This class introduces crisis theory in the context of global environmental politics. We begin by examining a growing crisis in thought related to changing global conditions through a thought experiment put forward by the philosopher, Tim Mulgan in Ethics for a Broken World: Imagining Philosophy after Catastrophe (2011). We build an analytic lens from Mulgan’s text to examine politics and political decision-making across the globe through ethnographic sources speaking to the lived experience of people in relation to political infrastructure. Thus, we are less concerned with the globality of environmental change and more interested in the particularities of people and how they live in relation to their habitats.
Mulgan introduces climate change as problemata and we will explore the sets of issues presented to social, political and ethical orders by considering the material assumptions embedded within what is traditionally taken as ‘liberalism.’ That is, the sets of philosophical positions and characteristics shared by thinkers of the European Enlightenments that have, in part, set the cognitive groundwork for the ascendance of modernity. Modernity, here, is more than a word and denotes a specific historical epoch in global development and speaks to the political, social, economic, cultural and philosophical attitudes spread by European imperial expansion and Anglo-American ‘nation-building’ projects. Thus, the empirical sources we consider are grounded in colonial, post- and anti-colonial studies as we consider the material legacies of colonization the world-over.
Broken World Conditions and the Age of Affluence:
‘Modernity’ as a project was guided by a set of political imaginaries and some readers may be familiar with Benedict Anderson’s classic, Imagined Communities (1983). Mulgan questions and problematizes the nation-state and nationalism as formations through his Broken World thought experiment and we’ll see how nation-building has and animates environmental effects such that the everyday lives of some subjects are shaped by those activities biopolitically. At bottom, this course is about identifying and considering political possibilities for a more habitable planet through socio-political organization that can avoid the scenario put forward by Mulgan. As he identifies, philosophy, political and social thought, need new guidance if broken futures are to be avoided and this course attempts to diagnose and characterize political-environmental dynamics leading to them. From Mulgan and, in week 2, Timothy W. Luke, we’ll fashion a way of analyzing our texts to build a framework for identifying and understanding dynamics we’ll call ‘Broken World Politics.’ I hope that by identifying problematic thinking we can create better patterns of behavior for a shared planet and an increasingly globalized world. Failure to do so, if Mulgan is correct, could exacerbate crises in political decision-making as the inherited registers of liberal reason crumble under the material weight of a changing planet.
Mulgan’s book is one long thought experiment. A thought experiment is a device used by philosophers – typically of the analytic tradition mentioned by Mulgan – in order to ‘test’ concepts. In other words, thought experiments are meant to subject a pattern to thinking to different conceptual scenarios to see if the concepts under discussion still hold weight. This is a style of inquiry relying on probing intuitions, meanings and definitions of words that philosophers use to sort through their worlds. In Mulgan’s case, he is subjecting classical liberal thought to a thought experiment he calls the ‘Broken World.’ You’ll see throughout the text that he is taking some of the best arguments liberalism has for justifying its moral and political orders and questioning whether those justifications still hold water after he runs them through his broken world thought experiment. Out of these series of analyses, running from the libertarian thought of Robert Nozick to egalitarian deliberative democracy, he arrives at a few conclusions worth mentioning: (1) liberal thought has traditionally relied on favorable material conditions to stabilize its concepts and guide inference; (2) climate change presents a challenge to liberalism in that its traditional moral registers cannot adequately deal with environmental extremes and changing material conditions; (3) falling out of the above: it is necessary to rethink current socio-environmental relationships if Broken Futures are to be avoided. Crucially, Mulgan understands that the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ are not distinct realms of action and are intimately related – if not one and the same time-space. I expound Mulgan’s thinking below taking the relevant chapters in turn to discuss how we will fashion a political analytic lens from Mulgan’s discussion of commonly found moral philosophy.
Ethics for a Broken World begins with an imagined course on philosophy taught in a near future – 50-100 years from the present as Mulgan says – examining philosophical thought from an historical perspective. Mulgan juxtaposes two timelines throughout the discussion, one from the imagined future and another speaking to the historical contexts of the philosophy and philosophers under discussion in his imagined class. The timelines constitute two different worlds, the world from which he speaks is called ‘the Broken World’ and the world of those he examines is the ‘Age of Affluence.’ Working back and forth between these timelines, Mulgan questions the material assumptions inherent in liberal philosophy and counterpoises his imagined future to draw out those material assumptions through the philosophical negative of ‘the Broken World.’ In other words, given the assumptions in liberal thought, how would liberalism, as ethical and political philosophy work if those assumptions were removed, changed or called into question?
