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Title: From Individual to Collective Change and Beyond. Ecological Citizenship and Politicisation
Other Titles: Van individuele naar collectieve verandering en daar voorbij. Ecologisch burgerschap en politisering
Authors: Kenis, Anneleen
Issue Date: 12-May-2015
Abstract: A number of scholars has described predominant discourses on climate change as profoundly depoliticised. At the same time, however, other scholars have challenged this ‘post-political thesis’ for not taking the multiplicity of voices and actually existing forms of contestation sufficiently into account. In this context, reference is made to grassroots environmental movements which would challenge the status quo and thereby politicise climate change. Is the significant number of ecologically committed citizens, organised in all kinds of collectives, not a sign that climate change is not so depoliticised at all?
In this dissertation, I study thesenbsp;of contestation, and the processes of politicisation and depoliticisation they entail. Elaborating upon contemporary debates on the post-political and climate change, I investigate the tension between the aforementioned positions, and show that the existence of diverging voices does not disprove the post-political thesis as such. I undertake this project not only from a theoretical, but also from an empirical point of view, stressing the interaction between both.
Theoretically, the dissertation draws in particular on the work of Chantal Mouffe and Erik Swyngedouw and, to a lesser extent, on the work of Slavoj Žižek, Ernesto Laclau and Jacques Rancière. Although the way these scholars define the political and depoliticisation slightly differs, the red thread of these different analyses is that a discourse is post-political (or post-democratic in the case of Rancière) when it, first, misrecognises the constructed and therefore contingent nature of the social, second, obfuscates that the construction of the social inevitably entails acts of power, and third, conceals that each such construction produces certain exclusions and therefore generates conflicts or antagonisms. Applied to climate change, post-politics manifests itself particularly in technocratic or consensual discourses, or in discourses which reduce society to the sum of consumers, ecological commitment to individual moral action and sustainable transitions to technological innovation. Each time, what remains invisible is that tackling ecological crises presupposes a deeply power- and conflict-laden process. The relevance of this observation is that acknowledging the political is a key condition for processes of change not only to be effective, but also and especially democratic.
Empirically, this dissertation is based on qualitative research (interviews, document analysisnbsp;participant observation),nbsp;in particular activist research, and presents the results of an in-depth study of processes of politicisation and depoliticisation innbsp;of ecologically committed citizens, andnbsp;movements in which they are involved. More precisely, I focus on Transition Towns and the Climate Justice Action movement, two grassroots movements which were launched in Flanders in 2008 and were remarkably successful at that time. Moving beyond the individualism of sustainable consumption paradigms, and advocating more collective forms of ecological citizenship instead, both movementsnbsp;in attracting quite a lot of participants in a short lapse of time.
However, as my analysis reveals, despite these commonalities, both movements take radically diverging pathways on other terrains. In particular, they give a different meaning to thelsquo;we’, the collective in which ecological citizens are embedded. I analyse this difference in terms of two forms of ecological citizenship: a communitarian and agonistic one. Crucial in this distinction is the extent to which both movements give a place to ‘thersquo;. Importantly, Transition Towns thinks itself as a geographical community, internally harmonious and externally related to similar local communities. Key features are localisation, social connectedness, resilience and the good life. As I show, Transition Towns is particularly vulnerable for what scholars have called the ‘local trap’, which I reconceptualise as a post-political trap.
Climate Justice Action explicitly attempts to repoliticise the climate terrain. Significantly, however, exactly this explicit political stance seems to alienate people from the movement, and thus to limit the movement in its capacity to broaden its democratic basis and to become a substantial political force. This is even more the case to the extent that Climate Justice Action tends to overpoliticise and frames the whole field of climate change in terms of allies and adversaries, friends and enemies. In a post-political context, one cannot fight for alternatives without first fighting post-politics. However, when the constitution oflsquo;we-themrsquo; becomes too explicitly anbsp;in itself, the paradoxical result is that a movement’s capacity to build a sufficiently broad rsquo; is constrained.
The analysis of how nbsp;political’ manifests itself in these grassroots climate movements (or is concealed by them) also provides theoretical insights into the political itself. First, through the analysis of Transition Towns, I show that even in the most depoliticised discourses a symptomatic form of the political pops up again. In so far as the movement feels thenbsp;to state, timenbsp;again, that we should be positive and collaborative, Transition Towns’ discourse is in fact very polemic and conflictual. Even discourses which reject ‘we against them’ positions thus subtly engage in a polemic, but then against ‘the politicalnbsp;as such. The analysis of this return of the political shows not only that the issue of thenbsp;cannot be circumvented or denied in the last instance, but also provides starting points for a repoliticisation of the ecological field.
Second, I show that a significant part of current scholarship on climate change and post-politics overlooks that it is on the level of discourse or representation that the diagnosis of post-politics should be made. It is not reality as such which is post-political, but the way reality is portrayed. As long as the actually existing diversity of voices on climate change is not accounted for, the post-political thesis retains its value. Furthermore, post-politics is a critical notion, exactly developed to bring this diversity to the fore.
Therefore, I argue that post-politics is a real problem for tackling climate change in an effective and democratic way, and the attempt to overcome it is not only a necessity butnbsp;a profound challenge.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: TH
Appears in Collections:Division of Geography & Tourism
Division of Bioeconomics

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