Humanity faces a critical moment in world history. New thinking on sustainability, justice and politics of climate change is inevitable. Postsecular politics of hope, combining unity in diversity with radical difference, would focus the needs of ordinary people, not elite segments or privileged groups.
A radical affordable housing policy involving community self-build and passivhaus energy efficiency, for example, would be a powerful trigger for socially sustainable interventions across countries. Take the Diggers Housing Scheme on the outskirts of Brighton in the UK (Architype architects): a self-build project based on the creativity, skills and active involvement of ordinary people. Social and environmental sensitivities in tandem are paramount. Perhaps just the tip of the iceberg. But valuable. There are countless other examples.
Ensuring social justice in environmental change is not gainsaid. Politics matter. Recall Urgenda, the foundation working for a sustainable society that successfully filed the first ever climate liability suit against the Dutch government in 2015. Political action can wake up governments to take their commitment seriously to limiting emissions that lead to climate change. The Trump presidency and his fledgling climate sceptic administration has sparked planned protests and court actions within the global Green movement. As the COP22 climate talks in Marrakech have drawn to a close, nations pledge to implement the Paris agreement with or without the US while urging Trump and colleagues to support proposals for the sake of humanity. Things are much headier now; the cranking up of hostilities between Standing Rock protestors and the authorities over the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrates the situation so well. Radical action should end these injustices and prevent similar elsewhere.
Despite Trump’s recent U-turn it’s clear that grave questions remain over the likely US stance towards climate change in the years to come. The most pressing challenges facing global politics are rising inequality and injustice, and global warming. For the French macro-economist Thomas Piketty these massive problems need to be dealt with together. International treaties are required to advance a new conception of fair and just sustainable development world-wide.
Seeing climate change and wider sustainability as intrinsically social and political is not new. The context has shifted though. Social and environment justice are back at the forefront. The enlightened city agenda conceives a new interelation between a progressive postsecular politics of hope and radical difference where social justice ambitions are centre stage. The approach actively integrates social and environmental sustainability, with insights and spirit of social and political ecology of thinkers like Murray Bookchin, Arturo Escobar and Erik Swyngedouw among others. That way questions of social and environmental sustainability are inextricably wedded to political and ethical issues of radical democratisation, humanisation of governance and harmonisation of human, social and natural milieux.
Harmonisation would necessitate overcoming the demonising of others based on bigotry, animosity and hatred towards people. “Difference” is perhaps well-understood among social scientists, human geographers and philosophers as those features set together that define an entity over another, thus opposing identity. Radical difference, however, would march beyond arch-relativism, focusing on the political recognition of what unites and binds us (unity in diversity) by virtue of those otherwise distinguishing characteristics. Only on the basis of radical difference enriched with the noble aim of uniting and not dividing can harmony between the human, social and natural worlds be attained.
Within social science and human geography in particular difference refers to socially constructed categories of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability and religious adherence (also intolerance); crucial their boundaries of inclusion and exclusion produced socially and spatially. As David Harvey showed the deepening of social fractures along different, intersectional axes of stratification and difference have served to both fuel and frustrate the articulation of progressive political engagement, for example, in climate change.
The interplay or relational interaction of difference lies at the heart of my understanding of radical difference based on unity in diversity. I am not concerned with identities of difference alone. Rather I’m interested in authentic self and group identification and their mutually constitutive, intersubjective meaning beyond individualism and fragmentation. Here I veer close to Emmanual Levinas’s primacy of ethics from encounter with the “other”: an ethics and humanism of the other, based on the primacy of responsibility and a wisdom of love. A fair and just notion of social and environmental sustainability would be an inclusive, diverse and humane one.
Repeatedly we fail to reach out respectfully to others, and the environment at large, especially in times of crisis. Take the upholding of political-economic regimes of neoliberal austerity that further impoverish people already facing destitution and exclusion; blaming victims for their poverty and homelessness; criminalizing refugees and asylum-seekers for seeking better conditions for their families; racist violence towards “foreigners” and the rise of petty, small-minded and xenophobic nationalisms; demonising all Muslims as terrorists; unacceptable misogyny at home and in the workplace; persistent raping of natural resources, fossil fuel exploitation and climate change denial. The list goes on. How can such tendencies be reversed?
Climate scientist and evangelical christian Dr. Katharine Hayhoe stands against the tide of religious intolerance and climate change denial within swathes of evangelical America. Her ability to reach out across religious communities offers a glimmer of hope. Not all evangelicals are conservatives or white supremacists. Jim Wallis and the Sojourners, and others on the evangelical Left for instance, focus on questions of social justice and the fight for peace. These impulses should be brought into a social and environmental sustainability politics. Dissident and even radical currents should be mobilised within all spiritual, ethical and political groupings. Radical streetwise priests like Abbe Pierre offer models of engagement too. Alex Zanotelli’s “civilisation of tenderness and care”, not merely pacifist rejection of violence and war, but also environmental problems, was powerful in the mani polite allegations in Italy in the 1990s. In the context of trenchant critiques of the Catholic hierarchy and legacies of liberation theology, these ideas have informed Leftist struggles for social harmony, justice and equality in Italy and elsewhere.
A progressive postsecular politics of hope would depend upon the mobilisation of these positive energies. It would require reaching not only across religious difference, but also within and between communities of faith and those of secular, humanist and no-faith; a progressive political pragmatism to capture the zeal of what binds rather than divides. Voting among white, lesser educated males with evangelical christian leanings in deindustrialized zones of middle America and the rustbelt, brought Trump into power. More could be done to build new alliances between otherwise different “others” and focused on sustainability and justice to offer powerful alternatives.
Tremendous barriers sit in the way. Levinas’ philosophical insights, brilliant in themselves, seem rather distant, when one thinks of these terrible experiences depicted daily in news coverage of debilitating violence, terrorism and war devastation. Environmental degradation continues across the globe. Immiseration afflicts the livelihoods of people everywhere. Our Brexit-Trump era of “post-truth” politics, racial stereotypes and prejudices, religious intolerance and gender un-truths has led to populist reaction and political support on a massive scale.
Documentary film-maker Adam Curtis has dared suggest a conspiracy between business corporations, politicians and governments since the 1970s. The combined aim of these players is to simplify “reality” into a contrived or fake world: “hyper-normalisation” via global media corporations and the internet. Underpinning these observations are the more fundamental inequalities of what Antony Loewenstein calls “disaster capitalism”. Management of disasters – emergency relief, incarceration and processing asylum etc. – focuses on financial profit, not people. We are seemingly powerless against these processes of capitalist domination.
I tend to agree with retired academic psychologist, John F. Schumaker. He claims that a largely defunct western capitalist consumer culture as forged a psycho-spiritual crisis that has furnished a demoralised society and not just psychological yearning among individuals. New ways to express existential meaning can take worrying, even dangerous, forms. Little surprise, then, for the rise of misplaced right-wing populist outrage, neo-Nazi white supremacy and the reassertion of climate denial right now.
Belief in the power to overcome these reactionary forces, social relations and trends might verge on the utopian to conservative defenders of a deeply unjust and inhumane status quo. Quite the contrary! Any serious challenge to pervailing social and economic inequalities, injustices and environmental degradation relies on progressive reconnection and engagement with it.
Sustainability politics require new critical impulses for the realisation of an authentic new global order. Progressive postsecular politics of hope, combining unity in diversity with radical difference, would be fraught with difficulties. It would also offer new ideas. Sincere engagement with ordinary people and their needs might then stand a chance.