In reading and thinking about my eco-anxiety, I’ve recently learned of a Swedish neologism that describes a new way of thinking about air travel: flygskam: flight guilt. I expect that like hygge, flygskam will soon be a part of the English lexicon. Because so many of us have eco-anxiety. Which is definitely not hygge.
Back when I was teaching my Theory in Anthropology courses it was challenging but not impossible, in the early 90s, to get students to imagine a society where the rules of capitalism did not pervade *all* actions, choices, perspectives. World systems theorists from the late ’70s (eg: Emmanuel Wallerstein and Jane Schneider) and ethnographies from Oceania helped enormously, as did my own insights from participant observation and research in Tonga. But by the ’00s, it became harder and harder to get students to that place of intellectual flexibility required to recognize other, non-capitalist social systems, other social-economic formations, as viable, as really real. While the originally contested concept of ‘culture’ as constructed by anthropologists became so mainstream that I could spend less time teaching what ‘culture’ was, recognition that non-capitalist relations to the environment and other species did exist became harder and harder to achieve. Maybe I became a poorer professor, but for me, students struggled more and more to think without capitalism as the default for society.
It is axiomatic in anthropological theory that it is difficult to ‘see’ [think\imagine] without one’s cultural lens affecting one’ perceptions. That axiom is the core of the participant-observation methodology, the idea that living as others live provides an avenue for seeing and thinking with a different cultural world view, leading to an appreciation and valuing of differences and possibilities for critiquing one’s own status quo. The method works.
But, as globalization pushed, and capitalism –as neoliberalism– achieved further, wider, deeper, capillary and rhizomic relations, I struggled to find ways to describe social formation alternatives to capitalism that didn’t sound to students like othering of indigenous peoples, or romanticized history, or science fiction. Despite my commitment to the ethnographic method, and Paul Mason’s work on post-capitalism aside, it seems to me now that literature –Ursula K. LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler– is possibly the best avenue for reflecting on alternatives to a capitalist mode of ecosystem-destruction relations, simply because globalization and neoliberalism has completed the colonial plot. There are no contemporary sample societies to point to as unaffected, materially and culturally –not my beloved Tonga– by capitalist modes of production, by what Greta Thunberg neatly described as “fairy-tales of eternal economic growth“. Not even the famously xenophobic Sentinalese of the Andaman Islands are unaffected. Else why would they have the highly effective defense system that resulted in a wanna-be missionary’s death?
Eco-anxiety abounds, even among those who do not recognize they have it. It constantly surprises me that so many people think rivers are for viewing, maybe boating on, maybe fishing from, on the right day, in the right place (but catch and release or beware of how many you eat; avoid the belly fat, where the heavy metals concentrate). The default thinking of a river is not as something to drink. Unless with filters and purification tablets. Or in an emergency. It wasn’t always like this. I have lived with, I remember, environmental beauty appreciated via sight, smell, sound, feel, and yes, taste; without eco-anxiety.
This is what I’m pondering, with my 3:30AM jetlagged brain, as I read Naomi Klein saying: “the fact that for so many people it’s so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first”.
Winter is here, but I can’t be hygge because I have flygskam. But my flygskam is not really a product –in the foucauldian sense– of my eco-anxiety. My flygskam is an indicator, evidence of another axiom: that capitalism atomizes. It induces us to think and respond and benefit as lone individuals, not as interconnected members of a system. Capitalism works, insidiously, to disguise it’s own capillary power, and to normalize those who control the capital that influences the global political, economic and social options and actions that are causing the climate crisis (while also exacerbating racism, sexism, poverty, disparity, war, alienation of indigenous lands, etcetera). I’m supposed to feel my flygskam on my own, rather than notice the scam, and scammers, that it signifies. That’s the capitalism mode.
Is there a Swedish (or Sentinalese, maybe?) word for the anger I feel towards those who are blocking the systemic changes we all need to preserve this planet’s ecosystem? I want it; need it.
November 12, 2019.
Some interesting links:
Mason, Paul  PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future. Wikipedia summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PostCapitalism:_A_Guide_to_Our_Future
Schneider, Jane  “Was There A Pre-Capitalist World-system?” Peasant Studies 6:1:20–29. Find it here: https://www.irows.ucr.edu/cd/books/c-p/chap2.htm
Varoufakis, Yanis  And the Weak Suffer What They Must? Reviewed in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/25/and-the-weak-suffer-what-they-must-yanis-varoufakis-review-europe-austerity-threat-global-security
Wallerstein, Immanuel  The Modern World-System, Vol. 1: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press.
Burawawoy, Michael  Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process under Monopoly Capitalism. University of Chicago Press
Weiner, Annette B.  Women of Value, Men of Renown : New Perspectives in Trobriand Exchange. University of Texas Press