Adrian Ho reviews a penetrating discourse on the relationship between the climate crisis and today’s surge in anti-democratic politics.
Eve Darian-Smith, Global Burning: Rising Antidemocracy and the Climate Crisis (Stanford University Press, 2022), 230pp.
There is no story, just a simple, sordid truth: “our world is on fire” (xiv). In writing this factual account of the status quo, Darian-Smith has encapsulated the dubious moralities of governments and their evasive attitudes in dealing with the climate crisis. In five chapters, the alignment between climate change and politics is clear: governments have “politically encouraged, economically incentivised, and legally authorised companies to pollute on this massive scale” (8).
This timely book has exposed an inconvenient truth to all who share in this world: too much of our politics is leaning towards right-wing free-market authoritarianism, and politicians’ desire for power has aided this rapid change in the structure of governments. Using fire as a symbol and a metaphor, Darian-Smith connects the historical dots into a fully-fledged picture of our world encased in flames. The anger that the ordinary folk is made to suffer, coupled with the consequential effects of failing to tackle the crisis head-on, make this book a relatable read. Speaking of actual fires, the author points out that “climate change does not cause fires but creates the conditions in which fires are more intense in size and number” (22).
Pointing to the US (with particular reference to the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017 by the Trump administration), Brazil’s rapid deforestation and recent Australian bushfires, Darian-Smith makes a keenly argued, well-researched case for why fires rage out of control, and she doesn’t mince words about the devastation they wreak. However, the book’s argument extends much further than that. In chapter two, Darian-Smith argues that the hallmark of global capitalism is the land grab, and that irresponsible (and negligent) usage of land has been a major contributing factor in fires running wild.
Chapters three and four serve readers with a political lens through which to look at the issue, contending: “It is not coincidental that escalating catastrophic wildfires—and climate change in general—are accompanied by a global rise in antidemocratic governance” (67). It is our ineptitude that stops us from realising that “co-opting the rhetoric of democracy and freedom helps veil many authoritarian leaders’ deeply anti-egalitarian and discriminatory policies and political decision-making” (68). Conjoining that with “free-market authoritarianism”, an anti-environment stance is inevitable, as politicians increasingly ascribe to self-serving, self-interested, right-wing ideologies. After all, it has been all but proved to our leaders that “scaling back environmental protections is a winning strategy: it pleases their corporate sponsors while also affirming ultranationalist and isolationist ideologies that are very popular with their extreme-right populist supporters” (69).
Not only that, but also “all leaders secure their legal control while carefully preserving the veneer of legitimate authority” (77). Chapter four lodges its argument around the dimension of “Violent Environmental Racism”, which is to say the ways in which people of colour and Indigenous peoples seem to suffer more directly than others from the effects of climate change, and which has led to mass protests, arrests and termination of life, not just of animals but of the peoples and leaders who seek to defend ancient forests and habitats. The chapter asserts that these interconnected elements are all notable features of free-market authoritarianism, prevalent in today’s societies.
This book is not what anyone wants to read, but it is precisely for this reason that one should read it. It’s time we ask ourselves to consider the devastating effects of the entanglement of climate change and politics. We should “Think Through Fire,” as one of the chapter titles puts it. As a concluding thought, it is perhaps worth giving the floor over to Darian-Smith herself: “We can continue to deny scientific evidence, abdicate responsibility for our futures, allow greedy corporations to burn forests and pollute the air we breathe, and tolerate authoritarian leaders and their antidemocratic policies that are quickly taking away our collective ability to act. Whatever we do, there is no avoiding that our planet is literally and metaphorically on fire” (137).
Adrian Ho lives and works in Hong Kong. He is currently pursuing his PhD in English Literary Studies.