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A Faustian Bargain with the Climate Crisis

Art by Willy Stöwer | CC BY 2.0

You’re a passenger on the Titanic on its fateful maiden voyage in 1912. As it draws away from the dock at Southampton you get a premonition that things are going to go severely pear-shaped, and that the ship is never going to make it to New York. Maybe you’re an engineer and your spidey senses are telling you that the captain and crew are far too cocky for their own good considering that the ship can only sustain damage to four of the 12 bulkheads. Maybe it’s not anywhere near as unsinkable as the White Star Line are making out in the name of PR hype…

But you don’t say anything because you know what people are like when you try to tell them things they don’t want to hear—they get defensive and shoot the messenger. Why are you being so negative on such a joyous occasion, who pissed in your bucket such that now you have to go and piss in everyone else’s? Maybe you should get some professional help. You know how it goes. So after briefly considering making a fuss and demanding the boat be turned around, or just jumping over the side and swimming back to shore, you sit back and say to yourself, fuck it, I’m in first class, if something happens I’ll get priority for getting off the boat…

But here’s the rub, because what you don’t know is that the White Star Line skimped on the lifeboats because they took up room, and they detracted from the claims about the ship being unsinkable anyway. So, when the ship eventually hits the iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland, you get a nasty shock in discovering just how shit out of luck you really are. When you could have done something, the problem wasn’t a problem, but now that it is it’s too late. It was that damn Faustian bargain you made…

And so the exact same logic goes with the climate crisis. The parallels are obvious; take as our inspiration the temptations of capitalist individualism set before us, we make the exact same bargain. The difference in this case however is that we know the disaster is coming; we don’t even need to worry about what our spidey senses say, 97% of all climate scientists agree that the capitalist mentality that sees the world as an infinite resource and infinite garbage dump is warming the atmosphere. We have even less excuse.

But yet, we still make the bargain, assuming that we won’t be the ones to go under when the shit hits the fan. But borrowing once more from our Titanic metaphor, we assume to know all the parameters from our vantage point of comfort and safety before the full brunt of the problem is upon us. Well maybe some of those poor bastards in those low-lying countries South Asia will cop it when the sea levels rise, and maybe there will be a few islands in the Pacific that might become historical relics, but we in our nice relatively quiet and peaceful middle-class communities will be okay…

We do not need a metaphor in this case to see just how incredibly dangerous and irresponsible this kind of thinking is. Let alone the consequences for weather systems and the food chain, which are already being felt, the wars that have already been fought over hegemony-enabling oil supplies will be accompanied by more like the Syrian conflict, that began in the aftermath of climate-change induced droughts around Mesopotamia. Then there is the movement of refugees to consider, and threats to water and food security…

We are not thinking of such things however when we make such Faustian bargains. We are thinking of our stuff, and we are thinking that we can have our cake and eat it too, though as thinking about the reality of the situation as per the above train of thought rends to demonstrate, we can’t. Furthermore, and as Tyler Durden points out in Fight Club, the things we own end up owning us. Maybe our dependence on conspicuous consumption is part of the problem, our tendency to invest our identity in ownership of things instead of developing and independent value system and learning to figure out what we’re about as individuals.

Maybe part of the problem, to borrow from Baudrillard, is our tendency to try to compensate for our general lack of control over the conditions of our own work and of our own lives more generally by throwing an endless torrent of commodities into the bottomless pits of our alienation. Maybe we have the same kind of relationship with consumerism and consumption that drug addicts have with their chemicals, and fear the pain of giving away our emotional crutches to which we are co-dependently bonded with the same fear that religiously orthodox types envision abandonment by the magic man in the sky.

The irony of course is that, like the passenger on the Titanic assuming that there will be enough lifeboats for everyone, the trust we put in the institutions and the general mentalities associated with global conditions as they currently prevail will be commensurately rewarded. Which is to say that we will be left holding the bag as those who created the problem run headlong in the opposite direction to accepting responsibility for the downward spiral of global society into social and environmental chaos and collapse. Such is the nature of Faustian bargains; if there is no honour amongst thieves, there will certainly be none amongst those who have stolen the future.

But just as in waking up from a nightmare, not least of which being the ones they call the Great American and Great Australian Dreams (George Carlin: there’s a reason they call them that and that’s because you have to be asleep to believe it) there is every moment also an opportunity to choose differently. In every moment, we can choose to think soberly and responsibly, to act like growth has limits, to act like workers, women, people rendered the Oriental Other, the flora, fauna and ultimately the Earth itself are more than mere objects only of value as things that can be exploited for profit.

To reject the Faustian pact of capitalist individualism does not ensure that things will all work out like a Disney movie, but it does mean that they won’t turn out for the worst while we make calculated choices about whose rights, freedoms, wellbeing and ultimately lives are more valuable from our positions of class privilege.

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Ben Debney is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Deakin University, Burwood, Melbourne. He is studying moral panics and the political economy of scapegoating. Twitter: @itesau  

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