You Can’t Individualise Climate Crisis

The Tories justified austerity by saying we were all responsible for a crisis actually caused by elites. They’re doing the same with climate change – and we can’t fall for it.

The French Fire in California this year burned almost 15,000 acres. Credit: Getty Images

Let’s start with a given: the climate crisis is terrifying. It is a slow apocalypse. Even if CO2 emissions stopped tomorrow, we have irrevocably reshaped the world. We know they won’t stop tomorrow, though, and that we are still running head-first into this catastrophe. The near-indescribable emotions that come with this can leave us so caught in our personal hells that our awareness of others is diminished.

But this unspeakable terror and grief is also accompanied by the desire to understand. It is crucial that the sense that we make of this crisis points the blame in the right place: in the structures, corporations, and leaders that have knowingly decimated our ecosystems to ensure their stock prices rise. Holding the right people responsible is not a given, and the UK’s recent past shows that neoliberalism always seeks to obscure structural responsibility and force the burden of social progress onto individuals.

When the Tories brought austerity to Downing Street in 2010 there was a political problem to be overcome: how do you get people to consent to suffer an economic crisis caused by the wealthy? The remarkable, though unsurprising, answer is that you make them feel responsible.

The mantra is that everything is individual. From Thatcherism to the New Labour years, this mantra was present, but it was put on steroids when the Conservatives came to power in 2015. So if something goes wrong, it’s clear who is to blame: the individual. Me, you, everyone.

Until 2015, this worked pretty well. Left street movements were historically weak, the Left had no real parliamentary voice, and unions were on the defensive. There were comparisons drawn between national debt and household budgets on the six o’clock news, and millionaire ministers held straight faces while telling the starving to tighten their belts.

To meaningfully fight the climate crisis, we can’t fall for this trick again.

We are in danger of repeating these mistakes, designating every individual a guilty party committing sins that must be repented. What must be made clear, both intellectually and emotionally, is that our individual best intentions are limited by the systemic nature of the climate crisis.

We can all put things in our recycling box, but if the outsourced company processing waste decides to incinerate it in pursuit of profit, then as individuals, there is nothing to be done. We’ve seen the prodigious rate at which popular vegan alternatives have been grown and harvested so that they have decimated local ecosystems and impoverished farmers along the way. Intention without power is often little more than window dressing.

This, though, is the intellectualising of the recognition that responsibility is not shared, and that systemic change is what counts. The far more difficult prospect, as we found through the responsibilisation of austerity, is changing hearts as well as minds.

Anxiety into Action

We are witnessing rapidly increasing climate anxiety, evidenced by polls, by the emergence of individual therapies based on the fears of climate change, and by apocalyptic drawings of the future drawn by children. The climate crisis, the end of a world if not the world, is an almost incomprehensibly large idea to process. This produces two major dangers for movements that rely on mass participation in order to overcome the system that is killing us and the planet we inhabit.

The first is fatalism: the sense that there is nothing to be done, and the subsequent repression of this anxiety. This response acts as a solution not for the climate crisis itself but rather for an individual’s agony over it. The second is an internalisation—not necessarily of being the cause of the climate crisis, but rather of the emotions that come with it; the sense that it is one’s own mental health, and no one else’s.

To miss the opportunity to change this risks widespread apathy as well as the scapegoating of migrants that will, unchecked, surely only increase as large parts of the world become increasingly uninhabitable. It is crucial that spaces are fostered and programmes are expanded to pursue an alternative to either of these two reactions.

Messed Over, not Messed Up

The alternative lies in consciousness raising, not individually but collectively. Instead of being subject to the tos and fros of the structures around us, we should seek to take what is inside us and project it outwards, striking a blow against internalisation and fatalism.

A good starting point is feminist Carol Hanisch’s article ‘The Personal is the Political’. What is sorely overlooked is Hanisch’s declaration that women are ‘messed over not messed up’. This is the quote that locates responsibility for suffering—that overcomes the pressure put on by capitalism to find individual solutions to collective problems. Instead, it lays the groundwork to build collective solutions to clearly collective problems.

The mechanism for these insights were women’s consciousness-raising groups. We must find an analogous method to raise consciousness and collectivity about the climate crisis.

In a collective space shared with those in a position similar to you, you are able to recognise others in you and you in them—not on an intellectual level but at the level of truly felt emotion. Such a space provides the courage and conviction that we need in this moment of climate crisis to say we have been messed over—we have not messed up. It is only through the acknowledgement of climate anxiety and through interactions with others, feeling it as a collective problem, that we are in a position to become determined and not be disheartened by the challenges that we face.

I don’t have the answer to what this looks like. Attempts to do it will be laden with false starts and missteps, but all this highlights is the urgency of pursuing it. Across social movements and trade unions, it must become a vital project for the years ahead.