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Can There Be Hope After Copenhagen?

By Javier Sethness

30 December, 2009

“consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite.”
-- Theodor W. Adorno [1]

Is there reason to hope today? Can we say that present reality justifies hope for the amelioration of the human condition and for life on Earth generally considered? It is evident that merely raising such questions could be seen as an absurd undertaking, or perhaps even a dangerous one. For all that, reflection on such questions is decidedly important, as the profundity of the present crisis—indeed, of looming catastrophe—is undeniable, however much it is ignored or dismissed by hegemonic power groups privileged by existing arrangements. If, as Adorno argues, “progress today really does mean simply the prevention and avoidance of total catastrophe” [2], and if our hopes for social life are to be tied at minimum to the prospect of the success of this project, then surely the marked failure of the world’s constituted powers to endorse something approximating a rational response to the specter of catastrophic climate change at the recent Copenhagen summit problematizes the very ground for social hope today.

Writing over twenty-five years ago, Ronald Aronson opens his Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope [3] by considering much the same question. Examining some of the various horrors of the twentieth century—the Nazi genocide of European Jewry, the ‘Soviet Holocaust’ prosecuted by Leninism and Stalinism after 1917, the ‘bourgeois-democratic holocaust’ of the Vietnam War, the dispossession and oppression visited on the Palestinian people by Zionism, and the possibility of human annihilation by means of nuclear warfare—Aronson comes to several conclusions regarding the reasons for the emergence of such social disasters. One commonality he finds to have been central in the perpetuation of several of the disastrous episodes he explores is simply the complicity of social majorities with prevailing reality—the often-remarkable lack of popular resistance to inhuman socio-political projects. Echoing Hannah Arendt’s analysis of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism at points [4], Aronson stresses the importance that repressive ideologies—nationalism, racism, corrupted senses of Hegelianism—have had in legitimizing decidedly illegitimate practices. He laments the failure to date of the historical establishment of anti-authoritarian socialist polities, and he decries the attendant madness into which the powerful of the world have led humanity.

Though his account of modernity is surely often devastating, Aronson insists that the constitution of global society is ultimately the result of human action, and he thus finds hope in the prospect of collective human action aimed at “bring[ing] about survival, peace, and well-being,” at instituting “the peaceable kingdom” against its various enemies. He claims that the enormity of past social disasters need not repeated in the future, if enough people thoughtfully reflect on historical terror and concomitantly engage in action that seeks to prevent its re-occurrence; writing on the threat of nuclear holocaust, he holds out the prospect that humanity “awaken from [its] delusions, as the Nazis never did, to attack the social structures responsible for the impending disaster.”

As helpful as Aronson’s analyses could surely be for the current predicament in which we find ourselves, the relevance of his argument could well be improved today through consideration of a present holocaust he could not have seen coming: that of what Gideon Polya, among others, refers to as climate genocide [5]. It is this dynamic that Sudanese negotiator Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping identified in his comments at the conclusion of the Copenhagen summit on 18 December when he claimed the dominant approaches endorsed by the global powers among the Conference of Parties assembled at Copenhagen—approaches that mandate no binding carbon-reduction trajectory for any society and set no date for the goal of peaking global carbon emissions—to be based on maxims similar to those that “funneled six million people in Europe into furnaces” [6]. Various recent analyses of the likely future average global temperature increases that would follow from existing national and international carbon-reduction commitments claim that such temperatures will rise by at least 3° or even 4° C beyond pre-industrial temperatures by 2100 [7]. According to the findings of British environmental journalist Mark Lynas [8], a world experiencing such average global temperature increases would be marked by various unmitigated horrors: as the Kalahari Desert expands, much of southern Africa would simply be rendered uninhabitable to life; the Amazon rainforest, victim of unprecedented conflagration, would have collapsed; vast swathes of Central America and Australia would be unable to support agricultural production; the Himalayan glaciers, the current source of water for half of existing humanity, would be drastically reduced in size; and the El-Niño Southern Oscillation phenomenon, which Mike Davis finds to have synergized with the onset of Western colonialism in South Asia and Eastern Africa to produce the most devastating famines recorded in human history [9], would come to be a permanent terrestrial reality.

From this, then, it should be clear that the failure of the Copenhagen summit reflects a profound indifference among the powerful of the world toward suffering humanity—a form of coldness, an “inability to identify with others,” that, in Adorno’s view, was instrumental in allowing for the emergence of Auschwitz [10]. Considering the clearly horrendous toll climate change stands to have on human life across the globe, the ease with which premier U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern dismissed the historical responsibility of industrial-capitalist societies for the climate predicament during the Copenhagen talks [11] is in ways reminiscent of Adolf Eichmann’s claim, when facing prosecution for his crimes against European Jewry, that “[r]epentance is for little children” [12]. The radical evil represented by climate change—the 300,000 people who in the present die each year due to the dangerous anthropogenic interference with the world’s atmosphere that has already taken place [13], as well of course as the various horrifying life-negations that global warming stands to visit upon the peoples of Earth—has it seems become banal, in the sense that constituted power finds little reason in the prospect of the mass suffering and death that results from climate change to recognize the present as an emergency necessitating radical action. Instead of such, however, we are left with a pathetic interstate agreement that Di-Aping rightly sees as “devoid of any sense of responsibility or morality” [14], one that centrally features the “antireason of totalitarian capitalism,” which, as Adorno and his colleague Max Horkheimer melancholically observe, “makes the satisfaction of needs impossible and tends toward the extermination of humanity” [15].

