Paul Saint-Amour, an English professor at University of Pennsylvania, has written a provocative reflection on the resonances of war trauma, states of privilege, and ethical implications for global climate change. It’s a follow up to another recent piece from a specifically American vantage point, Roy Scranton’s Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene. Talk of the ethics of climate change from the perspective of the privileged global north has become a bit of a cottage industry in recent years, since when viewed in a certain light the very problem of climate change seems to provoke a ‘perfect storm’ for modern ethical philosophy (what with the problem of altruism and sacrifice/discounting for anonymous future generations). Malcolm Bull’s review of Stephen Gardiner’s book by that name, A Perfect Moral Storm, is a case in point. Still, I think this kind of sustained debate among those in a position to do something about global carbon emissions is extremely important. In my view, there is no possibility of resilience or adaptation that does not include a radical reduction in emissions, and to present these as alternatives to each other, as is sometimes done by pundits or economists like Euston Quah, is to offer a false choice that goes beyond optimism. Privileged populations like those of the United States or Singapore have a global responsibility to take climate change disasters seriously – not as a matter of altruism or charity towards disadvantaged neighbors, but as an integral component of their own affluence.
Saint-Amour takes a different tack from Bull and Gardiner by shifting focus to the complexities of trauma that accompany the devastating unravelling of social fabric under conditions of disaster. I’ve often thought that war and environmental disaster have interesting and important parallels: both are the outcome of much longer processes that produce situations that cannot be controlled; both (at least in contemporary times) are quintessentially environmental; both produce suffering not simply because they harm bodies or exacerbate inequalities, but especially because societies are fragile things intimately tied to space and ecology – and both war and environmental disasters make that fragility impossible to maintain. If trauma can be a consequence of war and disaster, it is because of this intimacy. Saint-Amour brings this connection home through the contemporary figure of the drone attack, which produces an environment of terror through the experience of constantly hearing drones overhead and knowing, fearing, that at any unknown moment terror from the air may strike someone dead – but whom, and on what impenetrable calculation? Moreover, his attention is drawn by the specific asymmetry of the global relation, in which American empire secures its state of privilege against the radical inequalities it orchestrates and preserves through perfectly asymmetrical warfare. While in the end I’m not sure the drone is an adequate figure for the ethics of climate change, it does a better job than the calculative rationalism proposed by Malcolm Bull.