalism are intimately and materially linked to the violence of climate catastrophe. The film features a range of allegorical figures—appearing as if a chorus of future truth-tellers commenting on the horror of our climate-deranged present—who link colonization of the Americas to the initiation of the Anthropocene's environmental disaster, joined in turn to scenes of current anti-migrant xenophobia providing the construction of further hostile environments. Drawing on the Black feminist poetics of the Brazilian philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva as much as Kathryn Yusoff's political geology, the film offers an audiovisual construction that situates anti-Black and anti-Indigenous extraction at the origin of modern environmental control and breakdown.
What I'm interested in with these projects is how their diverse approaches to aesthetic practice all disarticulate and reconfigure terms like atmosphere, climate, and environment as more than abstract categories of nonhuman natures. Instead, they become insistently socioecological, dense entanglements of politics, economics, and technology as much as biology, chemistry, and geology. This is not a simple matter of political perspective, or of a social art history of association and metaphor that draws distinct fields of meaning together. Rather, these practices offer various approaches to what Donna Haraway calls “sensible materialism,”9 where past colonial and extractive violence provide ongoing, inextricable, and determining forces within social life today, forces that play a palpable role in defining the present in ways that cannot be forgotten, repressed, or separated out without enacting epistemic violence. As a site where aesthetics and environment cross (in the same way that the Anthropocene identifies the irrevocable collision of human and natural history), sensible materialism opens the analysis to what I term “intersectionalist ecology”—or ecology as a science of social as much as natural relations.10As well, it proposes a politics of justice, without which we are unable to come to terms with the past and are instead fated to be haunted by it.
In her 2016 book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe considers “antiblackness as total climate,” suggesting a likeminded phase-shift in the conceptualization of climate emergency. She points to the infamous history of the 1781 Zong massacre, when that British ship's captain opted to throw 130 slaves overboard and subsequently cash in on insurance claims for loss of “cargo,” after running low on drinking water on the open seas owing to navigational errors. In her discussion of the case, Sharpe references the science of “residence time,” the period it takes a substance to enter and leave the ocean, which for human blood and sodium is approximately 260 million years. The Zong's past, in other words, is still present; for Black people “everything is now. It is all now,” she explains, quoting Toni Morrison.11 Sharpe's discussion provides a methodological lesson for environmental justice–based analysis. It constitutes a materialist forensic approach to environment and atmosphere that helps avoid the emergency thinking that would abandon history in the construal of a future-oriented politics.
The challenge, and equally the imperative, for an environmental politics worthy of the name (distinct from XR's self-described “non-political” variety), is bringing past emergencies into proximity with present ones, connecting them through their complex disjunctions and equally their continuities. In a similar vein to Sharpe's discussion, we can return to the question of CO2 that Extinction Rebellion highlights, and reflect on its material composition in order to get beyond abstract statistics. Considering the residency time of CO2 in the atmosphere, research shows that between 65 and 80 percent of it eventually dissolves into the ocean over a period of twenty to two hundred years (where it might then linger for millions).12 This means that when we refer to actually existing atmospheric carbon, the most common of greenhouse gases, we are referring to the culmination of two centuries of its production—consisting of not only generic industrial sources, but also all manner of past cases of environmental pollution, warfare, human rights crimes, and social violence, including the conflagrations of late-stage US slavery and lynchings, the twentieth-century's world wars, holocausts, revolutionary uprisings, colonial extraction, imperial destruction, and toxic industrial disasters. The traces may not exactly be “sensible” in their specificity, but that is where experimental art becomes all the more urgent—to provide methodologies for sensing differently. “Everything is now. It is all now,” indeed, and we continue to consume it, to some degree, with every breath.
