Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Beliefs and knowledges – Socio-Ecological Mentalities and the Trilemmas of Covid and Climate
Dennis Eversberg, BMBF Junior Research Group “Mentalities in Flux” (flumen), Friedrich Schiller University, Jena, German
At first sight, it might not be the most obvious thing to do, to interpret the current societal crisis in terms of ‘socio-ecological mentalities’. Yet, in this short essay, I will briefly introduce some key findings from my analyses using data from a representative German survey to demonstrate that this is indeed highly relevant for understanding the current debates – and impending conflicts – about how to deal with the enormous challenges posed by the virus.
By ‘socio-ecological mentalities’ I address the different typical ‘syndromes’ of attitudes towards, as well as mental images of, nature, society and the relationships between the individual and both of these that are present among different parts of the population. Understanding and distinguishing these allows us deeper insights into the social foundations and mental driving forces of ongoing socio-ecological conflicts, such as those around climate crisis and decarbonisation. Ultimately, whatever visions and strategies of a post-fossil fuel transformation political actors or social movements may come up with, will have to garner support from a majority of the public, and mentalities – which do not change at will, but possess a sense of persistency or hysteresis (Bourdieu) – are a key factor to be reckoned with in the process. The same applies to the different possible ways of navigating the specific socio-ecological exigency of the pandemic. I think that the resulting heuristic also proves quite helpful in interpreting the constellation of forces in current arguments around how to cope with Covid-19.
Now, why would one consider the appearance and impact of SARS-CoV2 a socio-ecological phenomenon? Some authors argue that it is because the likelihood of zoonotic pandemics has been greatly increased by large-scale industrialised agriculture and the destruction of wildlife habitats. I certainly will not argue against that, but I wish to highlight a different point: namely, that Covid forcefully alerts us to our own status as a part of nature that is as much subject to its laws and limits as any other, to our fundamental vulnerability as living beings. What makes the current situation so extraordinary, and so irritatingly inconvenient, is the profoundly unfamiliar experience of an imminent collective threat for which there is simply no technological remedy – no vaccine, no sure-fire protective gadget: It is there, it threatens us, and it cannot be argued with.
In acute form, the virus presents the societies at the central nodes of capitalist globalisation (along the networks of which it initially spread) with the same kind of trilemma that global heating and the mounting ecological crisis are chronically posing. Although the latter will eventually prove much more catastrophic than the pandemic, the current sense of urgency renders much more apparent that trilemmatic character of the multiple quandaries that the economically most powerful societies are faced with. At one corner of the triangle, Covid-19, like the climate emergency, presents an inescapable exigency imposed (with active human help) by that incorruptible agency we call nature. By exposing the limits and vulnerabilities that modern societies are no less subject to than any other, it throws into sharp relief both of the two dialectically entwined, co-constitutive, but mutually conflicting poles of what ‘modernity’ means: the liberal self-image of a society governed by human rights, democracy and individual freedom at the second corner, the objective rule of abstract exchange value, universal commensurability, and the unending compulsion to expand at the third. Survival of the vulnerable, versus protection of democracy and citizens’ rights, versus prevention of economic depression: There seems to be no solution to the Covid emergency that could offer all three – any two that a given strategy aims to achieve in tandem will compromise the third.
These three terms can be squared with each other in three different ways, each with different implications for the solutions that societies – or rather, different interest groups within them – will come up with to both the pandemic and the climate crisis. What solutions will ultimately prevail, and what conflicts ensue, will be based not only on rational political decision-making, nor simply on economic power, but also on what will find majority support.
Incidentally, my recent research offers some insights on this, and although the questions posed in the survey I worked with – the 2018 edition of the government-sponsored biannual survey on ‘Environmental Consciousness in Germany’ – addressed environmental and energy-related attitudes rather than pandemics or public health, I do believe that the results allow some inference to current issues of crisis management. This is because the relational methodology I used (I conducted cluster analyses using the full set of 36 statements indicating socio-ecological attitudes) reveals comprehensive ‘syndromes’ of people’s relations with society, nature and themselves, allowing us to come up at least with reasoned hypotheses on how the same people will think and feel about this different instance of socio-ecological crisis. I found eleven such ‘syndromes’ of socio-ecological mentalities, grouped into three broad ‘camps’. Each camp stands for a basic mode of addressing socio-ecological issues, and a typical stance within current debates and conflicts around socio-ecological issues. The following figure indicates the approximate ‘zones’ in which they tend to concentrate within Bourdieu’s well-known model of social space.
- In the left and lower middle region, mainly comprising people in interpersonal – health-related, educational, cultural – service jobs or doing unpaid care work, many students, and overwhelmingly women in predominantly urban areas, we can discern an ecosocial camp of about a third of the population. People here hold critical views on environmental destruction, economic growth and social injustice, and generally support ideas of ecosocial change.
- Along the far right of the space, and stretching further left in its bottom regions, are the typical social positions of people in the regressive-authoritarian camp, comprising high shares of pensioners, older workers in manual or lower-level office jobs, and holders of devalued educational degrees. The general worldview here is shaped by perceptions of ubiquitous threats, and a desire to be protected from these by a strong authority. Calls for socio-ecological transformation appear as one such threat, which is countered by a defiant insistence on perpetuating familiar, unsustainable fossil-based modes of production and living, and support for authoritarian, nationalistic and exclusionary models of crisis management.
