An interview with geographer Erik Swyngedouw

Shift interview Marxist geographer Erik Swyngedouw. Originally published in January 2010.

Erik, you are a human geographer and former student of David Harvey. Does a Marxist human geography have anything to contribute to the understanding of anthropogenic climate change?

The Marxist analysis is based on the view that any form of social organisation and dynamics has to be understood by looking at the social ways through which the physical environment is transformed.

This often is forgotten by Marxists; that fundamentally Marxism is a historical materialism, meaning that it tries to understand the socio-physical ways in which society is organised and in which society is changed. In capitalism then, the social transformation of the physical environment takes very specific forms, to the extent that capitalism is based on the continuous reinvestment of surplus in the production process. Any kind of capitalist economy necessarily needs an expansion and a deepening of the physical resource base to sustain its activity.

So in that sense - a growth economy, and capitalism is by definition a growth-based economy - necessitates the continuous expansion and the mobilisation of physical resources. In that sense, climate change, or in other words the transformation of oil and other fossil resources into atmospheric CO2, is an integral part of the dynamic of capitalism. You cannot possibly begin to understand the climate predicament without understanding the socio-ecological dynamic of capitalism.

I would argue that Marxism offers the best entry into that analysis.

Your work has to do with the spaces and localities of governance. Do you think the rhetoric of ‘man-made global warming’ is shifting the sites where authority is exercised and power yielded?

This is a difficult question. It is obviously the case that the discourse of climate change is organised, politically, in very specific ways and in very specific places. Take for example the United States, or the UK for that matter; there is now a consensus on virtually every geographical scale. Whether I look at the city of Manchester, or whether I look at the UK as a whole, whether I look at the city of New York, or at the United States as a whole - there is the political consensus among the enlightened elites at least that climate change is a serious problem.

Very few people disagree with that, so the key challenge today for the elites is how to make sure that capitalism as a socio-economic and political system can continue while at the same time making sure that the climate evolves such that it does not lead to disastrous consequences. I would argue that this combination is impossible to achieve. That is clearly what most, at least Western powers, are trying to do.

Is this what the COP 15 summit in Copenhagen was about?

Absolutely! The failure of Copenhagen to me was the clearest expression of the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of making an impossible alliance between those who want to save the planet and prevent ecological Armageddon on the one hand and those who wish to make sure that civilisation ‘as we know it’ can be sustained. Of course civilisation as we know it is a capitalist civilisation. I would argue that it is impossible to square these two. We can not sustain this civilisation while at the same time assuring the save evolution of the climate. That has to be recognised, because the impossibility of achieving these two objectives has led among other things to disaster in Copenhagen.

You use the term ‘post-politics’ to describe how there is a consensual element to this impossible alliance that you speak of, how fundamental antagonisms can’t be seen any more. We’re thinking of the Wave demonstration in London, for example, which seemed to lend support to our leaders to save the planet for us. To what extent is this an instance of such consensual politics?

Very much so. The post-political argument revolves around the view that democracy, understood as a political system that permits the negotiation of antagonistic or radically different positions, has been displaced by a consensus-based arrangement. The classic example of that is indeed the climate change and environmental issue. People from a variety of different political reservations all agree that these are issues that require urgent action and they usually also agree that a solution can be found through a form of consensual, participation-based negotiation.

My argument is that such a consensus-based negotiation, such as in Copenhagen, is a classic example of an attempt to come up with a consensually-established and negotiated solution. Such a consensual order, I would argue, is the exact antithesis of what a global democracy is. A democracy is of course a condition that permits radically opposing views about the social, ecological orders of society to be expressed.

If we look at the environmental argument then, there is no proper political dimension to it. The proper political dimension is, as far as I’m concerned, displaced onto other terrains. In the case of climate change the focus is on CO2 and how to handle this. I think this is mistaken, not withstanding the fact of course that CO2 matters and that CO2 is indeed a key element in producing global warming. I would however insist that if we want to do something about global warming, about CO2 and about the injustices associated with it we have to focus on the political–social debates and not on CO2 per se.

At the COP 15 protests, some activists adopted the message that ‘climate change is not an environmental issue’. Is this a way then to break out of the post-political dilemma by saying that ‘climate change is a social issue’?

Yes, I like this sort of argumentation. Climate change is a social issue and the only way in which the climate or any other socio-ecological process should be approached is by searching for the social and political.

For the larger NGOs and politicians, climate change is a problem that needs to be managed and policed. It is about science and finding technological solutions and policing human behaviour. But for an anti-capitalist movement the question is how to break out of the paralysis of consensus. In Copenhagen, some people wanted to achieve a complete rupture with the official negotiations by blockading them or by attacking police and government buildings. But could an answer not lie in the democratisation of science?

On the science debate I think the first thing that needs to be done is to de-politicise the science – and not the other way round. What we see now is a form of politicisation of science. I think this is highly problematic. I am a scientist myself and I believe in science, in other words, I believe in matters of fact. That is, for example, I do not argue with the science of climate change. However, what I do dispute and object to is that scientists, who correctly state that CO2 is responsible for climate change and correctly state that human intervention is partly responsible for that increase in CO2, then add that – because of that fact – urgent and immediate social and political action is needed to bring CO2 down. At that moment the scientists enter the domain of the political, without properly acknowledging that that is what they’re doing. So I would argue for the de-politicisation of science and for the politicisation of the environmental argument.

But scientists are now integral to the climate movement. Is it even conceivable that scientists who unearth the facts behind climate change would not construct a political argument based on this?

The political argument, I would argue, should be based on a proper political foundation. For example, a properly political argument is the demand for equality. So a proper democratic, progressive demand as a political activist, my main foundation of being a political activist, is to demand equality; social and environmental equality. That demand does not rely on the fact of climate change. That is a demand that relies on political positionality. That is what I mean by politicisation. A political argument has to be based on a political foundation and not on a matter of fact. That does not mean of course that these matters of fact do not matter. Obviously it is the case, I would argue, that if I make a political claim for social, cultural equality then I have to contain the condition of CO2, the climate, environment etc. in that context. But that demand does not rely on the fact of climate change.

What I object to is when scientists make a political demand - that is to bring CO2 down – on the basis of the matter of fact that CO2 is going up in the atmosphere and is causing all of these other issues. That is not a political statement that is a depoliticising statement. That is a depoliticising statement exactly because these are the statements that lead people like Obama, myself and George Bush to agree. I mean who is out there who disagrees with the fact that the climate matters? It is exactly this form of politicisation of facts that leads you to the situation of post-political, consensual management.

"Erik Swyngedouw is Professor of Geography at the University of Manchester. He is committed to political economic analysis of contemporary capitalism, producing several major works on economic globalisation, regional development, finance, and urbanisation. His interests also include political-ecological themes and the transformation of nature, notably water issues, in Ecuador, Spain, the UK, and elsewhere in Europe."