Of course, this is not to say that all air is the same, or that everyone breathes pollution equally. We know that breathing spaces are racialized geographies, as long observed by environmental-justice analysts (and made clear in Forensic Architecture's studies of colonial atmospherics). Vulnerable, disenfranchised populations are situated disproportionately near toxic waste facilities, meaning that the act of breathing is inextricable from histories where structural racism, urban planning, and industrial and military waste converge. Not only are race and class inequalities experienced in elemental ways—in relation to air, water, and soil—but, generally speaking, “Blacks and whites actually breathe different air” owing to socio-geographical disparities.13
The value of the practices cited above is that they demand a shift in environmental-humanities discourse, showing how analyses, activism, and artistic practices that focus their energies on generically conceived “atmospheric carbon” are inadequately narrow at best, repressive of histories of violence at worst. Critical storytelling, as much as forensic analysis and a new geological poetics, offers the opportunity for us—scholars, teachers, writers, students—to collectively transform by sensing otherwise, becoming other than docile carbon subjects, colonial settlers, perpetrators of discriminatory violence, and competitive individuals of material wealth, the typical range of positions reinforced in dominant cultures of petrocapitalism. In this regard, intersectionalist ecology demands a corresponding activism of alliance building across identities of difference, starting from a disidentification from oppressive dominant hierarchical formations of white supremacy, color-blind liberalism, and speciesist anthropocentrism. This argument is not simply based on an ethics of subjective perspective, a leftism of privileged choice. It rather stems from acknowledging the practical necessity, indeed the emergency, of building inclusive and diverse movements capable of challenging the divide-and-conquer tactics of the elite political class, the members of which, through their endless wars and fossil-fuel economies, are laying waste to the world.
See “This Is Not a Drill: 700+ Arrested as Extinction Rebellion Fights Climate Crisis with Direct Action,” Democracy Now!, October 8, 2019, www.democracynow.org/2019/10/8/extinction_rebellion_global_actions_climate_crisis.
As XR writes on their website dedicated to “The Emergency”: “Carbon dioxide concentrations are at a record high of 411 parts per million (ppm) (an increase of over 45 percent on pre-industrial levels). Concentrations are now at the highest levels in at least the last 3 million years (i.e. since before modern humans had even evolved on this planet). To stabilise temperatures emissions need to reach net-zero. Indeed, the climate will keep slowly warming for around 10 years after CO2 emissions stop due to thermal inertia! The longer we delay the harder it becomes to stabilise temperatures at a safe level. Unfortunately, because of years of delay and inaction we have reached a crisis where we will only meet our targets if we to take urgent emergency action!” See “The Emergency,” Extinction Rebellion, https://rebellion.earth/the-truth/the-emergency.
Wretched of the Earth, “An Open Letter to Extinction Rebellion,” Common Dreams, May 4, 2019, www.commondreams.org/views/2019/05/04/open-letter-extinction-rebellion.
Put another way: we discover an onto-epistemological divergence in the understanding of “environment,” forming an “uncommons,” a place of necessary negotiation and difference that might lead toward solidarity but not necessarily unity. See Mario Blaser and Marisol de la Cadena, “Introduction: Pluriverse; Proposals for a World of Many Worlds,” in A World of Many Worlds, ed. Marisol de la Cadena and Mario Blaser (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).
See “Project focus | Adrian Lahoud: Climate Crimes,” Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2020, www.vam.ac.uk/articles/project-focus-adrian-lahoud-climate-crimes.
I address this piece at length in T. J. Demos, “To Save a World: Geoengineering, Conflictual Futurisms, and the Unthinkable,” e–flux Journal 94 (October 2018), www.e-flux.com/journal/94/221148/to-save-a-world-geoengineering-conflictual-futurisms-and-the-unthinkable.
Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 88.
Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 41.
Carbon Brief, “How long do greenhouse gases stay in the air?,” Guardian, January 16, 2012, www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/jan/16/greenhouse-gases-remain-air.
Lindsey Dillon and Julie Sze citing the Washington Post in “Police Power and Particulate Matters: Environmental Justice and the Spatialities of In/Securities in U.S. Cities,” English Language Notes (Fall/Winter 2016): 18.