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Typhoon Haiyan and the Economics of the Spectacle


Those who heard the impassioned plea of the Naderev Saño, head of the Philippines climate delegation at COP19 in Warsaw, could not fail to be moved. The Philippines has been battered by record breaking typhoons twice in the past year. Climate scientists have shown that such extreme weather events are brought on by climate change. The IPCC report earlier this year announced that global concentrations of CO2 emissions had reached 400 ppm. The threshold for catastrophic climate change is 350-450ppm. The paralysis of the international community in relation to the clearly accelerating instability of the global climate is extraordinary. This inability to act is another side effect of the society of the spectacle.

Catastrophic weather events are good news: spectacular images of the fury of nature, scenes of the devastated aftermath, stories of miraculous rescues and tragic losses. These are all great fodder for the media while presenters maintain a veneer of shock and sadness over the loss of life and possessions. This is the paradox of the spectacle. Our fascination with devastation leads to the inability to act in a long term manner to prevent things getting worse.

Resistance to the spectacle of environmental catastrophe has been largely ineffectual at this juncture. Disciplinary powers of social control instituted by the police and military at the behest of the corporate state stymie activism. Greenpeace protestors and two journalists from the ship Arctic Sunrise have been jailed for 57 days in Russia. Some of the activists tried to board Russia’s first Arctic offshore oil rig to hang a banner. They were arrested last month and charged with piracy. This charge was later dropped.

Compare this with the treatment of Edward Snowden. Snowden could play Russia off against the US but the Greenpeace protestors cannot play such strategic political games. They have powerful forces arrayed against them: the oil industry and the authoritarian state. This makes it clear their actions reflect a pure public interest, which is most vulnerable to the forces which want to protect the economic and political status quo regardless of the consequences. The consequences are dire indeed.

The major strategy to address climate change has been through emissions trading schemes and carbon taxes. These programs attempt to include carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into the economy by putting a price on carbon. In their implementation these plans are usually undermined by providing too many subsides to business and excessive numbers of free permits. These programs are inadvertently sabotaged by their own creators so they cannot effectively reduce the production of carbon.

Market-based solutions to climate change are inherently flawed because they play into the social structures of the spectacle. By commodifying the environment it is brought into the social relations of the spectacle where commodities represent an abstraction of the real world and objects lose their inherent meaning. Debord writes,

“The spectacle divides the world into two parts, one of which is held up as a self-representation to the world, and is superior to the world. The spectacle is simply the common language that bridges this division. Spectators are linked only by a one way relationship to the very center that maintains their isolation from one another. The spectacle thus unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its separateness.”

Nevertheless, reality in the form of violent nature intrudes and smashes the abstraction of the spectacle. Wind and waves tear down the urban landscape created to subdue people.

“Urbanism is the modern way of tackling the ongoing need to safeguard class power by ensuring the atomization of workers dangerously massed together by the conditions of urban production.… Such an integration into the system must recapture isolated individuals as individuals isolated together…. where the generalized use of receivers of the spectacle’s message ensures that his isolation is filled with the dominant images that indeed attain their full force only by virtue of this isolation.”

However, the spectacle reclaims the events by presenting the images within the media frames of extraordinary catastrophe, human drama and heroic action. These abstractions command our attention as effectively as TV drama. The abstraction plays out in timeless, non-space which those not directly affected can enter and leave at will, giving the illusion of control.

Joanne Knight writes about the influence of the media on power and politics. She has a Masters in International Relations. Her blog is 

Joanne Knight writes about the influence of the media on power and politics. She has a Masters in International Relations. Her blog is

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