Analysis: Attenborough’s Davos environmentalism blames humanity and spares the system

Ben Wray

The Davos elite think that humanity is to blame for climate crisis, and capitalism is the cure, David Jamieson finds

A MEETING of the international capitalist elite in the Davos ski resort in Switzerland has put discussion of the the looming climate crisis top of its agenda.

But a speech by British broadcaster and natural historian David Attenborough at the summit (21 January) showed that the elite may be adopting radical environmental thought and twisting it to misdirect blame at the mass of the global population.

Attenborough used the concept of the Anthropocene, a separate epoch of geological development from the post-ice age Holocene, where human beings have become the determining factor in global development. But the way he uses it obscures the relationship between humanity and nature in the service of the wealthy and powerful.

We need a more balanced and pragmatic understanding of what humanity really is and it’s relationship to nature to stop the destruction of the environment and the human species with it.

Capitalism vs climate

The real problem confronting Attenborough, and a planet threatened with environmental annihilation – was the very people he was talking to.

The Davos meeting represents, and actually comprises of, the wealthy global elite. They are the wealthiest and most powerful ruling class to have ever existed in human history, in charge of institutions of historically incomparable sophistication.

The social order they preside over is geared to the competitive accumulation of wealth, and the consequences are the state of destruction Attenborough describes.

According to the 2017 Carbon Majors Report, just 100 major fossil fuel corporations are responsible for 71 per cent of global emissions. Likewise campaigners blame a handful of massive corporations for the bulk of plastics waste, the devastating impact of which has become a major concern in recent years.

The biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, and therefore the biggest contributors to global warming, have been the global centres of the global economy – North America and Europe. Only in recent years have emerging economies like China weighed in. 

Though they now outstrip those traditional centres this is because the burden of heavy production has shifted to those countries. Capital ‘offshores’ not just production and low wage jobs, but also environmental damage.

But speaking to the very social class that has organised this global order, who arrived in the plush resort via a record number of carbon-emitting private flights, Attenborough blamed ordinary people for holding them back.

He told them: “If people can truly understand what is at stake, I believe they will give permission to business and governments to get on with the practical solutions.”

In this view, people are the disease, and capitalism is the cure.

Humanity as anti-nature

One of Attenborough’s opening marks is telling as to the philosophical interpretation of the Anthropocene.

“The Holocene has ended. The Garden of Eden is no more.”

In Genesis humanity is expelled from paradise for original sin, and lives in a fallen state.  For Attenborough the destructive dynamic of humanity is intrinsic to its nature.

This conception is a strong current of thought within the Anthropocene idea. As one influential environmental studies textbook puts it: “The mastery of fire by our ancestors provided humankind with a powerful monopolistic tool unavailable to other species that put us firmly on the long path towards the Anthropocene”.

Human being’s natural capacities therefore set us on a collision course with ‘nature’, from even before the time of settled human civilisation.

The conception of nature used by Attenborough is of a unitary entity, a Holocene, but one distinct from humanity. Human beings interven in nature from the outside, not as part of it.

This idea has a long pedigree in radical ‘deep green’ ecologism, an understanding of ecological politics perversely useful from a corporate vantage point. In the 1970’s forms of deep ecologism approached religious conceptions – deifing nature as ‘mother nature’ or ‘Gaia’. Viewing nature in this way, as a powerful force from which humans are separate and to, and which they must be subject too or predatory upon, is an alienated and anti-scientific view.

Humanity as ‘nature rendered self-conscious’

A far more rational and dynamic response emerged from the anti-capitalist left in response. This posits a dialectical materialism, rather than a linear and deterministic one, where humanity is itself nature, as anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin termed it ‘nature rendered self conscious’.

The conscious organisation of society by humans broke them from the chain of purely biological evolution, and ascended humanity to a state of conscious evolution, a second state of nature. Humanity therefore makes nature self-conscious. We are conscious, through our interrogation of the natural world, not only of how the natural world works, but of how we are destroying it.

But the ascent of humanity to this state has not been a cost free exercise. It took thousands of years of the accumulation of technique and knowledge. This was itself only made possible through surplus production – the production of more than human’s need to survive.

The dawn of surplus from the neolithic revolution over 12,000 years ago, near the start of the Holocene epoch, allowed for the development of intellectual thought, first in the form of the study of natural phenomena and religious ideas. The development of productive forces and intellectual life accelerated rapidly with the enlightenment and the industrial revolution.

The capitalist epoch represents an unprecedented growth in productive capacity, as well as the science to understand its destructive impact. But it is not a fundamentally democratic system. It’s profits are controlled by a tiny stratum, represented at the Davos summit, who are ruled not by human interests or scientific knowledge but by the logic of capitalist competition.

Having raised itself to this height, nature (for that is what humanity is) has brought itself to the brink of self-destruction. But it also now commands the ability to avert catastrophe. The damage to the environment is probably now too great to organically ‘return to normal’ (a meaningless concept). This is the essential and valuable insight of the Anthropocene theory. Only ‘nature rendered conscious’ can create a new sustainability.

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