The Broken World is imagined as a material negative to the Age of Affluence in that it assumes a few key differences in global material conditions more adequately reflective of global change projections. Specifically, the Broken World is characterized by Mulgan as: (1) Absolutely broken, (2) broken relative to its own past, and (3) broken relative to its own future (Mulgan, 2011. 11-12). By ‘absolutely broken’, Mulgan means that it is impossible, in the Broken World, to satisfy all basic needs. By needs he means the minimum conditions for a satisfying life such as food, clean air, clothing, shelter, clean water, and meaningful social relationships like work and family. Discussing conceptions of justice through David Hume and John Rawls he writes “For the affluent mind, justice arose when all needs could be met, and it dealt with the allocation of resources beyond that minimum point…Our broken world is not one of ‘moderate scarcity’ in this benign sense. Hume’s circumstances of justice no longer apply” (Mulgan, 2011. 15.). He goes on to explain that his Broken World scenario may have to adjust the notion of justice to fit its material conditions and while affluent philosophy understood the world as characterized under conditions of moderate scarcity – everyone potentially leading a satisfying life – the Broken World is conditioned by extreme scarcity shifting the register of justice from satisfaction to survival: “But perhaps a just society is one that fairly protects everyone’s needs as far as possible. Equal chances to survive might replace guaranteed survival as the minimum requirement of justice…In the transition from affluence to brokenness, humanity moved from moderate scarcity (where all needs can be met) to extreme scarcity (where they cannot) (Mulgan, 2011. 15).” That is what he means by the Broken World as absolutely broken.
Speaking in the temporal register as the imagined professor delivering a lecture in a broken world, Mulgan questions whether justice as conceived through basic liberties could survive changing and extreme conditions. “We do not enjoy favorable conditions. We cannot meet all basic needs while respecting basic liberties. Indeed, our world is more broken than that, as we cannot meet all basic needs at all (Mulgan, 2011. 11).” Calling liberty into question through his thought experiment, Mulgan is at lengths to describe how those living within a broken world might create procedures for identifying what is just and thus manufacture governing legitimacy. Legitimacy in the Broken World, however, is about survival and Mulgan’s scenario argues that his future societies would have survival lotteries as a means for manufacturing governing legitimacy and social reproduction. This would, he notes, fly in the face of traditionally liberal conceptions of justice “We see this conceptual shift most clearly with the survival lottery. Affluent people saw the protection of innocent life as a primary function of any just state, and believed that a state that threatens my life has no claim on my loyalty. So they would regard any survival lottery as unjust (Mulgan, 2011. 15).” This conceptual shift in justice, he believes, would be predicated on a group’s ability to survive conditions of extreme scarcity and because a survival lottery demands the self-sacrifice of an individual for the collective, or state, it is incapable of guaranteeing survival for all but can compel individual sacrifice liberalism would find repugnant. In this way, a survival lottery elevates the collective over the individual as the site of moral and ethical veridiction, and this shift in justice, Mulgan imagines, is largely because of unpredictable and constantly shifting weather and climatic conditions.
Drawing from projections about global change Mulgan conceives the Broken World as one that creates the need for survival lotteries through population bottlenecks. This is the condition he stipulates that the future within the Broken World is also broken “We also know that, whatever we do, our descendants cannot hope to enjoy even the quality of life we ourselves take for granted (Mulgan, 2011. 11.).” This introduces the problem of future people central to Mulgan’s thought experiment. Beyond the Broken World he imagines, Mulgan questions how ethical decisions could be made within seriously deteriorating environmental conditions such that future people are taken into account and would, possibly, find the decisions of the past ethically satisfactory in their present. He continues “This is partly due to natural causes: the climate is becoming more unpredictable, sea levels continue to rise and the world becomes ever hotter. But it is also due to our collective social failings. Although we show greater concern for our descendants than affluent people did, we still tend to keep a disproportionate share of resources for ourselves, sacrificing our descendants to save our contemporaries (Mulgan, 2011. 11.).” Bottlenecks, he imagines, are an ongoing feature of the Broken World and necessitate tough decisions about who will pass through the next bottle-neck and who must sacrifice themselves for the good of ‘society.’
