Magazine, Vol. 4: Changing Climate
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“One of the best things we can do right now is to think”

Extreme Weather Events XXIV: Manhattan, NY, 2012 © Sayler/Morris

Does Capitalism Have to Yield to Climate Justice?


The principles of climate change have been known for a long time, but little has happened with regard to reducing carbon emissions. Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann, authors of the book Climate Leviathan, offer a radical way of rethinking the political and economic consequences of our overheated world. Does capitalism need to be confronted if we’re going to produce a just response to climate change? In conversation with 42 Magazine, they argue that climate change will change the world’s political economy and the political agreements that we often take for granted.

The principles of climate change have been common knowledge for a long time. We have the data. We have the solutions. Yet nothing is happening. Can you outline why you describe climate change as a crisis of imagination?

Joel Wainwright: One of the common sayings on the political left regarding climate change is a quotation from Frederic Jameson: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” This is pretty much what we mean by a crisis of imagination. Take the example of Harvard scientists working on solar geoengineering: It is easier for most people to imagine an elite group of scientists and capitalists trying to manage planet Earth through Geoengineering than it is to imagine a democratic political approach to fight climate change. We would need a radically different conception of the world to respond justly to climate change.

Geoff Mann: And indeed, in Joel Wainwright’s and my view, nothing is happening. At least nothing of any substance. That is because we keep trying to create solutions without really changing anything. It is a crisis of our capacity to think. One of the fundamental messages we want to get across with our book is the following: The very idea that climate change can be fixed by capitalist and technological means is part of the problem.

In your book Climate Leviathan, you describe this political dimension of climate change. The title is a reference to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, published in 1651. What are the key concepts of his political theory?

M: Hobbes basically says that human society, left on its own, has a tendency towards chaos and violence. Society is incapable of organizing itself. And in so far as order is necessary for the idea of human life that Hobbes held up as important, he considered it essential that we effectively have an absolute sovereign to whom everybody agrees. He calls this absolute sovereign ‘Leviathan’. Hobbes envisioned this sovereign to be legitimized by a social contract by which all members of society submit their unquestioning obedience. In return, members will receive security and limited freedom within which to enjoy the proto-capitalist life that he observed unfolding all around him in 17th Century England. Hobbes’ main concern, however, was to avoid civil war, which he also saw unfolding around him at the same time. He thought that the institution of a sovereign to whom everyone offered their absolute submission would guarantee the most stable form of society in terms of a limited amount of personal freedoms that could be realized.

W: We are not Hobbesians – most Marxist political theorists are not. As Marxists we give due emphasis to analyzing our present conjuncture, its basis in the capitalist economic organization of social life, and so on. However, in one important sense we did write the book as Hobbesians and selected the title as an homage to Hobbes: We sought to enact speculative thought as he did in Leviathan. In a sense, everybody is now speculating about the future of humans on earth all the time – from Donald Trump to the Wall Street Journal to George Soros, but also people all over the world, not just elites. For the most part, these speculations are leading people into dismal thinking, so we are seeing the return of Hobbesian thought, whether we like it or not. To us, it seemed more responsible to speculate in a way that is more directed towards solidarity, freedom, and emancipation.

What is it that you call the “Climate Leviathan” then?

W: Climate Leviathan is the name we give to a potential future in which capitalism has not been overthrown, where it remains the prevailing mode of production for organizing the political economy, but where it also has led to a system we call planetary sovereignty. A system that would form a sovereignty that exceeds its territorial basis in the Hobbesian, and for that matter Machiavellian, imagination: a form of planetary – that is to say, global – governance. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the nation-state as we know it has vanished. It simply means that it has been reformed, or deformed, so that dealing with matters of planetary management such as the weather, refugees, food and water supplies, as much as the climate crisis itself, have become centralized. In that way, it has also changed the way we think about the political. This is what we call the adaptation of the political, its response to particular conditions. So you could say that Leviathan is a speculative description of a world system that is in the making.

M: Rather than simply calling this future a prediction, we describe it as an immanent possibility, which means that the seeds of this future are already sprouting in the world that we see today. This immanent future is hegemonic in nature, as it is the dominant political vision at present. That does not mean that Climate Leviathan is uncontested or already consolidated. However, relatively powerful people all over the world are in effect placing their bets on it and are acting as if it is the most likely direction in which things are going to go. And that in itself can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What would life under Climate Leviathan be like for the individual?

