Eric Swyngedow’s paper ‘Apocalypse Forever? Post-Political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change’ is a challenging read for those of us without a doctorate political science. It is however an interesting insight into the relationship between climate change and the shift of political power to the technocrats as regular people become further removed from the political sphere. These are 2 topics I did not think of as related before this reading, however I will below attempt to explain my understanding of this paper (in much simpler language) woven with my opinions and critiques.

Eric Swyngedow seems to be of the opinion that the policies adopted to combat the climate change problem are being mobilized to solidify a state of being where there are no opposing systems of governance upon which society can be built beyond capitalism. In a time where climate change has been heavily politicized, he finds it paradoxical that political philosophers are claiming that the trend politically over the last few decades has been to remove the power of decision-making from the people and deliver it to private entities. He speaks of a global consensus on the causes and solutions to the problem. Failure to align with these globally accepted principles leaves one as an outlier subject to ridicule. The framework surrounding the discourse is capitalism and all the problems and solutions lie within this framework to which there is no alternative.

He maintains that the discourse surrounding sustainability is being used to continue to wrest power from the people and speaks of the use of apocalyptic imagery as a means of ensuring that the climate discourse remains urgent. This has allowed major polluters such as shell and BP to rebrand and seemingly join hands with the world against this ‘future catastrophe’ giving them freedom to pretend that their activities are not already literally fueling ecological catastrophes. Swyngedow speaks of setting up C02 as a strawman, which in turn has created more opportunities for capitalism to thrive through media such as the speculation of C02 futures. C02 has been simplified into the main enemy which if vanquished we can continue to produce and consume as we have been doing, preventing any sort of actual radical change to how we live. The narrative is that sustainability can be achieved once we control our emissions. Although this is a scientific fact, he argues that it has been elevated beyond science into what he refers to as a matter of concern, borrowing from Bruno Latour’s concept of matters of fact versus matters of concern. Matters of concern are inherently political and elevating scientific fact to a matter of concern elevates it to a status that is above questioning.

There is an interesting dive into the use of fear as a fuel to the sustainability discourse with the continued use of apocalyptic imagery and messaging. Images images of a world where resources have been depleted are used to solidify the importance of sustainability. In my opinion, this is deeply disturbing and insulting to poorer countries already experiencing famine and flooding associated with climate change. The claims being made about the potential future disasters are already happening in parts of the world that contribute the least to pollution. The narrative of sustainability as it stands is firmly entrenched in capitalism which Swyngedow argues uses the phantom of climate change as a tool.  The fear-mongering used does not come with any solutions or means of salvation, it does not encourage action. It in fact discourages it in a sense by positing that the human race on a whole is the victim of a future catastrophe outside of their control, disregarding the cultural, social and political nuances of human activity and pitting humanity against nature as separate and distinct entities. The tensions between different groups of people are ignored -tensions that include neocolonialism and exploitation-and no privileged groups are identified, calling on elites to save the planet rather than questioning the existence of elite groups within society. He also argues that unlike other movements there is no actual name for this future with a world that has undergone climate change. Whereas movements such as feminism had the ‘woman’ as a political symbol there is no political symbol for climate change for whom to act leaving the movement nebulous and promoting the idea that the disaster remains forever unnamed and in the future. My understanding of this is the concern that there is nothing to be striving for within the climate-change movement just mitigation of the existing situation that will allow the status quo to continue. The position remains reactionary.

The one aspect of the paper I initially disagreed with is his sense that there is something wrong with having decision-making be a matter of expert opinion over political position. While I agree that no opinion should be above question, surely the opinions of those who have vastly studied a subject over those who have passing knowledge should hold more weight? Swyngedow argues that governance is now a ‘stakeholder-based arrangement’ in which the government works with private entities which will sustain neoliberal capitalism. At first, I did not agree but thinking about it a bit more I think I understand what he means. Private entities acting within our current systems are generally for profit and will act only in ways that encourage profit. Having profit be a key driver for a government is dangerous and encourages what he speaks about next which is the turning of political problems into easily solved administrative issues. The complexities of living together as heterogenous groups are oversimplified and politics is no longer a space where one can hold any views that are completely radical. He argues that the current state has removed the possibility of political disagreement without it either being watered down or pushed to extreme forms of dissent (sometimes involving violence). This problem has shaped the sustainability movement where what we are sustaining is not the environment but our ability to continue our extractive processes There is a great need to reimagine how we live outside of existing systems, but this cannot be done with the current trajectory of sustainability discourse.


The Sustainability of ‘Sustainability’ is a project of IAAC, Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia developed at Master in Advanced Ecological Buildings and Biocities in 2021/22 by Zani Gichuki and faculty: Alex Hadley