If the argument advanced in the above analysis is a rational one, then surely the outlook for humanity today can be considered nothing less than decidedly bleak. Perhaps the only analogous historical situation that we can look to for help is the threat of nuclear war—though it must be said that, even relative to this most extreme of threats to human survival, the present predicament is perhaps bleaker still: barring mechanical failures or mistakes, the prospect of a nuclear-weapons exchange ultimately depends upon human choice at a certain point, whereas the laws of atmospheric physics have no such failsafe mechanisms. The atmosphere, as recently observed on these pages by Andrew Glikson [16], is not “waiting for human decision.” As such, it seems merely to be a matter of time before the world-historical negations of catastrophic climate change set in, unless somehow matters are made radically otherwise desperately soon. Given this, then, we return to the original question: can we have hope today? If so, how? If not, then what exactly are we left with?

To begin, let us consider some of the claims of the famously desperate leftist Max Horkheimer. Writing in the late 1950s, Horkheimer asserts that “[r]adical evil asserts its dominion over all created being everywhere and reaches as far as the sun” [17]. If we inquire into the relevance of this claim to the present, we can surely conclude that radical evil undoubtedly does hold sway—that, as Aronson asserts, “[e]vil […] certainly appears ascendant over the oppositional forces of sanity and humanity” [18]. The world is, in many ways, a “world of horror,” as Horkheimer writes elsewhere [19]; one need only cursorily examine recent statistics on global material poverty or reflect briefly on the prospect of climate genocide to confirm the truth of such a view. Nonetheless, Horkheimer’s assertion here on radical evil seems to be something of an exaggeration, as it rather strangely overlooks the very oppositional forces that Aronson favorably mentions in his account on hope. It is certainly undeniable that anti-systemic movements—the core, perhaps, of what Adorno refers to as a “self-conscious global subject” that must “develop and intervene” if total catastrophe is to be prevented and avoided [20]—can as currently organized and constituted do little to effectively reroute the catastrophic terminus toward which (post)modernity is driving humanity and life on Earth generally considered, but it would be both unfair and counter-productive to deny the existence of subjectivities and practices that would have matters be entirely otherwise.

But I do not wish to close these reflections on so dark a note. The importance of the line with which these thoughts opened is enhanced rather than negated by the prospect of total negation that climate change represents: as Horkheimer writes, in terms similar to those of Adorno, “The concept of the negative […] contains the positive as its opposite” [21]. Throughout his Dialectics of Disaster, Aronson stresses that hope for the victory of ‘the positive’ is to be grounded in the mere fact of resistance to absolute negativity—inhumanity. Arendt herself comes to similar conclusions when she lauds the example of those few social forces that resisted Nazi terror in Europe; she finds in the mere fact of the non-compliance of these actors the very basis for the justification that the Earth “remain a place fit for human habitation” [22].

Unfortunately, however, the most obvious difference between the conditions Arendt concerns herself with in Eichmann in Jerusalem and those that prevail today is that the latter arguably constitute the “final denial of humanity” [23]: if the threat of catastrophic climate change is not somehow removed, that is, “there will be no more human history,” and “all will be lost” [24]. Against the prospect of such world-historical regression, as well as against those forces that perpetuate such while thoughtlessly presenting their projects as promotive of hope, we have the words of Walter Benjamin: “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us” [25]. Perhaps the only practical call that can follow is the slogan Günther Anders conceived of in the 1950s while reflecting on the prospect of humanity’s collective suicide by means of nuclear war [26]: “Imperiled of all lands, unite!”

Javier Sethness, 23, is an educator and libertarian socialist. He currently resides in California, and can be contacted at [email protected].

[1] Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), p. 247.
[2] History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2006), p. 143.
[3] London: Verso, 1983.
[4] The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harvest, 1968 [1948]).
[5] Cf., inter alia, “G8 Failure Means Climate Genocide for Developing World,” Countercurrents, 11 July 2009; see also Polya’s website on the issue (
[6] Qtd. in Simon McGee, “Anger at delegate’s Holocaust jibe against climate deal—as his country shares £62bn bonanza [sic],” The Daily Mail, 20 December 2009.
[7] See Climate Interactive’s Climate Scoreboard ( or Ecofys’s Climate Action Tracker (
[8] Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008), p. 123-181.
[9] Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2002).
[10] Critical Models (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 201.
[11] “U.S. vows sharp CO2 cuts, but will not pay climate ‘reparations,’” Yale Environment 360, 9 December 2009.
[12] Qtd. in Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Penguin, 2006 [1963]), p. 24.
[13] John Vidal, “Global warming causes 300,000 deaths a year, says Kofi Annan thinktank,” The Guardian, 29 May 2009.
[14] McGee, op. cit.
[15] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002 [1944]), p. 43.
[16] “The Atmosphere Is Not Waiting for Human Decision,” Countercurrents, 30 November 2009.
[17] Dawn & Decline: Notes 1926-1931 & 1950-69 (New York: Seabury Press, 1978 [1974]), p. 162.
[18] Op. cit., p. 290.
[19] Horkheimer and Adorno, op. cit., p. 93.
[20] Op. cit. (2005), p. 144.
[21] Op. cit., p. 236.
[22] Op. cit. (2006 [1963]), p. 233.
[23] Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (London: Verso, 1990 [1988]), p. 39.
[24] Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies (London: Athlone, 2000), p. 68; Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings (London: Verso, 1997), p. 80.
[25] Qtd. in Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1964), p. 257.
[26] Hiroshima ist überall (Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck, 1982), p. 381

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