The 2019 Climate Action Summit, held at UN headquarters in New York City on September 23, provided a forum for more than 60 world leaders—including Angela Merkel, Boris Johnson, and Emmanuel Macron—to present their country’s roadmap for achieving net zero emissions by 2050. First to speak, however, was teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. She didn’t mince words: “People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing… And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” She concluded her four-minute rebuke with a warning: “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
This generational conflict, writes Debray in Le siècle vert: un changement de civilisation (Gallimard, 2020), is symptomatic of a paradigm shift in how we see ourselves, our planet, and our role on it: “The future is accusing the past … because tomorrow’s humans may not know what a snowman is, or a natural source of potable water, or a pristine beach” (2). The era from which we’re emerging—the era of “fairytales of eternal economic growth”—valorized dynamism over stasis, speed over slowness, inventiveness over stagnation. It was, Debray believes, at best irresponsible, at worst pyromanic, and potentially self-destructive.
Fragility breeds fraternity—and femininity? When writing about the danger technology poses to humankind, Martin Heidegger often quoted a couplet from “Patmos,” a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin: “But where danger is, grows/The saving power also.” Heidegger believed that thinking through the true essence of technology would cause people to change their attitude toward it and spur them into action to save themselves—and the planet—from its adverse effects. Debray’s theory is similar, albeit with a telling difference: clarity about the danger the planet faces doesn’t result from a thought process but rather an emotion: fear. Fear—of severe weather, submerged coastal cities, and widespread drought—will engender the attitudes necessary for corrective action: “The predators now finds themselves in a precarious and vulnerable position. This sense of fragility will make us more fraternal and responsible” (10).
Fear not only engenders attitudes, it’s regendering society. Debray believes that the Western world is becoming increasingly effeminate. The fact that a woman is currently at the head of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank as well as the governments of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, and Norway isn’t merely a result of greater gender equality. For Debray, it also reflects Western society’s gradual shift from resource exploitation to planetary care-giving. From conflict to cooperation, from consumption to conservation. In short, to a world in which “the bike path reigns, the air is pure, bodies are svelte, financial disclosures are transparent, unions are cooperative” (25). Clichéd gender roles aside, Debray is convinced that what he calls feminization is a good thing: “Our society’s increasing femininity is a hitherto underestimated immune defense against the virility virus… Male domination and the destruction of nature have gone hand in hand. The one isn’t possible without the other” (16-17).
A new religion
The paradigm shift toward planetary care-giving is, for Debray, tantamount to the founding of a new religion. Not in the sense of a new church, but in the broader Latin sense of religare: to bind together, to connect. Previous religions that have bound people together—“maintained the troops’ morale and dictated proper conduct”—have included scientism, positivism, progressivism, liberalism, communism, and capitalism (29). The religion of the green century is climatism-ecologism, in which all questions are assessed according to their impact on the climate and natural habitats. In which the most authoritative science for understanding society is no longer economics (Smith, Marx, Keynes) but rather climatology. And in which the narrative is no longer one of progress and achievement but rather of a tipping point, a point of no return after which the planet will never be the same again (32); a typical example of this narrative is Anthony Barnovsky and Elizabeth Hadly’s End Game: Tipping Point for Plant Earth? (London: Collins, 2015).
From democracy to biocracy?
Debray amusingly points out the new religion’s many parallels with organized religions. Climatism-ecologism has synods (UN climate change conferences), practitioners of strict observance (vegans), believers who sin (vegetarians who like an occasional hamburger), heretics (climate skeptics), processions (Fridays for Future marches), prophets of doom (Greta Thunberg), and prophets of hope (Bill Gates) (30-31).
His jests notwithstanding, Debray thinks that climatism-ecologism is necessary for humans’ survival. His concern is whether the new religion will be tolerant. Couldn’t its virtues—like those of all isms—be taken to extremes and transformed into vices? Could democracy one day be replaced by biocracy, an authoritarian regime that limits freedoms and enforces certain behaviors in the name of a new Sovereign Good: the planet’s health (42)? The book was written before COVID-19, but it’s not difficult to imagine that Debray would’ve viewed the lockdown restrictions as harbingers of a virocracy.
Western societies—with the exception of some intolerance of politically incorrect opinions on climate change—seem still to be a long way from what Debray terms the “Khmer vert,” an autocratic, repressive climatist regime. But in the same way that the “eyes of all future generations are upon” world leaders to ensure that they take real action to slow climate change, Debray suggests that our eyes should be upon the green century’s new religion to ensure that its laudable zeal to protect the planet doesn’t lead it to neglect people’s rights: “Green doesn’t always stand for kindness, nor red always for blood” (41).