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Depoliticized Environments: The End of Nature, Climate Change and the Post-Political Condition

  • Erik Swyngedouw (a1)


Nobel-price winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen introduced in 2000 the concept of the Anthropocene as the name for the successor geological period to the Holocene. The Holocene started about 12,000 years ago and is characterized by the relatively stable and temperate climatic and environmental conditions that were conducive to the development of human societies. Until recently, human development had relatively little impact on the dynamics of geological time. Although disagreement exists over the exact birth date of the Anthropocene, it is indisputable that the impact of human activity on the geo-climatic environment became more pronounced from the industrial revolution onwards, leading to a situation in which humans are now widely considered to have an eco-geologically critical impact on the earth's bio-physical system. The most obvious example is the accumulation of greenhouse gases like CO2 and Methane (CH4) in the atmosphere and the changes this induces in climatic dynamics. Others are the growing homogenization of biodiversity as a result of human-induced species migration, mass extinction and bio-diversity loss, the manufacturing of new (sub-)species through genetic modification, or the geodetic consequences resulting from, for example, large dam construction, mining and changing sea-levels.



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1 Badiou, A., ‘Live Badiou – Interview with Alain Badiou, Paris, December 2007’, Alain Badiou – Live Theory, Feltham, O. (ed.), (London: Continuum, 2008), 139.

2 J. Lovelock, ‘The Fight to Get Aboard Lifeboat UK’, The Sunday Times, 8 November 2009 – accessed 3 August 2010.

3 Crutzen, P. J. and Stoermer, E. F., ‘The ‘Anthropocene’, Global Change Newsletter, 41 (2000), 1718.

4 Chakrabarty, D., ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Critical Enquiry 35 (2009), 197222.

5 Norgaard, R. B., Development Betrayed: the End of Progress and a Coevolutionary Revisioning of the Future (London: Routledge, 1994).

6 B. Latour, ‘“It's development, stupid!” or: How to Modernize Modernization’, accessed 2 August 2010.

7 Wynne, B., ‘Strange Wheather, Again: Climate Science as Political Art’, Theory, Culture & Society 27 (2010), 289305.

8 Smith, N., Uneven Development (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984).

9 Žižek, S., ‘Nature and its Discontents’, SubStance 37 (2008), 5354.

10 Beck, U., ‘Climate for Change, or How to Create a Green Modernity’, Theory, Culture & Society 27 (2010), 263.

11 See, among other, McKibben, B., The End of Nature (London: Random House, 1989); Wapner, P., Living Through the End of Nature – The Future of American Environmentalism (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010); Giddens, A., Modernity and Self-identity – Self and Society in the late Modern Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991); Merchant, C., The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper Collins, 1980).

12 Latour, B., We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).

13 Morton, T., Ecology without Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007), 14.

14 Žižek, S., Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, [1992] 2002).

15 Žižek, S., The Fragile Absolute (London: Verso, 2000), 52.

16 This particular semiological perspective draws on Slavok Žižek's reading of Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic interpretations of the Imaginary, the Real, and the Symbolic (see Žižek, S., The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989); Lacan, J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book III. The Psychoses 1955–1956 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993); Lacan, J., Ecrits (London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1997)).

17 T. Morton, op. cit., 14.

18 See – accessed 1 August 2010) and – accessed 1 August 2010 – Also cited in Hulme, M., ‘Cosmopolitan Cimates: Hybridity, Foresight, and Meaning’, Theory, Culture & Society 27 (2010), 270.

19 Žižek, S., The Ticklish Subject – The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (London: Verso, 1999).

20 See Stavrakakis, Y., ‘Green Fantasy and the Real of Nature: Elements of a Lacanian Critique of Green Ideological Discourse’, Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society 2 (1997), 123132.

21 T. Morton, op. cit., 24.

22 Swyngedouw, E., ‘Impossible/Undesirable Sustainability and the Post-Political Condition’, The Sustainable Development Paradox, Krueger, J. R. and Gibbs, D. (eds.), (New York: Guilford, 2007), 1340.

23 B. Latour, op cit. (1993).

24 Latour, B., Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

25 Swyngedouw, E., ‘Circulations and Metabolisms: (Hybrid) Natures and (Cyborg) Cities’, Science as Culture 15 (2006), 105121.

26 Jankovic, V., Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of English Wheather (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

27 Castree, N., ‘Environmental Issues: Relational Ontologies and Hybrid Politics’, Progress in Human Geography 27 (2003), 203211; Braun, B., ‘Environmental Issues: Global Natures in the Space of Assemblage’, Progress in Human Geography 30 (2006), 644654.

28 Levins, R. and Lewontin, R., The Dialectical Biologist (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1985); Lewontin, R. and Levins, R., Biology under the Influence - Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2007).

29 Of course, the geo-philosophical thought of Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari articulates in important ways with complexity theory and has spawned an exciting, albeit occasionally bewildering, literature that takes relationality, indeterminacy and the radical heterogeneities of natures seriously (see, among others, Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F., What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994); Conley, V., Ecopolitics: The Environment in Poststructural Thought (London: Routledge, 1996); Herzogenrath, B. (ed.), An [Un]likely Alliance: Thinking Environment(s) with Deleuze/Guattari (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008).

30 See also Harvey, D., Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference (Oxford Blackwell, 1996).

31 Gould, S. J., The Panda's Thumb (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980).

32 Žižek, S., In Defense of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008).

33 See, for example, Prigogine, I. and Stengers, I.Order out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature (London: HarperCollins, 1985).