W: In a Climate Leviathan scenario, the world remains capitalist. The most ordinary way in which an average person might feel the consolidation of Climate Leviathan is through new forms of governance which differ because they are less democratic. To the extent that this is possible, we already see such a trend in the world. We have seen democratic processes coming under increasingly great stress during the last ten years, with the rise of right-wing authoritarian movements and figures like Erdogan, Modi, Trump, Bolsonaro, and so on. In this sense, the Climate Leviathan scenario is a very safe bet because we describe what is already happening but with an emphasis on the ecological logic behind it.

M: People’s lives are extremely different. We could never describe the life of the individual in the future. Consequently, we are both nervous about making that kind of statement. My life amidst the climate catastrophe would probably be very different from the life of a less privileged person in South America. But the radical reduction of democratic institutions will be a general trend. We also have to keep in mind that millions of people already live in ecologically devastated environments with their livelihoods destroyed by climate change. If we want to see how an individual will live, we don’t even have to look at the future. It’s already happening right now.

Would you consider the Paris agreement to be a first step towards Climate Leviathan?

M: We would go back further in time to look for the first step, but the Paris Agreement is certainly part of the direction this particular future seems to have. The Paris Agreement, at its most general level, is an attempt to keep everything about “liberal capitalism” exactly the same as it is right now, and to tweak everything we must – and whatever may come – to maintain the system. And if that means sacrificing democracy, if it means sacrificing justice, then that’s what it’s going to be. Democratic values will have to become secondary – at least that is what we fear.

But isn’t the Paris Agreement an attempt to change our economic system in order to prevent climate change from happening in the first place?

W: If we look at the Paris Agreement closely, it turns out that it does not contain many mechanisms that actually reduce emissions. The most important ones are the so-called INDCs: Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. It’s a diplomatically non-offensive term that was adopted in the run up to Paris as a way of describing the fact that individual member states, the signatories to the Paris Agreement, would determine their pathways for carbon emissions for themselves. One of the major problems of the Paris Agreement is that there is no firm mechanism to ensure that those INDCs will also be met. They are just intended.

We are suggesting that there are even bigger problems with this agreement. Even if all countries that signed the Paris Agreement met their declared carbon emission goals, we would still cook the planet and end up with well over 2°C warming. There are studies that suggest it’s as much as 2,5 or 3°C, even if we meet the INDCs. The Paris Agreement is not a mitigation framework at all. It is much less an agreement that is helping the nation-states of the world to prevent global warming than an agreement on how to adapt to a warmer planet. However, it is not typically interpreted as an adaptation agreement.


“Greater levels of equality and lower amounts of consumption can be associated with greater levels of freedom”


One could argue that impending environmental devastation due to climate change calls the idea of economic equality into question. Economic equality would lead to greater consumption, which implies more emissions and quicker depletion of the planet’s resources. What would you answer to those claiming that we have to accept inequality in the face of climate change?

M: I think what you’re saying is the following: Given the potential for planetary devastation, rising consumption among the world’s poor – which has always been a goal of the left – is just not possible. We might have to accept the fact of global inequality. That kind of thinking is implicit in elitist thinking about climate change these days. However, there is a fatal flaw behind it.

What we really need to do is not to accept the fact of global inequality but to try to steer the rich of the world to consume in a more sustainable way. The world has shown us that as people become richer, they continually find more ways to spend their money and they do that in ways that are highly consumptive. The amount of carbon emissions that directly result from the richest people in the world is extraordinary. If those people became even richer, we might think, well, they can’t buy more cars, drive them more, all at the same time. But in fact, it seems like they do. The degree of our consumption and burning of fossil fuels can be completely unhinged from what our rational minds might be telling us.

W: Thus, we have to reject the premise of your question, and that’s good news. One of the first national leaders to really take a strong stand on climate change, who tried to argue for a radically different approach, was no other than Fidel Castro back at the Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992, where climate change first got on the radar of global governance. He essentially pointed out that in Cuba they had no carbon emissions to speak of at the time. And he essentially said that – like it or not – the world has to be like Cuba in order to live sustainably. The only future that is really liveable is one in which we have much greater equality, modest levels of consumption, and in which we all share the costs of the planet. Castro had a point. I think that greater levels of equality and lower amounts of consumption can be associated with greater levels of freedom, which is the other thing we left to advocate for.

How does climate migration play into the Leviathan-scenario?

