The spectre of climate crisis stalks our present, finding ways to mash and mangle our now into one that is inseparable from a myriad of doomed futures. In recent months, I have found it difficult to view the present as, well, the present. It is all but impossible for me to move throughout my day without confronting the prospect of societal collapse. A scorching summer’s day followed by unseasonable rain and cold, a sign imploring me to reduce my water usage as the world dries up, an announcement of the delay of the once-again late L train which is still undergoing repairs from damage inflicted by the climatically-charged Superstorm Sandy, an ad that tells me to buy this greenwashed swimwear as the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050 I pass each day on my way to the office, a frantic check of the phone on a hot night to make sure my power will not be cut by Con-Ed in an ill-fated effort to keep the New York City grid alive. And these are merely intensely personal reminders. Follow the thread long enough on a news story these days and you’ll find more often than not that it was the climate crisis that was a, if not the, primary mover.[1] My present has been colonised by the futures contingent on the unfolding climate crisis; my now continues to be haunted by this unexcisable spectre of doom.

This state of affairs of doomed futures haunting a present without hope has many parallels to hauntology, a metaphor and framework first created by Jacque Derrida in his 1993 Spectres of Marx, a counterargument to the famous (and now thoroughly debunked) “end of history” thesis put forward by Fukuyama in the afterglow of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Eastern bloc states in the early 1990’s. Derrida argued that although “really existing communism” had collapsed, communism—or at least the idea of it (and what is communism if not an idea?)—would continue to haunt history again and again, as the communist ideal represents a lost and promised future that can never really be destroyed. In his own words:

Capitalist societies can always heave a sigh of relief and say to themselves: communism is finished since the collapse of the totalitarianism of the twentieth century and not only is it finished, but it did not take place, it was only a ghost. They do no more than disavow the undeniable itself: a ghost never dies, it remains always to come and to come-back.[2]

Other critical theorists picked up the thread of hauntology, applying it to various other fields like art criticism. As Adam Harper, a theorist who is one of the many to apply hauntology to the study and criticism of music in particular, writes:

A spectre invades the present to redress a balance there, to warn the present concerning the future. Hauntological spectres come to bother us and our images from any zone of deficit lying between things as they were / are / will be and things as they are thought or hoped to have been / be / be in the future.[3]

Thus, the spectre of climate crisis has floated up from the zone between the now and the promised futures of a warmer world. The crucial difference with most hauntological spectres, however, is that these futures in question are not ones anybody is hoping for. On the contrary, the futures of the climate crisis are ones we—presumably—dread. My present is not haunted by the dreams of a better world, but by a world on fire.

Another supposed difference between typical hauntological spectres and the climate crisis is the role of the past. The present is historicised and it is the past that haunts it in the form of the future-to-come. Communism is an idea from our past, and the futures that haunt our now were ones promised in the past. At first glance, our spectre lacks this future-to-come/past component. The futures promised by the climate crisis derive from the now. They are always in flux, and our actions or—lack thereof—determine the course of this flux. But we must not be content to view things solely on this immediate level. Context and historicization are vital in our understanding here; to view this spectre, one so intimately tied up with the past (its cause) and the future (its effect), synchronically would be to miss it entirely and treat the climate crisis as merely a flicker. In the words of Fredric Jameson, “Always historicize!”[4] Our spectre is not an eternal being, existing since time immemorial. It may not be Real (what ghost is?) but it is in time just as much as it distorts it. It was summoned on a particular date by particular individuals.

For some, this has a very specific date. “The end of the world has already occurred,” writes Timothy Morton, and “it was [in] April [of] 1784, when James Watt patented the steam engine.”[5] I think it unfair and naive to assign blame for the climate crisis solely on Watt, for it was not him who dictated that the steam engine be used in quantities large enough to crinkle and crack the global climate into chaos. In April of 1784, the world could have gone another way. The invention of the steam engine was a necessary but not sufficient condition for the conjuration of the climate crisis. Watt may have written the incantation, but it was not him who performed the ceremony to summon this ghost to our physical plane. It is not those who create the incantations that bear the brunt of the blame, but those who conjure. Oppenheimer et al are certainly not innocent, but the bulk of the blame for killing hundreds of thousands lies with Truman and his ilk. There can be no summoning without a spell, but there has to be someone willing to cast it.

Andres Malm pursues this line of reasoning in his 2013 monograph Fossil Capital. He writes that it was:

capitalists in a small corner of the Western world [who] invested in steam, laying the foundation of the fossil economy; at no moment did the species vote for it either with feet or ballots, or march in mechanical unison, or exercise some sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the earth system.[6]

Textile factory owners, desperate for more flexibility and control over their labour force, abandoned water wheel powered factories located far out in the British countryside and relocated to labour-filled cities, leveraging the powers of coal—which could be transported to the factory, rather than relying on hydro-power that fixes the location of a factory to a river—to generate the heat to move their new steam engines. Locating factories in urban areas meant the owners gained a crucial advantage in the battle over labour: they could now lay off striking workers and tap into a massive reserve army to replace them, rather than being at the mercy of their labourers in a deserted countryside devoid of replacements. It was this choice of coal over water, in a move to combat rising labour militancy amongst their workforce, that began the summoning ritual of the spectre of climate crisis.