Contrasting his Broken World scenario with some historical and anthropological examples, Mulgan discusses the scale of the Broken World as he imagines it. Using the perhaps archaic and insensitive exonym, ‘Eskimo’ he elaborates his Broken World:
Material uncertainty conditions decision-making in the Broken World and ethics, he imagines, must incorporate and understand uncertainty as a feature of life to guide further social and political development. This not only concerns future decisions for Broken World governance but serves as a critical foil for understanding the stakes of Broken World Politics. In other words, the task of Ethics for a Broken World is to introduce the notion of future generations into a functioning calculational ethical framework that takes seriously material assumptions in thought “This book asks how the central themes and questions of political philosophy might change if we were living in a broken world: a place where resources are insufficient to meet everyone’s basic needs, where a chaotic climate makes life precarious and where each generation is worse off than the last (Mulgan, 2011. ix.).”
Conditions of extreme scarcity, unpredictable and ‘unfavorable’ conditions as he calls them, means that observers and subjects in the Broken World live with the knowledge that they will never have a relatively stable climate or favorable planetary conditions again. This is what Mulgan means when he says that the world is broken relative to its own past: “We know that, whatever we do, we cannot enjoy the quality of life taken for granted by our affluent ancestors (Mulgan, 2011. 11.).” Using the Broken World as a foil, Mulgan characterizes the Age of Affluence – our age and earlier (just after John Locke and somewhere around the very earliest days of the Great Acceleration) – as both ‘naturally abundant’ and ‘socially affluent’ (Mulgan, 2011. 2.) and contrasts this with the Broken World to exhume some of liberalism’s deeper assumptions and tendencies. Importantly, the assumptions he examines would, if his thought experiment were to become a reality, change, adapt or perish under Broken World Conditions. Affluence, here, is an age of relative planetary stability and he draws out some of the thinking that characterizes it. Below I explore Mulgan’s remarks on the age of Affluence and some features of affluent thought that he thinks must change under Broken World Conditions.
Affluent Philosophy and Broken Futures:
For our course we need to recognize that two general conditions characterize how thought proceeds and has proceeded in Euro-American thought, particularly Enlightenment thinking. As Mulgan notes, we’re considering ideological evolution over 2000 years worth of history that occurred mostly West of present-day Istanbul, Turkey. He might be dating Plato, or Aristotle as the beginning of that ideological evolution, but he’s careful to mention that Affluent philosophy pretty much forgot all of Chinese and Indian, possibly African, or Meso- and South American, possibly First Nations and Native American, as well as other groups whose thinking has gone unrecorded, smashed to pieces, stolen, assimilated, or ignored. Giving ideological and philosophical evolution a definitive start point is tricky for a number of reasons, but, as he is writing in the domain of the Occidental canon, 2,000 is a reasonably good number for dating that history, if but too small. The Age of Affluence that Mulgan discusses is really anchored in thought emerging from the European Enlightenment, given life under the age of exploration, mercantilism, and embodied within Euro-American political institutions. Though some philosophers enjoy claiming that they are wholly objective in their thinking, Mulgan notices that material assumptions are often smuggled into thought masquerading as if from on high, or, as some have called it, the view from nowhere. Mulgan’s imagined professor remarks “Like any group of human thinkers, the philosophers of the affluent age were shaped by their natural and social environment (Mulgan, 2011. 5). In other words, try as they might, the philosopher is loosely a product of their times and often speaks back to that context without overtly recognizing they’re doing so. In many ways this looks like Mulgan is speaking to systemic tendencies within thought guided by unquestioned material assumptions underwriting it. Contrasting his thought experiment with the Affluent Age Mulgan writes “The philosophers we shall be studying took it for granted that everyone can survive. In their societies this was, for a time, not an unreasonable assumption. Our biggest challenge in this course is to imagine a social world dovid of survival bottlenecks and survival lotteries, a world where basic needs of all can always be reliably met for the foreseeable future (Mulgan, 2011, 5.).”
Apart from his offhanded moralizing of industrial consumerism, Mulgan takes aim at a few features of our world that would no longer hold in Broken World conditions. Natural abundance in Mulgan’s thinking refers to the availability of resources and climatic stability “In the words of the affluent philosopher, John Rawls, affluent societies enjoyed favorable conditions: a situation of such abundance that all basic needs could be met without any compromise to basic liberties…its most striking ongoing feature would be a stable climate. Despite a few fluctuations, weather patterns and seasonal variations were remarkably constant giving rise to a level of agricultural planning that is unimaginable today (Mulgan, 2011. 2-3).” Later we see his employment of these conditions to question the moral legitimacy of the nation-state as a socio-political formation seating thought with material conditions and speculating about their interaction:
Mulgan makes reference to Robert Nozick, commonly considered a pinnacle in contemporary libertarian philosophy, and points to the nation-state as an ethical-political formation. Importantly, for Mulgan, the nation-state does not exist in the Broken World having failed to ground its moral legitimacy in changing global conditions (Mulgan, 2011. 3) even on Nozick’s account of individual freedom and moral responsibility. This is seen starkly in Mulgan’s thoughts about water “In our own day, of course, water has become the primary source of territorial friction. The ownership of water has always been a philosophical and practical puzzle (Mulgan, 2011. 73.).”