M: I think climate migration is very likely to have two main effects with regard to the Leviathan scenario: First, masses of climate migrants will be the most significant spur to the institutional forms that Climate Leviathan might take, rather than ecological devastation per se. Managing the flows of hundreds of millions and potentially billions of people will also be the most significant spur to the institutionalization of mechanisms to match Climate Leviathan as we describe it. Secondly, I would add that scaremongering about climate migration could also be the force of history that gives Climate Leviathan legitimacy in the eyes of the public – just like fear of migrants is at the core of populism today. In many ways, climate migration is precisely the dynamic at the heart of all this. Even though we worry much more about ecological indicators such as ocean acidification on a surface level, I think it’s migration that will cause people to call for something like Leviathan.


“Climate change seems to be the issue that divides the generations the most”


What do we have to do to prevent Climate Leviathan?

W: There’s so much to be done. Rather than trying to give the ingredients for an alternative world, we would instead like to point to what is happening all over the world right now. In a preliminary, and perhaps at this point disorganized and incoherent way, people all over the world are searching for very different types of answers to these questions.

For instance, the global “Fridays for Future” movement, where students are walking out of school to protest the lack of attention to climate change, not just in education but politically. It’s hard to imagine something like that happening on just about any issue of the world right now, except climate. It wouldn’t have happened a couple of years ago. In fact, according to some recent polls looking at politics internationally, climate change seems to be the issue that divides the generations the most. A lot of young people all over the world feel like the nation-states that have power in the world have betrayed them and practically condemned them to live in a world that is so dark that they want to overthrow governments, become socialists and so forth. What is needed is a lot more of this kind of feeling, directed in ways that unify people in different parts of the world, and that might clarify real solutions to the problems we face.

In your book, you call the counter-scenario to Leviathan “X”. What is X?

W: X describes a world in which we have somehow overcome the rule of capital. In other words, the world would be reorganized in some form of non-capitalist, socialist social life. We would have overcome the sovereign nation-state as well as having fended off the emergence of a planetary form of sovereignty. There seems to be a strange growing consensus that capitalism will need to be confronted, if we’re going to produce anything like a just response to planetary climate change. Plus, the really thorny problems concern how someone grasps X in terms of sovereignty. How or what is the sovereign in X? At the very end of our book, we try to answer the question in two very different ways: On the one hand, we suggest that following Marx through radical democracy implies that we achieve a world where democracy is so complete that there is no sovereign. Not in the sense that we finally achieve that form of sovereignty we might associate with the French revolution where the people are genuinely “sovereign”, but that we achieve a world where democracy is so complete that there is no sovereign. That would be the anarchist answer.

What would be the alternative?

W: We offer a different kind of answer by pointing to the struggles of first nations such as we find them in parts of Canada today or the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico because they represent moves or concrete practices of counter sovereignty. Consider the Zapatistas. They are a revolutionary movement, but they are not seeking to overthrow the Mexican state. It would be more precise to say that they are trying to subtract themselves from it, by creating autonomous communities. It’s not necessarily about achieving this magical position, in which things are so democratic that there is no longer a sovereign, but rather where sovereignty becomes manifest through struggles against sovereignty. Thereby, we have a kind of a paradox where sovereignty is never fully realized because it is constantly being confronted by democratic resistance. As long as we’re in a world where the organization of territorial sovereignty is akin to Hobbes’ Leviathan, we still have a long way to go. So long that we just want to inspire as much movement and thought as possible in the general direction of counter sovereignty or non-sovereignty, which amounts to radical democracy.

Until we’ve realized X, what can we do?

M: I guess we’re all dealing with what seems to be an increasing crisis of hopelessness. I don’t want to suggest that those feelings are perfectly justified and that we’re all doomed. But at the same time, these are of course real feelings that I have, that my kids are struggling with, and that you probably have, too. One of the best things we can do right now is to think. And that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act. Of course, we should be acting in the interest of climate justice all the time. But even in a moment of hopelessness, analysis and thinking actually give you hope. The clarity you get from making sense of the world that is around us right now is extraordinarily valuable and hopeful. Even if we were entirely wrong, even if every single speculation that we offer was wrong, the work of the conversation we’re participating in is worth every minute of it.

Interview: Jonas Hermann, Lena Kronenbürger



© Joel Wainwright

Joel Wainwright is Professor at Ohio State, where he studies political economy, environmental change, and social theory. He is the author of Geopiracy and Decolonizing Development.




© Robin Bonner Photography

Geoff Mann is Director of the Centre for Global Political Economy at the Simon Fraser University, Canada. His research is mainly concerned with the politics and political economy of capitalism. He is the author of In the Long Run We Are All Dead: Keynesianism, Political Economy and Revolution.

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