Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The normalisation of the unthinkable

We live in apocalyptic times. This is the considered belief of an extraordinary contemporary philosopher, who also phrases it as Living in the End Times — the title of a book that appeared in 2010 (Verso), and which contains between its covers so many intellectual tours de force that I, for one, will not even try to capture where they converge and diverge. Besides, the title neatly summarises what these reflections by the master of interweaving (neo-)Marxism and psychoanalytic theory have in common.

One of Slavoj Žižek’s most timely reflections brings one face to face with the apocalypse in one of the areas of its manifestation: “ecological breakdown”; the other two being “the biogenetic reduction of humans to manipulable machines” and “total digital control over our lives” (p327) — the latter perhaps most tellingly experienced at airports when one has to submit, willy-nilly, to sometimes very invasive “security measures”, which are slowly but surely making their way into other social spaces, too, such as when you have to go to consulates for visa applications. It is worth quoting Žižek at length (quoting Ayres):

“At all these levels, things are approaching a zero-point, ‘the end time is near’ — here is Ed Ayres’s description: ‘We are being confronted by something so completely outside our collective experience that we don’t really see it, even when the evidence is overwhelming, For us, that “something” is a blitz of enormous biological and physical alterations in the world that has been sustaining us.’ At the geological and biological level, Ayres enumerates four ‘spikes’ (or accelerated developments) asymptotically approaching a zero-point at which the quantitative expansion will reach its point of exhaustion and will bring about a qualitative change. These four spikes are: population growth, consumption of resources, carbon gas emissions, and the mass extinction of species. In order to cope with this threat, our collective ideology is mobilizing mechanisms of dissimulation and simulation which include the direct will to ignorance [a fundamental Lacanian precept]: ‘a general pattern of behaviour among threatened human societies is to become more blinkered, rather than more focused on the crisis, as they fail.’ … The recent shift in how those in power are reacting to global warming is a blatant display of such dissimulation.’’

He proceeds by clarifying what he means by the last statement, above, first reminding us of the recent discovery, by scientists, of the unexpectedly rapid melting of the Arctic sea-ice, and second, that not so long ago the usual response to scientific evidence of such imminent doom was, as might be expected, alarm and a corresponding “call for emergency measures: we are approaching an unthinkable catastrophe, and the time to act is quickly running out” (p327-328).

But guess what? This way of reacting has seen an about-turn: “Lately, however, we hear more and more voices enjoining us to be positive about global warming. The pessimistic predictions, so we are told, should be seen in a more balanced context” (p328). It is Žižek’s masterly, understated summary of the liabilities and assets, as it were, of global warming that really goes to the heart of the utter cynicism of the ruling elites of today (p328):

“True, climate change will bring increased resource competition, coastal flooding, infrastructure damage from melting permafrost, stresses on animal species and indigenous cultures, all this accompanied by ethnic violence, civil disorder, and local gang rule. But we should also bear in mind that the hitherto hidden treasures of a new continent will be disclosed, its resources will become more accessible, its land more suitable for human habitation … Big businesses and state powers are already looking for new economic opportunities, which concern not only (or even primarily) ‘green industry,’ but much more simply the potential for further exploitation of nature opened up by climatic changes … according to current estimates, up to one quarter of the world’s untapped oil and gas sources may lie under the Arctic Ocean.”

If one hadn’t become virtually numb in the face of the barrage of evidence, in one form or another, that the so-called “leaders” of the world — politicians as well as business leaders — do NOT bear the interests of ordinary people and of other living species at heart, this might have come as a shock. However, it does not, for the obvious reason that, after all the revelations, in recent years, of utter disregard for the natural environment as well as for people’s so-called “democratic rights”, on the part of many governments and many corporations (especially Big Oil), most of us have come to expect nothing less.

An exemplary instance I recall concerns the leading politician in an Australian state, where, if I recall correctly, coal exports have been threatening the continued existence of the most bio-diverse undersea eco-system on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef, because of the large amount of cargo shipping traffic right across the Reef. When confronted by a number of environmental organisations about the obvious necessity, to find alternative export transportation routes (lest this ecological marvel, a priceless natural legacy for successive generations, be completely destroyed), this politician replied that the economy was more important than the ecology.

Anyone who knows the difference between the encompassing planetary ecosystem, on which all life depends, and a sub-system such as the human “economy”, would know how moronic this statement is: without the planetary ecology, there would NOT BE a human economy. Sadly, however, this is exactly the way that most politicians think today: there are no more statesmen and -women; their self-conception is that of “managers of the economy”. The fact that politicians in South Africa are willing to prostitute the ecologically unique Karoo environment, as well as our scarce water resources, for the sake of money for shale gas from Shell Oil, is paradigmatic of this attitude.

Most people have given up thinking of doing something to change this lamentable state of affairs, which is the most saddening thing of all. That does not include me — I believe in the constant historical possibility of change, as long as sufficient numbers of people seize upon what Walter Benjamin called the sparks of “messianic time” that always intersperse the degraded time of the status quo, to bring about a “return” to a life worthy of being called human. The present time does not deserve such an epithet.

To return to Žižek’s reflections on the “normalisation of the unthinkable”, this is how he summarises it (p328):

“ … an extraordinary social and psychological change is taking place right in front of our eyes — the impossible is becoming possible. An event first experienced as real but impossible (the prospect of a forthcoming catastrophe which, however probable it may be, is effectively dismissed as impossible) becomes real and no longer impossible (once the catastrophe occurs, it is “renormalised”, perceived as part of the normal run of things, as always already having been possible). The gap which makes these paradoxes possible is that between knowledge and belief: we know the (ecological) catastrophe is possible, probable even, yet we do not believe it will really happen.”

Symptomatic of this paradoxical state of affairs is the way that the very same businessmen and politicians who, not so long ago, rejected the claims of scientists about global warming as “junk science”, and claimed that everything will just go on as usual, have done a volte face, and now look upon climate change as just another “simple fact, as just another part of ‘carrying on as usual’ ” (Žižek, p329).

The unthinkable has been “normalised”, or as Žižek also puts it with sardonic humour: “Welcome to the Anthropocene.”

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