Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Peak oil and political theory
Every since I got into the green/sustainability/environmental academic and activist area a frequent question for me - as a 'political theorist' by profession, academic discipline and disposition - has always been what does political theory, theorising about our political situation look like in the context of all the stuff I usually read about such as biodiversity loss, climate change, peak oil, food insecurity, energy insecurity and the geopolitical implications of all of these and more? What do the likes of great contemporary political thinkers such as John Rawls, Jurgen Habermas, Judith Bulter, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and others within the 'political theory canon' have to say to us about these issues? Do they tell us anything? Are they the temporary product of an oil-based civilisation and therefore the foundations and principles upon which they are build and their main concerns (their particular take on justice, identity, group rights, agency, the subject etc.) as shaky and as finite as the fossil fuels which (in part) made them possible in the first place? While of course too crude a way to frame modern political theory, it is a moot question to ask - what use/benefit are these theories if removed from the reality of the situation we are facing? Can they/should they be critiqued for not including more than a cursory discussion of the ecological crisis? Look up the following key words in the index of any contemporary political theory book - ecological, energy, climate change, biodiversity, peak oil, low carbon, thermodynamics - to see how much attention is paid to these pressing concerns? The danger of course, and one that is only too obvious if one were to mechanically follow this logic - is that we would make a standard for judging the usefulness/merit etc of any political theory by how it was grounded in/related to/spoke to the ecological crisis . Is the ecological crisis and the associated energy, climate, resource and food crises - of such import that one could justify this? Have the 'circumstances of justice' (and identity, group rights etc) changed so radically that one can dismiss the vast majority of contemporary political theory as patently 'unfit for purpose'? But is the 'applicability' and 'usefulness' of political theory its only or main criterion? I'm not sure and would hate to see a systematic 'ecological -proofing' of political theory (reminscent of Mao's injunction during the disasterous cultural revolution of forcing intellectuals to work in the fields perhaps - though I do think academics could get their hands dirty a bit more than we do!), BUT...given the 'planetary crisis' we are facing it is an entirely legitimate question to ask 'what is political theory doing to help?'