- Integrating Agency with Climate Critique
Time and again, concerned publics have waited powerless as national representatives meet to agree binding emissions reductions, only for all parties to emerge with mere promises of further talking. To invoke Kyoto, Bali, Copenhagen, and most recently, Durban at the end of 2011 is to tell a story of repeated intention, fervently invoked by all sides, but little action. At Durban, a marathon, 60-hour negotiating session led to a dramatic agreement amongst China, India, the United States, France, Sweden, Gambia, Brazil, and Poland—not to act—but to agree the terms legally binding reductions by 2015 and have those terms begin by 2020. Such formal agreements may be productive in their own right, but they don’t cut emissions, and it’s all too easy to imagine six degrees of warming, the melting of the ice caps, floods and diseases, the decimation of populations, ocean acidification and an irreversible extinction event, while we all agree action should take place. Already record-setting weather is the norm, floods have become more frequent, and species have been lost. So too, energy companies, car culture, and economy-obsessed politicians have been all too successful in creating ever more atmospheric pollution. In this immediate context, it would seem that the most urgent question is not whether climate change is uncertain, but how we should understand agency, the will and capacity to act in an era of anthropogenic global warming.
Despite great theoretical diversity, critiques of the politics of climate change have been surprisingly determined by a Marxian account of Capital as the ultimate source of emissions and the underlying logic of the nascent climate regime. This theoretical position mistakes a historical intervention into the market for unbridled neoliberalism. Worse, it has left critics unable to understand the multiple players in climate change politics, human and inhuman, and incapable of articulating practices consistent with reducing emissions. By contrast, a Foucauldian account would suggest that climate change is better understood as a new episteme: climate change certainly describes the contours of contemporary social contests, while the failure to impose an effective cap in emissions could be seen as a sign of insufficient governmentality. Even a Foucauldian model, however, cannot provide a [End Page 221] convincing account of nonhuman forms of agency or how they interrelate with social forces. Building on Andrew Pickering’s model of scientific practice, both human and nonhuman agency are better understood as heterogeneous products of scientific practice. Climate change is then understood as the site of emergence for new forms of agency, encompassing unprecedented storms and ocean currents, diplomatic proposals and Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) reports, and documentaries about climate denial and novels about utopian terraforming. Such a theoretical model frees criticism of the need to purify agency into a single source, social or natural, and suggests that criticism may usefully contribute to a new, Anthropocene age by integrating diverse agents and strengthening governmentality.
Although climate change has been an established matter of concern for scientists and environmental activists since the late 1980s, and there is a detailed scholarly literature from economics, political science, international relations, the public understanding of science, and environmental studies relating to it, literary and cultural criticism has been rather slow to engage with the politics of global warming. Hundreds of novels about climate change have been written during this period, and there is a wide body of work that interprets individual texts, but until very recently, very little research theorized anthropogenic climate change or its meaning in literature (Trexler and Johns-Putra 2011, 185-200). Early critical analyses often focused on the ontological dimensions of climate change, likely in part because its very reality was contested through much of the first decade of the twenty-first century by right-wing political parties, corporate interest groups, and “scientific” deniers. However, neither scientific consensus about climate predictions nor the unprecedented danger of their projections has led to the sudden reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The truth (or resolution of uncertainty) regarding climate change seems to be an insufficient condition for meaningful action. Even so, ecocritical efforts to reform individual attitudes and choices have problematically neglected engagement with “the...