- The centre and most of the upper reaches of social space are the strongholds of liberal-escalatory mentalities, typically characterised by optimism, a strong sense of self-efficacy, consumerist hedonism, and unflinching belief in economic growth and in society’s capacity to control nature through technical means. Unsurprisingly, people holding such attitudes are more frequently men, younger people and students, but also full-time workers in mid- to upper-level jobs – the well-endowed establishment of an affluent society, living particularly emissions-intensive lives. The dominant intention here is to preserve this status by going on with the flexible capitalist growth model of the past three decades – regardless of the energetic basis on, or the technical means by which, that may be achieved.
Incidentally, but not by coincidence, each camp stands for one of the three paradigmatic ways of navigating the trilemma:
- An ecosocial approach will seek for ways to deliver as much of the rights and freedoms promised by modernity to as many as possible, while accepting our own vulnerability and dependence on intact ecosystems and mutual care, spawning concepts of transformation of the abstract growth-dependent mode of production, that range from urban gardening through carbon budgeting to global ecosocialist revolution.
- A regressive-authoritarian mentality, in contrast, fuses the competitive logic of capitalism with a Darwinist conception of ‘nature’ as a permanent struggle for survival: perceiving of oneself and of society as permanently threatened by external ‘others’ (sometimes vilified as ‘animals’) and/or by hostile forces of nature, lends support to authoritarian solutions, directed at suppressing the rights and freedoms of those deemed ‘naturally inferior’ or unwilling to accept the fate a naturalised unequal and competitive order supposedly holds for them. This amounts to building walls, locking people up or out, or even wilfully letting them drown.
- Only tacitly is the latter accepted by the mentalities of the third, liberal-escalatory camp, which is the most unambiguously ‘modern’ in combining the abstract-universal logics of capitalism and political liberalism, while discarding any idea of biophysical limits to human endeavour. To the liberal-escalatory mind, ‘nature’ may pose problems, but those are merely there to be overcome – for any constraint there must be a technological fix, be it electric cars, carbon capture and storage, or the economic technology of carbon trading.
At exactly this point, the Covid emergency drastically exposes an ineptness of the still-dominant liberal-escalatory vision that is only gradually becoming apparent with respect to the climate crisis. Absent a vaccine, there simply is no techno-fix for the virus: externalised nature returns as a spectre to haunt the hyper-complex techno-civilisation of infinite possibility that modernism envisions. Of course, a frantic search for the magic bullet is on, and billionaires are competing with authoritarian regimes in the race to deliver it first and reap the associated monetary and political profit. But alas, scientific experts, for once at the forefront of disillusionment, call for humility: For 18 months at least, all measures at our collective disposal have to reckon with that inconvenient fact of human vulnerability and dependence – enormous inequalities of exposure and access to protection notwithstanding.
Still, different approaches exist, broadly aligned with the other two camps. China swiftly drew one type of authoritarian conclusion: lock everyone up, exert total control, stifle the virus – and any sense of human rights and dignity with it. Other regressive authoritarian governments tinker with the Darwinist idea of letting both capital and the virus take their course unabatedly, salvaging profits while robbing millions of the most vulnerable of even the right to survive.
But not even Trump or Bolsonaro could justify so openly betraying modernity’s humanist self-image, and at least temporarily accepted measures wholly inimical to their mentality of conquest and domination: physical distancing and mask use, the only things that can curb infections without fully robbing people of dignity and autonomy, operate more in line with an ecosocial, transformative approach. Rather than heroic efforts by determined leaders to overcome nature, they are more of a collective exercise in humility in the face of everybody’s vulnerability and mutual dependency. In the first days of lockdown, nurses from many German hospitals posted photos saying “we stay here for you – please stay at home for us”. Rather than asserting total control over people to keep capital accumulation going, protection required suspending many economic activities.
More importantly, it became evident that the question of what economic activity is actually ‘relevant to the system’ was, in stark contrast to the financial crisis of 2009, not a matter of abstract exchange value, but of its actual usefulness to people’s real needs. In this limited sense, governments found themselves forced to enact, for a limited time and in a warped sense involving a lot of hardship for many people, an ecosocial transformation at the expense of capital’s abstract logic. This may, if nothing else, at least foster a sense that such a thing is possible, and that solutions to the larger crisis that impends in the decades to come may, after all, benefit from some of the experiences people are making now.
But the pandemic is also an acute test for the intense struggles likely to unfold around post-fossil transformations. The analysis presented here suggests that if technological solutions to the climate emergency become less and less likely in coming years, the result may be a split of the liberal-escalatory camp, and a long-term realignment of the whole landscape according to a more polarised pattern between an ecosocial and an authoritarian pole. The question in the affluent societies of Europe will then be what solutions will prevail: Human and social ones built on a mentality of care and a consciousness of vulnerability and dependence – or identitarian and exclusive ones that rest on denial, ruthless pursuit of self-interest. and continuing externalisation of negative effects.
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