Updated: Dec 27, 2021
Right before his Countdown Talk: “Work and Ecology in the Age of Catastrophe”, we sat down with Dr Nick Lawrence to discuss his thoughts on the future of climate change work.
Please note: This interview has been edited for increased clarity and readability. Dr Lawrence’s views are still fully represented.
Your talk is titled "Work and Ecology in the Age of Catastrophe". To you, what defines this ‘Age of Catastrophe?’ How do you differentiate between past moments of crisis and our current moment?
That’s a good question.
So, in some ways, the catastrophe that we're facing is all too obvious. We're in a situation where – as the coverage of COP26 has reminded us – global temperatures are rising far beyond what initially was seen to be the sustainable point. This has triggered a whole cascade of environmental crises in various parts of the world: from wildfires in Australia, California, Siberia, Argentina, to the prevalence of floods and heavy rainfall around areas of both the global south and north, rising sea levels melting polar ice, mass deforestation – the list goes on. It seems that we're sort of galloping towards a kind of climate Armageddon. So catastrophe in that sense.
But also, catastrophe for me signals the terminal endgame that we seem to be facing with regard to our economic arrangements. What may not be as well reported as the frontline issues of the climate crisis are issues that are systemic to the global economy. The ways in which there is persistent underemployment affecting most of the world, the way that the waged economy no longer can absorb the number of workers who need work in order to live, and just how brutalising increasingly work conditions can be – again, which is very different depending where you are in the world but everywhere the screws of work discipline are intensified on workers and this is in some ways a common problem with the environmental crisis. That's my thesis.
Branching off of that – your talk concerns the intersections between economic crisis and ecological crisis. How does the term ‘Capitalocene’ play into this? In your opinion, is it something important that we need to consider in this discussion?
So ‘Capitalocene’ was coined by the Swedish environmental historian Andreas Malm, as a replacement for a better known term, the ‘Anthropocene.’
And just a funny story, when I first heard about TEDxWarwick about seven or eight years ago, its theme that year was the Anthropocene. It was a fairly new word at that time, and I remember seeing a tweet saying, ‘Here's your new word for the day from TEDx Warwick! It's Anthropocene. So come and help us celebrate the impact of humans on the earth. Exclamation point.’ Nowadays, of course, we don't tend to celebrate the human impact on the earth in that cheery way.
But the notion that the Anthropocene signifies a new geological epoch in which humans have decisively altered the earth systems and its future has now, I think, begun to percolate into common sense. Capitalocene shifts the attention from all of us as equally responsible agents for this change to instead the history of capitalism – which has driven this huge increase in CO2 emissions and concentrations in the atmosphere, but also all the various forms of hyper-development: remaking of the world's landscapes under the regime of commodified nature, which is arguably just as important in driving the ecological crisis. So Capitalocene makes a certain amount of sense because it fingers the right agent responsible. It's not any one of us. We're all vastly unequal as a species. But it is the principle of untrammelled growth that is ultimately responsible for what we're seeing.
So yeah, that's how I understand Capitalocene.
Following on from that idea of responsibility – when thinking about the biggest challenges that we're facing in regards to a truly sustainable future, who holds the responsibility for coming up with solutions? Does collectivity come into play here, or should it be particular groups who take on this responsibility?
I just got back from COP26 in Glasgow, and there the decision-making hierarchy was pretty clear. The major governments of the world – those who even bothered to turn up – in the blue zone, were talking exclusively about: ‘how can we get the minerals that we need from the developing world in order to power the green transition.’ It was a fully corporate vision. It had no allowance made to the idea that perhaps ‘green growth’ was in a contradiction in terms. Outside the blue zone, there was a huge number of groups and formations from the world's peoples making a different point, which was that responsibility lies overwhelmingly with historic carbon emitters like the UK, like the United States, the developed global north in fact – but the brunt of the burden of a green transition, and certainly of climate chaos, was being borne by people in the developing world. So the question of responsibility really needs to be refocused. Overwhelmingly, governments in the global north are responsible, but they cannot be making the decisions. This has to be a fully democratic decision-making process in which those who are most affected have a place at the table.
