Emancipating who from what? Risky business around “emancipatory catastrophism” and #climate change.

Beck, U. (2015) Emancipatory catastrophism: What does it mean to climate change and risk society?  Current Sociology Vol . 63 (1) 75-88.

Didn’t like this.  Sorry to speak ill of the dead (and seriously, RIP Ulrich Beck), but this to me smacked of palimpsesting some wishful (millennial?) thinking onto the ugly “facts” (yes yes, Latour this, Haraway that blah de blah) of climate change.

Beck, who gave us “risk society” and “reflexive modernisation”


and much else was an interesting and fruitful thinker.  When I first heard of this article, I was intrigued and hopeful.  Here’s the complete abstract ;

The metamorphosis of the world is about the hidden emancipatory side effect of global risk. This article argues that the talk about bads produces ‘common goods’. As such, the argument goes beyond what has been at the heart of the world risk society theory so far: it is not about the negative side effects of goods but the positive side effects of bads.
They are producing normative horizons of common goods. This is what the author defines as ‘emancipatory catastrophism’. Emancipatory catastrophism can be seen and analysed by using three conceptual lenses: first, the anticipation of global catastrophe violates sacred (unwritten) norms of human existence and civilization; second, thereby it causes an anthropological shock, and, third, a social catharsis.

[Catharsis?  Well, there will be some letting of fluids.  Oil and blood mostly.  We’ve been doing it to other species and our own for a long time.  Now we are doing it to generations as yet unborn…]

Beck and his ilk, children and peddlers of the Enlightenment, need to believe, ultimately, that their fellow hairless apes will see the (secular) Light.  It’s a belief that helps them get out of bed in the morning and keep scribbling.

Perhaps the topos of climate change is even a form of mobilization thus far unknown in human history that breaks open a sanctimonious national autistic world with the vision of the impending apocalypse. The global climate risk, far from an apocalyptic catastrophe, is instead – so far! – a kind of ‘emancipatory catastrophe’.
(p. 79)

Which is merely, surely, the “information deficit model”.  Beck knew better than this, but apparently couldn’t bring himself to look the gathering storm in the eye.  Better to have your back turned?

He concedes that it won’t happen automatically –

The social catharsis, however, must not be misunderstood as something that automatically happens and is inherently caused by the event as such. It is the product of carrier groups engaging successfully in ‘cultural work’, in ‘meaning-work’, in transformative work of activists in witnessing the (distant) suffering of others (Kurasawa, 2004, 2007).
page 80

But is unwilling/unable to admit that the historical actor does not exist (or maybe he does.  The stuff at the top of page 82, “Verwandlung” and all that, becomes no clearer after multiple readings.)

There’s some interesting stuff where he drags up Karl Mannheim

Mannheim talked about utopia as a transformative force for generations. The difference is that global risk is dystopian vision, which, however, has a significant power of mobilization because it is about the existence of humanity. As discussed earlier, global risk has unintended side effects beyond ideologies and political programmes. The key to the ideas of global risk is that bads produce normative horizons of common goods…. However, what keeps the cosmopolitized fragmented generation together is the reflexivity and reflection produced by global risk. This reflexivity and reflection in the face of global risk, i.e. in the face of the existential threat to humanity, stands for what Mannheim calls ‘entelechy’.
(Page 85)

I’ll put this article aside, come back to it in a month or three and see if there’s more here than I currently think. If so, I’ll blog again, and link from here.

If you aren’t so theoretically inclined you could try “A Paradise Built in Hell,” a big fat hopeful book by Rebecca Solnit.  Meanwhile, the 2008 article  “Elites and Panic: More to Fear than Fear Itself” by Lee Clarke and Caron Chess, Social Forces 87 (2)  is a MUST READ.

Beck didn’t mention it, but this narrative of climate change as an opportunity for a radical transformation/renewal is an old narrative, stretching back far beyond Naomi “This Changes Everything” Klein all the way to the 1980s, when environmentalists saw it as a potential master narrative for replacing the anomie, sterility and wastefulness of suburban living and consumerism with something better.   They lost.  We lost.  And pretending or ignoring that we lost helps no-one and nothing, except perhaps the rich, clinging by their fingernails, bodyguards and pet States to their precipice. For now.

One thought on “Emancipating who from what? Risky business around “emancipatory catastrophism” and #climate change.

Add yours

  1. re: ‘They lost. We lost. And pretending or ignoring that we lost helps no-one and nothing,’

    It’s helpful that you point this out.

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