Subjecting the nation-state as a formation to John Locke’s proviso of just acquisition of resources “I can justly acquire only if I leave enough and as good for others (Mulgan, 2011. 47.),” Mulgan writes “The national analogue of Locke’s proviso seems impossible to apply…Prosperous affluent nations argued that, although they failed to leave enough and as good for others, the system of national rights was legitimate because it left everyone better off (Mulgan, 2011. 73).” As Broken World conditions are continually changing and deteriorating, Mulgan thinks that a Broken World ethics could not and world not include ‘the nation-state’ as a moral-political formation as resources and resource distribution are subjected to another libertarian proviso – Nozick’s proviso: “I can acquire an unowned resource only if I leave others no worse-off than they would otherwise have been (Mulgan, 2011. 49).” This proviso grounds libertarian appeals to the institution of private property which Mulgan claims is characteristic of affluent, liberal thought. Water, in this regard, presents a problem for nation-states conceived as territorial sovereigns that own resources “Imagine a world where each nation has its own waterhole. Initially, water is plentiful. Then some dry up. Nozick would have said that those who still possess functioning water holes must share (Mulgan, 2011. 74).” Mulgan speculates that this scenario is eventually what breaks the nation-state’s back as a socio-political phenomenon “As the descendants of an affluent nation struggle to survive in some comparably less broken part of the world, refugees arrive from an uninhabitable land: perhaps a Pacific atoll sunk beneath the waves, or an African desert that is simply too hot to bear. (Mulgan, 2011. 75).” The pressures placed upon the nation-state in increasingly breaking worlds exposes it as an outmoded formation assuming moderate scarcity among nations but not extremes driving populational migrations and displacements “These refugees – sadly not imaginary – had a point. In fact, it was claims like theirs that finally overwhelmed the nation-state system and destroyed its moral credibility (Mulgan, 2011. 76).”
Social Affluence is the second primary condition of the Affluent Age and discusses the political and ethical assumptions derived from conditions of natural abundance. Social affluence speaks to the functioning institutions regulating socio-political life and creating civilizational continuity. For Mulgan, this condition is tied intimately to the nation-state as a globally dominant political institution, the conditions those institutions create and the relative guarantees of the social contract tradition for a functioning democracy and good life. Taking ‘capitalist liberal democracy’ as the zenith of Affluent political-social development, Mulgan uses the rest of the book to question how its institutions would function, or could survive in a Broken World. Specifically, Mulgan questions whether the discourse of progress is even possible given Broken World conditions going as far as to question the ability of technology to solve extreme climatic catastrophe while noticing inequality among nation-states of the Affluent Age “It was assumed that economic growth was always both possible and desirable, that production could increase without limit and that any natural obstacles would always be overcome by technological innovation. Although some philosophers emphasized the importance of equality, it appears from the historical record that enormous inequalities in material prosperity were accepted within every affluent society, as the price of affluence itself (Mulgan, 2011. 4.).” We will see throughout this class that technology often fails to solve problems if that technological deployment fails to understand the problems it is attempting to solve. Often a technological introduction can complicate an already failing system and the nation-state may be another outmoded technology of social, political, ethical, and, as we’ll see, environmental organization.
Returning to the social contract tradition is a prudent move for understanding how political-social organization might need to change if climate projections are as bad as they seem. Mulgan takes Thomas Hobbes and John Locke as his interlocutors later in the book and subjects both to his Broken World thought experiment. Mulgan, thus, takes aim at the institution of sovereignty and then property by discussing Hobbes and Locke in turn. The Broken World’s material conditions may not allow for a Hobbesian sovereign to form as subjects within deteriorating conditions may recognize that the Sovereign can and will sacrifice each and any of its subjects to maintain power in an increasingly difficult and uncertain world. Juxtaposing Hobbes’ infamous ‘state of nature’ with the Broken World, Mulgan concludes:
Manufactured scarcity is an important concept above and within our course as it speaks to how commodities can be made scarce and, in effect, disobey Say’s Law and fly in the face of supply and demand. Importantly, researchers such as Timothy Mitchell have shown the manufacture of artificial scarcity in industries, such as fossil fuels, that will inflate prices (they say they attempt to stabilize them) by wasting and burning product in practices such as flaring, venting, and wars (See Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, 2011). This is an attempt to make something more valuable by openly choking supplies regardless of its abundance. We’ll see this dynamic throughout the course and one should keep a close eye for it.