In your co-authored publication “Collectivity and Crisis in the Long Twentieth Century”, it’s mentioned how much of academic work takes place under the pressures of a neoliberalised higher education sector. Are we seeing the same thing with research and work around climate change and sustainability?
There's no question that there's a neoliberal agenda in terms of ‘greening’ economy, ‘greening’ society. At COP26 it was just interesting to see how much signage, conflicting signage, you could read on the streets of Glasgow – companies like BP and Royal Dutch Shell saying ‘we embrace the green revolution’, and then alongside that representatives from tribal peoples of the Amazon and Australia, pointing out that they have already suffered a kind of climate apocalypse and now they're trying to clean up and survive in the aftermath. So there's an almost systemic cognitive dissonance, over this question of what way forward we should be going, and I think there are at least two roads when it comes to a Green New Deal. You can go the corporate road, which will simply be to promote growth in a different, now greener, key or you can promote a radically different way of living on the Earth that doesn't rely on unsustainable growth and exhaustion of the Earth’s resources and our ability to coexist. It's a fairly existential threat we’re facing.
What does the future of work look like to you, particularly in terms of climate change and sustainability work?
A lot of people think that the future of work is going to be a vision of streamlined modernity. So we'll have lots of robots doing formerly menial forms of work that humans used to do, and in some visions we’ll have more leisure – it's hard to believe that now, given how overworked those who have jobs appear to be. But the future of work really needs to be detached from its current basic model, which is, again, feeding this vision of unending growth. When we work, we may be doing useful things in a work capacity, but that's not how our work is seen by the global economy. It's seen as units of value, exchange value, we are producing profit for someone else in most cases. That model is the one that really has to be broken from. If we return to what we really actually need to do, instead of what David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’ – jobs that don't actually accomplish anything meaningful or useful, then we might have a chance at averting both our economic catastrophe but also our ecological one.
Where does your passion and interest in environmental work and world-ecology come from? What inspired the implementation of this in your academic work?
So that's a good question too, because for a long time – and I think this may be true of other people who've been focused on ecological issues in their research recently – I thought of myself as an environmentally-attuned sort of person. I mean, I like walking in nature, I have an allotment, and grow my own vegetables – all those things. That never played a role in how I envisioned my academic work. But then, and I don't think it was ever just one, you know, conversion moment, but I began to see how the two halves of my life mirrored a kind of dualism or division in the way that most people thought about the environment. The environment is always something that's either ‘green’ and to be enjoyed outside your home, or in danger. That's profoundly wrong. Environments are everywhere. You know, our computers are environments, online is an environment, where we are in this building is an environment just as much as the trees that we see through the window. So it’s the need to bring those two things together, if that makes sense, that has driven this particular concern of mine. World ecology for me signals an overcoming of the fundamental dualism between humans and the rest of nature. And I think that's absolutely crucial for our survival.
You're a professor in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department here at Warwick. Should the concept of ecology change our approach to literature? And if so, how?
I believe it should. Ecology at its most basic is about the study of the relationality of everything in a whole – a holistic way of understanding our connections to each other and to the rest of nature. And if that's the case, then that should certainly shape how we think about literary texts and reading literary texts. Rather than treat them as an autonomous field, hived off from other kinds of activity or points of interest, we should be thinking of the way in which texts are entangled with the rest of nature – both in the most literal sense because texts are produced in the world and require the materials of the world in order to come into being, but also in the way that they give us models for thinking about connection within the world.
So I teach literature and ecology, and of course, we look at some famous examples of environmental writing, but we also look at examples of writing that don't seem to have any particular ecological focus, but when you put on the glasses that allow you to see those features, they suddenly come to the surface. We read books that span all the genres – from ghost stories, to horror, to science fiction, as well as so-called straight literary realism – because all of those typically engage with this question of the ecological in their various ways. And I think that should start transforming the way that we think about literary studies more generally.
Transcribed and edited by Alana Gaglio.
The views and opinions presented in this interview belong to Dr Nick Lawrence — not Alana Gaglio, nor TEDxWarwick.
If you have any questions concerning the interview, and opinions expressed, do feel free to comment in the comments section, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.