35 Swyngedouw, E., ‘The Antinomies of the Post-Political City. In Search of a Democratic Politics of Environmental Production’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33 (2009), 601620.

36 See also Giddens, A., The Politics of Climate Change (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009).

37 M. Boykoff, D. Frame and S. Randalls, ‘Stabilize this! How the Discourse of ‘Climate Stabilization’ became and remains entrenched in climate science-policy-practice interactions’, Journal of the American Association of Geographers forthcoming.

38 Davis, M., Ecology of Fear – Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).

39 See Badiou, A., The Meaning of Sarkozy (Verso: London, 2008).

40 Katz, C., ‘Under the Falling Sky: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and the Production of Nature’, Marxism in the Postmodern Age, Callari, A., Cullenberg, S. and Biewener, C. (eds), (New York: The Guilford Press, 1995), 276282.

41 See – accessed 2 August 2010; see also G. Baeten, ‘“Less than 100 months to save the planet”: the Politics of Environmental Apocalypse’, paper delivered at IBG-RGS Annual Conference, (Manchester: 26–28 August 2009).

42 Rancière, J., Disagreement (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

43Object a is not what we desire, what we are after, but rather that which sets our desire in motion, the formal frame that confers consistency on our desire. Desire is of course metonymical, it shifts from one object to another; through all its displacements, however, desire nonetheless retains a minimum of formal consistency, a set of fantasmatic features which, when encountered in a positive object, insures that we will come to desire this object. Object a, as the cause of desire, is nothing but this formal frame of consistency.’ S. Žižek, Plague of Fantasies (New York: Verso, 1997), 39. See also Stavrakakis, Y., ‘On the Emergence of Green Ideology: The Dislocation factor in Green Politics’, Discourse Theory and Political Analysis – Indentities, Hegemonies and Social Change, Howarth, D., Norval, A. J. and Stavrakakis, Y. (eds), (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 100118.

44 Liverman, D. M., ‘Conventions of climate change: constructions of danger and the dispossession of the atmosphere’, Journal of Historical Geography 35 (2009), 279296.; Bumpus, A. G. and Liverman, D., ‘Accumulation by Decarbonization and the Governance of Carbon Offsets’, Economic Geography 84 (2008), 127155.

45 Marx, K., Capital: Critique of Political Economy v. 1 (London: Penguin Classics, 2004), 162.

46 Lohmann, L., ‘Uncertainty Markets and Carbon Markets: Variations on Polanyian Themes’, New Political Economy 15 (2010), 225254.

47 See – accessed 2 August 2010.

48 Žižek, S., ‘Carl Schmitt in the Age of Post-Politics’, The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, Mouffe, C. (ed.), (London: Verso, 1999), 1837; Žižek, S., ‘The Lesson of Rancière’, The Politics of Aesthetics, Rancière, J. (ed.), (London: Continuum, 2006), 6979; Mouffe, C., On The Political (London: Routledge, 2005).

49 Žižek, S., Revolution at the Gates – Žižek on Lenin – The 1917 Writings (London: Verso, 2002), 303.

50 B. Diken and C. Laustsen, ‘7/11, 9/11, and Post-Politics’, (2004), 15.

51 Rancière, J., ‘Ten Theses on Politics’, Theory & Event 5, §32. See E. Swyngedouw, op. cit. (2009) for further details.

52 Žižek, S., ‘Against Human Rights’, New Left Review 34 (2005), 117.

53 Crouch, C., Post-Democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004).

54 See also Jörke, D., ‘Auf dem Weg zur Postdemokratie’, Leviathan 33 (2005), 482491.; Blühdorn, I., ‘Billich will Ich - Post-demkratische Wende und Simulative Demokratie’, Forschungsjournal NSB 19 (2006), 7283.

55 See Hulme, M., ‘Geographical Work at the Boundaries of Climate Change’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33 (2008), 511.

56 Smith, N., ‘Afterword to the Third Edition’, Uneven Development, Smith, N. (Athens, Georgia: Georgia University Press, 2008), 245.

57 Some of these eco-climatic techno-solutions are of truly Herculean dimensions – see Royal Society, Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty (London: The Royal Society, 2009). See also Szerszynski, B., ‘Reading and Writing the Weather: Climate Technics and the Moment of Responsibility’, Theory, Culture & Society 27 (2010), 930.

58 Žižek, S., ‘Against the Populist Temptation’, Critical Inquiry 32 (2006), 555.

59 Ibid., 555.

60 See Dean, M., Governmentality – Power and Rule in Modern Society (London: Sage, 1999); Swyngedouw, E., ‘Governance Innovation and the Citizen: The Janus Face of Governance-beyond-the-state’, Urban Studies 42 (2005), 1–16.; Lemke, T., ‘The Birth of Bio-Politics' – Michel Foucault's Lectures at the College de France on Neo-Liberal Governmentality’, Economy & Society 30 (1999), 190207.

61 This paper was written before the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Despite this, the U.S. and the U.K. continue to explore the nuclear option as a viable energy alternative. In contrast, Germany has decided to phase out nuclear energy completely.

62 Rancière, J., La Mésentente - Politique et Philosophie (Paris: Editions Galilée, 1995); see also A. Badiou, ‘Politics: A Non-Expressive Dialectics’, Is The Politics of Truth still Thinkable?, A conference organized by Slavoj Zizek and Costas Douzinas, Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Birkbeck College, London, 25–26 November 2005.

63 J. Rancière, op. cit. (1995); For a review, see Marchart, O., Post-Foundational Political Thought – Political Difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and Laclau (Edinburgh: University Press, 2007).


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