Climate Crisis and the Actuarial Imaginary: 'The War on Global Warming'

By Dibley, Ben; Neilson, Brett | New Formations, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Climate Crisis and the Actuarial Imaginary: 'The War on Global Warming'


Dibley, Ben, Neilson, Brett, New Formations


Has there ever been a climate crisis? Or an economic crisis? Did these ever happen? Are they happening? 'Merry crisis and a happy new fear'--these words, spray painted outside the Bank of Greece in Athens, as that country erupted in riots in December 2008, seemed to say it so well. There is always another crisis, a new crisis. Enjoy your crisis. But also be scared. Since the crisis perpetuates fear. In this paper we want to critically interrogate the proposition that we live in a time of crisis. What is politically at stake in such claims, as rife as they seem to have become? How do they fold into processes of subjection and subjectivation, shaping our roles as citizens, workers, migrants, consumers, activists or investors? How does the declaration of a crisis amplify, modify or detract from the underlying conditions to which it seeks to draw attention? We ask these questions not simply because we are suspicious of the terminology that circulates in venues like The Economist or Time Magazine. Our investigation is also driven by the belief that the construction, interpretation and management of the present as a time of crisis locates individuals and populations as objects of particular strategies of governance. While we explore these strategies predominantly in relation to the discourses and practices surrounding the notion of climate crisis, we do not limit our analysis to this object or even understand the term 'climate' in an exclusively meteorological sense.

To approach climate crisis as a construct is not to do the same as regards the warming of the earth's atmosphere or the depletion of the resources that have fuelled the development of global modernity. Indeed, it is the seriousness of this situation that motivates our inquiry and leads us to ask what is at stake in the invocation of crisis, or perhaps better, yet another crisis. To invoke the notion of crisis is to construct a particular injunction to judgement and action that establishes in itself the imperative for redressing that crisis. In crisis, as it is popularly noted, we find ourselves in a moment of danger and opportunity. Unsurprisingly, much of the current discourse on climate change oscillates between these two poles: most dramatically, between imminent catastrophe and the prospect of renewal; between unimaginable humanitarian disaster and the promise of a green-tech revolution. As such the climate crisis regularly calls forth regimes of risk, since it is notions of risk that work this line between danger and opportunity, between protection and profit.

This essay's premise, that climate crisis shapes particular subjectivities, is built on the presupposition of the existence of a political economy of protection and profit that constitutes, as it constructs, that crisis. To interrogate the processes of subjection and subjectivation integral to this economy, the essay traces how the climate crisis becomes enfolded in existing logics that seek to manage contingency through risk; significantly, via those risk logics of security and securitisation by which global disorder and global threats have come to be imagined and managed in both the political and economic spheres. (1) To tease out the logics of these risk regimes and investigate their modes of subjectivation this paper proposes a concept: the actuarial imaginary. This formulation provides the occasion to investigate how the subject of the ecological crisis is constituted not only in the rationalities of risk but also in the affective 'atmosphere' of societies in which risk has become a central technique of governance. (2)

To this end this essay proceeds in four parts. The first introduces the prevailing image of the subject of climate crisis as one oscillating between purposive reason and an avoidance of an encounter with the unimaginable. The second examines the rationalities of risk and their affective atmosphere that comes to shape the actuarial imaginary of the climate crisis. …

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