On crisis, protest, and hope. Commentary on Erik Swyngedouw’s ‘Promises of the political’
Erik Swyngedouw’s work has been influential for my thinking for a long time. His work on scale, on state transformation, on the political and post-political, and particularly on governance-beyond-the-state and urban political ecology have inspired and guided me. I am honored to be invited to this symposium and welcome having a collection of his main works on the political, the environment, and the urban in just one book. To my own surprise, however, rereading the articles turned into book chapters, or their marginally updated versions, left me with more questions than answers this time. They are connected to our current political climate and my own trajectory.
In the summer of 2016 I moved to Calgary, Alberta. Calgary is the financial capital of the fossil fuel industry in Canada. Alberta is a conservative province highly dependant on oil and gas extraction, and responsible for over a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. It has also been in recession since the collapse of oil prices in 2015, and the subsequent job loss has been massive. In this situation, the current Alberta center-left provincial government9, attempts to “micro- and macro-engineer socio-ecological conditions in ways that permit (…) sustaining economic growth indefinitely into the future” (p. 123). Like the federal government, it simultaneously promotes environmental protection, economic growth and international competitiveness. It literally fights for oil pipelines as part of their climate leadership plan, and claims that saving the climate will recquire revenues created by extractive industries (for an analysis see MacLean, 2018; Blue, Rajewicz, Daub, & Yunker, 2018). All this seems fully in line with Swyngedouw’s (see chapter 4 and 5) analysis of sustainability as an empty signifier and climate politics as post-politics (arguments I have also made, see Rosol, Béal, & Mössner, 2017, drawing heavily on his work; see also Rosol, 2013). Contrary to Swyngedouw’s – obviously correct – statement, that “tar sand exploitation and fracking cannot coincide with a climate policy worthy of its name” (p. 124), the Alberta government is suggesting exactly this.
However, despite these attempts to reconcile climate and growth policies in the name of sustainability, there is something about the notion of sustainability in Alberta that still evokes opposition, protest, fear and anger. In other countries, protesters take to the streets to demand government action to fight climate change, currently most notably with the “Fridays for Future” school strikes for climate action. In Alberta, people rally for more pipelines, a proxy for expanded oil sands production, and against the newly introduced carbon tax. Cars bear stickers proclaiming “I love Canadian Oil & Gas”, so does my grocery cashier. Gaining significant media attention, the day I started writing this commentary (in February 2019), a convoy of over 150 heavy trucks left for Ottawa to demand more government action to support the oil and gas sector.10 Surely, not the whole of Alberta thinks this way, but a majority does, not least because the social question of an energy transition of that scale is scarcely addressed and yet alone resolved. In any case, in Alberta, climate politics are certainly not “relegated to a terrain beyond dispute, to ones that do not permit dissensus or disagreement” (p. 95). Nor, it seems, is “scientific expertise (…) the foundation and guarantee for properly constituted politics/policies” (p. 95), but rather the uncontested striving for economic growth and competitiveness that subordinates all other concerns, including climate change and the environment. In this situation, Erik’s dismissal of resistance and activism (p. 57), and perhaps even expertize, urgency and the term “crisis” (p. 96–97) offers little help and appears somewhat cynical. As Rebecca Solnit reminds us, citing the Bulgarian writer Maria Popova: “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism” (Solnit, 2016, p. xiv).11
Previously, I had read Erik’s writings on the return of the political thinking of the Gezi protest in Turkey, the 15-M movement in Spain, or other progressive urban rebellions. Reading his book now with those “other” movements in mind was disconcerting, as his theory does not seem to account sufficiently for the difference. Swyngedouw mentions anti-establishment, populist, xenophobic forces in the book, but does not tell us how exactly they fit into his theory developed previously. Do they show the failure of post-politicization, as certainly not all forms of discontent have been eliminated? Are they in fact a reaction to the post-political ways that try to hedge dissent and hide strong normative commitment behind expertize and consensus politics? Or is the turn to consensus politics and the call onto experts itself a reaction to those movements? Either way, isn’t the most important question then, how to transform the outburst of frustration, agitation and anger into something progressive? Can we really assume that as “the ‘repressed’ returns in a range of processes of repolitization that [this] open[s] up potential new trajectories for emancipatory change” (p. 127) – and not equally also for much more reactionary and sinister changes? How apt are his theories for making sense of and for countering the current rise of climate change denial and right-wing populism, of post-truth and hate speech, that play out in our streets and the digital realm of social media, and that seem to contradict his analytical focus on expertize, consensus, and technocratic governance? Do we need to reconsider parts of the theory in the world of today?
To find answers to those questions, perhaps we need to pay much more attention to geographical difference than the book currently does. Swyngedouw certainly refers to examples of urban uprisings in the book, but does not go into detail. Also concerning how to achieve a more egalitarian and democratic socio-ecological configuration, we learn very little. It may have been useful if the rather abstract thoughts laid out in the book had been substantiated by referring to cases in very specific historical-geographical settings, simultaneously developing the case analysis and the theory. This would not only have been a great addition to already published work, but would also make his highly complex theoretical thinking more accessible and more convincing to people who are new to these ideas.
Overall, the book comprises a fine collection of Swyngedouw’s thought-provoking writings. It forces us to re-think certain assumptions concerning urban and environmental politics, asking “the politically sensitive, but vital, question as to what kind of socio-ecological arrangements and assemblages we wish to produce, how this can be achieved, and what sort of environments we wish to inhabit” (p. 84). The book also serves as an important reminder that for many people the socio-ecological catastrophe is already a reality. In the final chapter that explores the communist hypothesis, Erik thus demands that instead of focusing on technological fixes we work collectively for the “egalitarian and democratic production of socio-ecological commons” (p. 164), connecting the environmental question with those of democracy, of the social, and the economy. His critique of universalization, of populist tactics and managerial-technological “solutions” that go against this task, and his call for politicizing both the environment and the urban, is certainly as relevant as ever. Radical critique and critical questions alone, however, will not suffice. We also need hope that our actions actually may influence the outcomes. For Solnit, such hope is not some unfounded optimism, in itself an excuse not to act, but “locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spacious of uncertainty is room to act” (Solnit, 2016, p. xiv).
Marit Rosol University of Calgary
Blue, Gwendolyn, Rajewicz, Lise, Daub, Shannon, & Yunker, Zoë. (2018). In the corporate interest: Fossil fuel industry input into Alberta and British Columbia’s climate leadership plans. Canadian Journal of Communication, 43(1), 93–110. doi:10.22230/cjc.2018v43n1a3309
CASIS Vancouver. (2019). Yellow vests, right-wing extremism and the threat to Canadian democracy. The Journal of Intelligence, Conflict, and Warfare, 1(3).
MacLean, Jason. (2018). Paris and pipelines? Canada’s Climate Policy Puzzle. Journal of Environmental Law and Practice, 32(1), 47–74.
Rosol, Marit. (2013). Vancouver’s “EcoDensity” planning initiative: A struggle over hegemony? Urban Studies, 50(11), 2238–2255. doi:10.1177/0042098013478233
Rosol, Marit, Béal, Vincent, & Mössner, Samuel. (2017). Greenest cities? The (post-)politics of new urban environmental regimes. Environment and Planning A, 49(8), 1710–1718. doi:10.1177/0308518X17714843.
Solnit, Rebecca. (2016). Hope in the dark. Untold histories, wild possibilities (Third edition with a new foreword and afterword ed). Chicago: Haymarket Books.