On the end(s) of human society; or why the question of ecology is the question of the meaning of existence

Hitherto, all radical movements have sought to end this evil old world, now the point is to save it


Over the last few weeks we have seen, in an impressive and sometimes spectacular way, protests and groups spring on the scene under the banner of Extinction Rebellion (XR) calling for urgent action by government and citizens to tackle the climate crisis. What will be said here is not related to the climate crisis as such, we should take that as a postulate of common knowledge that only the foolish or criminally cynical would deny. I wish to speak in favour of this new movement and make some observations on the political and civilisational dimension of a new ecology movement.

We need, across a wide range of different issues, heterogeneous social movements with a strong level of autonomous activism without either a behind the scenes leadership (of the ‘front’ kind) or a movement as messianic mission which would rapidly condemn the cause to becoming a sect.

There are tendencies in any movement that wants to see real social change but incline toward world rejection and authoritarianism because of the society that socialised its participants, as well as more general foibles of the human condition. As participants we must fight against those tendencies inside the movements and in ourselves.

Capitalism as a system could carry on with devastating climate change, indeed if people continue to believe in the values of capitalism it will carry on indefinitely until social collapse. The question is rather whether the values of capitalism – and it is a system of values before it is an economic system – is consonant with a habitable planet or democratic societies. Certainly, the effects of climate change will lead to increasingly authoritarian methods of controlling populations. What climate change forces us to recognise is that both the social order and its radical countercultures like Marxism – in terms of the structure of needs it suggests, the meanings we give our lives, the way we conceptualise the world as resources, social organisation as bureaucracy – is based on principles deeply tied to capitalist ontology.

The philosopher and social theorist Cornelius Castoriadis made a profound point when considering the traditional movements for social change and the newer ecological movement. Writing over thirty years ago, he noted that whereas the working class movement – in so far as it was not completely degraded by the poisonous effects of bureaucratic managerialism or Leninist totalitarianism – put into clear relief the dimension of authority, whether in society as a whole or in the workplace in particular, and called for the democratisation of society (sadly this critique was to fade as bureaucratic organisations inside and outside the workers movement came to dominate society), the ecological movement calls for us to reconsider, in his words…

“the scheme and structure of needs, the way of life, of society. And this constitutes a capital breakthrough in comparison with what can be seen as the unilateral character of previous movements. What is at issue in the ecology movement is the entire conception, the entire position of the relations between humanity and the world, and ultimately the central and eternal question: What is human life? What are we living for?…”

Where XR has been impressive, in so far as I have been able to follow it and in the conversations with participants I have had, is that it has attempted to confront these dual questions – the question of power and the question of the values, at the same time. While there is a danger that the focus on extinction may lead to an apocalyptic sectarianism, it doesn’t seem to be the dominant feature as yet. Rather, the focus on care for planet and participants, as well as the rather obvious fact that climate change will likely mean extinction for many in the Global South in coming decades, seems sober rather than alarmist.

What we have to address if we wish to do something about the climate emergency while securing a habitable planet and a democratic free society is start to create meanings and forms of activity that work toward the first goal – indeed, the first steps toward this have been brought into being by the collective work of so many thousands of people over decades, phrases and ideas that are at heart significations (that which holds and conveys meaning) such as ecology, sustainability, renewables, etc. Types of activity which fuse thought and action are part of the bringing into being of a new and different relationship between the planet and human beings and between humans ourselves. Sometimes, in keeping with the values of the society we live in, it has been posited that change will come through individual choices. However, this kind of myopia is ultimately a abdication of responsibility. The question of the values that dominate society are social questions that cannot be tackled by blind, anonymous market forces or noble individuals.

By fusing the question of authority and the question of values, we come to the heart of the social question – politics. Many astonishing ecological thinkers – Ellul and Charbonneau come to mind – rejected politics for many understandable reasons including that it degraded social questions to vulgar interests, however the values and meaning of human existence can only be tackled by way of politics in its broadest sense.

There is a danger, as Ellul’s and Charbonneau’s work points out in a extremely sophisticated way, that the very science that allows us to identify the climate crisis will overshadow and therefore undermine human actions by having us think we are dealing with a question of technique. Undoubtedly, scientific work on soils, renewable energy and a host of other things shall be crucial to creating a world where the values of ecology and democracy can prevail but ultimately, to tackle the climate crisis we will need a civilisational change that sees capitalist values like profit, ever expanding productive capacity and meaningless consumption abandoned.

This is the work of politics, particularly a politics that totally rejects racism, xenophobia, the veiled anti-semitism around pseudo-radical talk of elites, and the hatred of migrants and refugees that rationalises other people being degraded and destroyed, in favour of opening up of social life, the breaking down of divisions between people and for society to become self-managing rather than managed by bureaucratic fiat or hierarchical order. This means a high level of activism and engagement from the society as a whole, the complete opposite of the passivity and privatisation of our current society of television and consumerism.

Indeed, the change of values necessary is a whole rewriting of the underpinnings of modern life, to quote Castoriadis again

“The most beautiful and concise formulation of the spirit of capitalism I know of is Descartes’s well-known programmatic statement: We are to attain knowledge and truth in order to ‘make ourselves masters and possessors of nature’. It is in this statement of the great rationalist philosopher that one sees most clearly the illusion, the madness, the absurdity of capitalism (as well as of a certain philosophy and a certain theology that precedes it). What does it mean to ‘make ourselves the masters and possessors of nature’? Note, too, that both capitalism and the work of Marx and of Marxism are founded upon this meaningless idea.

Now, what becomes apparent, perhaps in fits and starts, through the ecology movement is that we certainly do not want to be masters and possessors of nature. First of all, because we have understood that this does not mean anything, it has no meaning – except to enslave society to an absurd project and to the structures of domination embodying that project. And next, because we want another relationship with nature and with the world – which means, too, another way of life and other needs.

The question, however, is this: What way of life, and what needs? What do we want? And who can answer to these questions, how, and on what basis? By answer I mean not in a state of absolute knowledge but, rather, in full knowledge of the relevant facts and lucidly.”1

These last questions can only be answered by political movements invested with compassion and care, prepared to live in the world in a different way and by different values, that doesn’t reject the world as a whole but instead invests life with a new horizon and mode of being in the world. What must be avoided is new identities in the millenarian style of Bolshevism, religious redemption or trans-humanism that is an escape from the problems of the human condition, instead we need more a grounded, more worldly society with a less hateful conception of self and other. A conception that sees our species of one among many and the Earth as our dwelling place that we may never totally understand but wish to preserve nevertheless. Democracy, both in form and content, is the only framework for this. This is where our social movements should aim.

by Joseph Aylmer


  1. Both quotes from ‘From Ecology to Autonomy’ (1980), reproduced in The Castoriadis Reader (1997, Blackwell).

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