The crux for Hobbes’ Sovereign in a Broken World is convincing others to join it and cede their power to it while those subjects know their lives could be threatened through a survival lottery:
Some societies have practiced ritualistic suicide as a mode of survival, but this notion disrupts liberal ideas of self-ownership as the collective is elevated above the individual’s life. As we see below, the quote above holds implications for imagining a future with property and democracy.
Complicating things further for the Social contract tradition, Mulgan imagines Locke in a Broken World “In Locke’s state of nature, everyone has sufficient resources for a pretty good life,” this is because, as Mulgan points out, Locke did not think humans would willfully create artificial scarcities, but “This is not possible in a broken world (Mulgan, 2011. 158.).” Mulgan throws out Locke’s state of nature as a possible scenario to ground property relations in the broken world and private property, as an institution, may be challenged under those conditions “The problem lies in Locke’s account of property. We have already seen the difficulties a broken world would create for Nozick, whose account is similar. In a broken world, people cannot justly acquire Lockean property rights, because they cannot obey Locke’s proviso. No one can leave enough and as good for others (Mulgan, 2011. 158).” This is due to resource scarcities, population bottlenecks and survival lotteries that Mulgan thinks will characterize governance in a broken world “Locke’s original government promised a service and a guarantee. It would resolve disputes without violating anyone’s property rights. In particular, it would not take anyone’s property without her consent. No government could now guarantee Locke’s original rights (Mulgan, 2011. 158).” As those rights to property are ‘Godgiven’ for Locke, the Broken World presents a serious challenge to the metaphysical and physical assumptions in one of the founding thinkers of liberalism:
Broken World Democracy: A Conclusion
Wrapping up his discussion of Affluent philosophy, Mulgan subjects democracy to an evaluation through his Broken World thought experiment. Interestingly, he lands on democracy being simply a tool for collective organization, decision-making, and, most importantly, as a public way of world-making. His deep point is that while democracy is all fine and good, it primarily fails to consider future persons within decision-making and relies instead on the articulated needs of voters as they find themselves in their present. This creates a reactive form of politics which Mulgan thinks cannot pass muster in the Broken World as that would necessarily leave generations worse off than the one casting the ballots. This is a point about the historical materialism of problems as they arise through socio-political systems and keeping a focus on favorable conditions reveals his point concerning power and shared futures:
The passage above points to how the future is written, in part, through past and present political decisions. As democracy promises equality in shared governance (at least many models are a one person, one vote sort of scheme) it must work toward the enfranchisement of all in collective decision-making. Mulgan identifies a problem when considering democracy in the long run in that future generations must live with the choices made by previous ones.
The present contains the problems of the past and democratic governance ideally aims at legislating all through equal access to power. How this is cashed out, of course, is a matter of the particular democracy one evaluates, but Mulgan considers a few forms including simple majoritarian democracy, deliberative democracy and constitutional democracy. However, in each he finds a similar problem of intergenerational continuity and what he calls “intergenerational despotism. By what right do we impose our view of future rights on future people themselves? Why not let them choose for themselves? Why should each generation be held back by the ‘dead hand of the past’ (Mulgan, 2011. 217.).” Simply, while Mulgan may want to ditch democracy his point is that future situations – i.e. Broken Worlds may arise that under specific forms of democracy may hinder social and moral development “(How would you feel if our distant ancestors, living in the affluent age, had saddled us with a constitution that entrenched one of the theories of justice we have studied in this course?) (Mulgan, 2011. 217.)”. The difficulties of rectifying past decisions based on affluent conditions with increasingly breaking worlds impels us, as democratic subjects, to understand our collective decision-making regarding future generations. As Mulgan states in his last few substantive pages “Democracy was only ever a tool for the people to express their will. It never determined that will. The idea that we hold the resources of the earth in trust for future generations was a very powerful one for many affluent people. They could have applied it to their collective decision-making. Unfortunately for us, and for the future of our world, they did not (Mulgan, 2011. 220.).” We see if Mulgan’s remarks ring true throughout this course. I invite you to play with and revise his thinking when you see necessary. Maybe, just maybe, we can point out times when political decision-making failed to understand its material conditions and the infrastructures supporting life across the planet. Perhaps by doing so we can identify dynamics in a political-environmental present for a better and more just future – one where maybe our institutions aren’t buried, flooded, starved, bombed, or scorched out of existence.