Conversations with Suzi Gablik – Living in wartime.

29 Apr 2017 james


I’ve recently returned from a visit to my friend and mentor, Suzi Gablik, in Virginia, USA.

She has been an inspiration to so many over the past 33 years since the publication of ‘Has Modernism Failed’, and later her book ‘Conversations Before The End of Time‘. Her work harnessed an ecological sensibility in the arts and culture, and has been key for Platform and numerous others. Into her eighty-second year, her sight is failing now, but her mind is crystal clear and her soul is as bold as ever.

We spent eight days discussing the nature of these times, the conversation twisting this way and that as we delved deeper into the bleakness of the American political scene and the possibilities of hope. Again and again we came back to the sense that we are at a paradigm shift, in the manner that Thomas Kuhn proposed.

A paradigm shift is a point where the entire culture goes through a pivot, and all that was once certain becomes uncertain. A point that calls into question every level of life, from the economic sphere to the political sphere, from the ecological sphere to the personal sphere. We asked: how should we ‘be’ in days like these? What does a ‘good life’ mean? What does ‘virtue’, mean in days like these?

Suzi rails against Trump and all that he represents. The actions of his Administration are volatile and unpredictable, at times even contradictory and self-defeating. They have the common thread of sowing chaos at every turn. They seem to echo the much-reported views of Trump’s Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, who embraces disruption and the threat of war. (He may have been demoted, but his presence surely remains.)

We discuss how the chaos in the political realm echoes the chaos in the realm of the climate. The ever-escalating reports of climatic change, from Arctic ice melt to East African famine and floods in Chile, illustrate that the weather systems are out of balance. We know that this energetic unpredictability is the product of the atmosphere being supercharged by carbon dioxide emissions. The more fossil fuels burnt, the greater the climate chaos. Yet these fossil fuels are the foundation of the current economy, the current order of industrial society. This contradiction brings to mind the line by the ruthless French revolutionary, Saint-Just:

‘The present order is the disorder of the future’.

Suzi and I speculate that perhaps the current chaos could be seen as a midwife to something new? That out of the social and political turmoil, maybe a new balance will arise? Indeed if the old balance, the order in which we’ve lived our lives, has created the chaos in the climate, then maybe the only chance of finding a way of being that ceases to destroy the atmosphere is to go through this current turmoil?

The thought of recognising the necessity of the political chaos, of embracing it, can fill us with anxiety. But does it make us any less anxious than remaining on board a ship that is being steadily broken up by the storm?

Andrew Breitbart, Stephen Bannon’s collaborator in right-wing tabloid journalism and the founder of Breitbart News, summed up his position in his 2011 memoir: “The Left wins because it controls the narrative. The narrative is controlled by the media… I am at war to gain back control of the American narrative”.

His lines stand out as a concise summary of the intentions of much of the US Right. They are at war, and they have been so for a long time. Some say it started under the Reagan Administration, some under Clinton, some after 9/11, some under Obama, but nowhere is there any doubt that it is happening. Time and again, as we sat talking, I was struck by the sense that the USA is in a civil war.

The battalions of police at Standing Rock

On the back of our conversations I found myself later heading towards a number of observations.

It seems that a curious aspect of this war is that until recently a whole sector of the public had been blind to the realisation that it too was the target of the Right-wing movement centered on ‘Guns, god and gynaecology’.  This largely falls out along race lines, the US’s oldest struggle, over which the official Civil War was ostensibly fought. From 2012, the Black Lives Matter movement rose up to confront once more the enduring and deathly racism at the heart of the US body politic, at the time under President Obama. It seems that however outraged and active White allies have been, it was possible that some couldn’t imagine that the onslaught from the Right was being waged not just on Black and Brown ‘others’  but also upon them. The ‘Liberal press’ – The New Yorker, the New York Times, The Washington Post and others – seemed only truly to have understood that they too were ‘at war’ in the months leading up to the Presidential Election last November. After the election they awoke to find their house was being shelled. The guns of the Right were up on the ridge, positioned on the Washington heights, aiming at the Liberal centre ground.

The Right has also campaigned on the C Words of ‘Carbon, climate and capital’. This too has been bound up with race.  For decades many in the dominantly White environmental movement responded by saying the forces who promote fossil fuels and attack climate science could be persuaded by rational dialogue, by data, and by expertise. So many of us have worked on the assumption that corporate executives and politicians could be argued out of their ways, that they would see that accepting the science was good for international politics, that there could be a seamless switch to solar and wind with a return on capital guaranteed.

One of of a number of adverts utilised in BP’s ‘Beyond Petroleum’ campaign in 2000

At times it has looked as though this was correct: in 2000, BP announced it was going ‘Beyond Petroleum’ and, like Shell and others, invested in renewables. But since the mid 2000s that phase has faded away. Meanwhile, for over three decades, activists of colour have been consistently organising for just transition in places of oil extraction and refining, such as Movement Generation based in Richmond, California. In parallel, indigenous activists and communities such as those at Standing Rock have put their bodies on the line under the harshest of circumstances, against new oil pipelines that cross sacred land. They have endured freezing weather, violence and abuse from security forces in defence of water, land, spiritual integrity and our climate.

The current US Administration has a fundamental belief in the rightness of its views on White privilege, immigration, abortion and guns. And it holds a similar belief in the sanctity of oil, gas and coal. Behind this article of faith stands the fossil fuels industry. We are well acquainted with the role of the Koch Brothers and ExxonMobil – illustrated by the appointment of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State – but no less powerful, despite being further into the shadows, is the presence of others like BP and Shell. The CEOs of a number of corporations, particularly in the Tech industries, have spoken out against the Trump Administration, whereas Bob Dudley, CEO of BP, and Ben van Beurden, CEO of Shell, have been conspicuous in their silence. Shell and BP have much to gain from an Administration that has shown that it is at war with the ecological justice movement, and that dismisses anthropogenic climate change. Trump has fired the first salvos in that battle with the granting of permission for the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines; with the attack on US climate science research and the UN process; and with the steps to reopen the Alaskan Arctic ocean for oil drilling.

On returning to England, my experience in the States helps me understand more how the war is taking place here. Even with the culture-shock of Brexit, it is easy for some of us to feel that we are set apart from the excessive measures of the Trump Administration. But we’ve been in the American sphere of influence for over a century now, and when that ship of state changes course, we are caught in its wake. What happens there matters here. We should remember that the third largest UK corporation, BP, has more US shareholders than British ones, its CEO is American, and it takes its bearings from Washington far more than from London. Meanwhile, the British Right takes inspiration from its US counterparts, as it does from the Right across Europe. John Redwood MP has described the battle over Brexit as ‘the English Civil War without muskets.’ Aaron Banks, until recently the financier behind UKIP, declared “We won the war”.

If part of the civil war in the USA is over the future of fossil fuels then the same is true for the UK. The struggle that many of us have been involved in since the 1990s is becoming more intense, the battle lines more visible. The war is naked.

With deep thanks to Suzi Gablik and Jane Trowell.

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