The ceremony was completed by the early 20th century with the switch from coal to oil. Once again, capitalists concerned about labour’s power to disrupt production in the name of garnering increased control over their own work—this time about the ability of coal miners to strike and thereby put a stranglehold on the power of the global economy—switched to oil, which required far less labour to extract and transport. This transportation and extraction paradigm is also far less susceptible to sabotage and slowdown. Compare manned train lines and the heavy infrastructure surrounding that system to unmanned oil pipelines that are often buried underground and thereby disappear from sight entirely, and you can see the twisted logic by which oil appealed to capitalists concerned about labour power of coal miners and rail workers.[7] It was these twin decisions, made by an unaccountable capitalist class in their insatiable quest for control over labour, that chanted out the incantations written out by Watt that conjured the climate crisis from the spectral realm.

It is the contingent nature of the climate crisis—that the decisions of the rich and powerful long since gone ushered in the fossil economy that defines our reality today—that lends it its similarity to other hauntological spectres. The past comes to haunt the present through its stranglehold on the future. Malm describes this as “the rolling invasion of the past into the present,” the unsaid addendum being that this invasion’s mechanism of control is through controlling the present’s future.[8] Our spectre indeeds fits into Harper’s definition of a hauntological one, in that it exists in the deficit between what is and what is thought to be, but it is also a historicized spectre. It is a spectre that is steeped in history, stained with the blood of the dead and the dying victims of a relentless invisible hand.

It may be unfair to pin the entirety of this ghost’s strength on decisions made in the past: every time we turn on the lights or drive to work we lend it ever increasing bits of power. Every ounce of coal burned is more secession of control to the past. Fossil fuels themselves are just that—fossils. We burn the energy of the past, the energy of life long since dead, and in this Faustian bargain of temporary power we lend it permanent power over our future. But it’s not as if it’s so easy to cast away the decisions of those in the past that now shape our everyday lives. Marx wrote that:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.[9]

The past in a very real sense determines the bounds of possible actions in the present. Our means of dismantling the fossil economy before it dismantles the earth are scarce indeed. Through the spectre of climate crisis, the past does not just weigh on the brains of the living. It is incarnate in the very air we breathe. The carbon of years past, itself burned because of decisions made decades and centuries before its combustion, is a physical manifestation of the past that hangs around in the world around us. The sky is heavy and heaving under the weight of the past.

The climate crisis is an existential threat to the continued existence of humanity as we know it. The forces of capital were the ones who conjured this ghost, but it appears they’ve lost control. The spectre devours its patron. “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism” is the phrase that has come to dominate modern discourse on the pervasive hold our system of production and consumption has on our bounds of the possible.[10] This extends not just to the practical, but even the imaginary. The grips of capitalist realism are so tight that it has become virtually impossible for us to even contemplate alternatives to capitalism. “There is no alternative” has become a deeply felt fact of life for those of us in the Global North in the 21st century. But through the shimmers of the ghost, we catch a glimpse of something. We need no longer imagine: the end of the world stands before us, and with it the end of capitalism. But in this doom stands salvation. If we can see capitalism ending, we are no longer trapped by the bounds of capitalist realism. If we can watch it end, we can imagine other ways of capitalism’s demise. As Mark Fisher explains, “Environmental catastrophe provides what a political unconscious totally colonised by neoliberalism cannot: an image of life after capitalism.”[11] Capitalism is doomed to the dustbin of history, condemned by its own hand. It will take us down with it, for it is only through the cleansing flame of collapse that capitalism ends itself. But if we excise the ghost and destroy it before capitalism can complete its destruction of earth, if we combat the past and rid ourselves of the spectre of climate collapse, if we wrestle back control of our presently-doomed future, we may yet live. Either way, capitalism is doomed. The choice left to us is whether we are, too.

[1] For the climate crisis as the primary mover in the Syrian Civil War (and therefore the wave o immigration and anti-immigrant rhetoric and governments in Europe post-2015) see: Gleick, P.H., 2014: Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria. Wea. Climate Soc., 6, 331–340, https://doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-13-00059.1

For the disastrous effect the climate crisis has had on Central America, driving the same sort of immigration and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States see: Food Security and Emmigration: Why people flee and the impact on family members left behind in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000022124/download/

[2] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: the State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, New York: Routledge, 2011, 123

[3] Adam Harper. “Hauntology: The Past Inside The Present.” Rouge’s Foam, 2009, http://rougesfoam.blogspot.com/2009/10/hauntology-past-inside-present.html

[4] Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, London: Routledge, 1989, 1

[5] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, 2013, 7

[6] Andreas, Malm, Fossil Capital: the Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, London: Verso, 2016, 267

[7] Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, London: Verso, 2013

[8] Malm, Fossil Capital, 10

[9] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marxist Archive, 1842, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm

[10] The phrase itself is attributed to either Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek; both claim the other said it. It was popularized as the encapsulation of capitalist realism in the Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2010

[11] Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Zero Books, 2014, 228

One thought on “A Future on Fire: Climate Change and Hauntology

  1. Thatcher and Reagan are haunting us. Communism is deconstructed by neoliberal networks of mass media technology oiling the machines of capitalism. A stronger focus on the present historical moment would avoid blaming the far distant past which facilitates inaction in the present. The climate change discourse has already been transformed and muted by neoliberal agendas to make us feel helpless. Keep on writing.


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