Politics in a Burning World: Beyond Mere Survival

Rithika Ramamurthy and Ajay Singh Chaudhary in Non-Profit Quarterly: “Beyond Mere Survival”: A Conversation with Ajay Singh Chaudhary”

Rithika Ramamurthy: I want to talk about the central concept of your book, The Exhausted of the Earth: Politics in a Burning World. That is: exhaustion. Can you tell us how the term works across the material, psychological, and political dimensions of the climate crisis across the book? 

Ajay Singh Chaudhary: Exhaustion is not an accidental term….It’s a connecting concept and experience. I spend a long time in the book talking about psycho-social and bodily dimensions of exhaustion that run in parallel to [the] exhaustion of ecological phenomena. One of my goals was for people to understand that one of the most miserable and relatable aspects of contemporary life is a general sense that things are going too far, too fast, and are wearing us down. This is true in places like Bangladesh, the Mediterranean, and Brazil but also in places like the United States and the rest of the world. 

We have traditional categories of describing this dissatisfaction in life under capitalism, like alienation. But exhaustion is more specific to climate politics. Climate change is not just an “issue.” It’s too big and unprecedented for the tools we’ve inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries, so we need to change the way we think about politics to address it. We can’t just “staple” it onto other issues and say: “Here’s my tax policy, my employment policy, my inclusivity policy, and my climate policy.” It doesn’t work that way—it changes things.

RR: Your book repurposes and extends Frantz Fanon’s ideas in The Wretched of the Earth to lend strength to the idea that the wretched of the earth—the colonized—are now its exhausted. Why are feelings and mental health such an important part of your analysis?

ASC: Exhaustion is not just an ecological problem but also a psycho-social one. Fanon once said that he needed to “stretch” Marxism to understand the colonial situation—I think we have to stretch it further for climate catastrophe. For the first time, people in the Global North are experiencing what people in the Global South have understood as colonial relations for a long time. Of course, there are people in the Global North who have always experienced this kind of relationship—Black and Indigenous people in the United States for example. But there are now people experiencing this kind of direct, brutal repression who never thought that that was going to be their reality. 

Beyond pure economic exploitation, the techniques and technologies of control that were developed in the Global South are being exported back to the Global North. We can look to different examples, such as the criminalization of protest or the fact that the US has the largest system of mass detention in the world—both percentage-wise and total numbers—or the accelerated targeting of climate activists, union organizers, and other radicals. 

That’s part of the colonial dimension of our current crisis. But emotions are also a vital part of these phenomena. I find it strange that people across the political spectrum dismiss feelings as “fuzzy things” we don’t have to address. Feelings are the bridging material between folks and can be crucial for building solidarity in political movements. But also, the right is extremely good at mobilizing feelings. For all of the talk of “facts don’t care about your feelings,” right-wing organizing spaces are deeply emotional resonance chambers. People on the left often want to respond to this with reason, but there is a free-floating sense of things being very wrong. People are very upset in the world right now. The right is very good at directing blame for these feelings at a scapegoat—foreign powers, immigrants, and so on.  

Very few people have fully formed, coherent ideologies. One of the things that Fanon—and even less radical thinkers like Machiavelli and Hobbes—really understood is that the building blocks of political society were basic feelings. There is no preexisting model for translating the emotional dimension of climate politics, but Fanon understood that people reach a “boiling point” when conditions of oppression reach a point where things are unbearable. 

Fanon also pointed out that biological and environmental factors do influence mental health, but we need to solve the root causes. We can’t just jump to that stage—it requires struggle. Fanon understood that this struggle was deleterious to individuals: they struggle, they get hurt. Violence may be a necessary part of struggle, but it is going to leave people really messed up. He looked to find how to integrate emotional life into an active, successful political movement. It’s not going to get us a utopia, but it is a first step towards getting better. 

How can we transition from that deleterious process of struggle and turn it into power? If you look at the histories of anti-colonial movements—or frankly, any kinds of struggle—you often see a spillover effect, where many different kinds of people recognize that they feel the same way, even though they are very different from one another. You don’t have to be the same, speak the same language, or come from the same place. That feeling can be a great place to begin a conversation about politics.

Illustration by Sadia Tariq

RR: One of the first ideas of the book is that “we’re not in this together,” meaning that there is no universal subject of the climate crisis. Can you say a little bit more about this and about the challenges of building a climate constituency with this complexity in mind?

ASC: I try to address this with a little story in the second chapter, “The Extractive Circuit.” I put two characters together: amiddle-class female tech worker living and working in California and a Filipina woman who has come seeking domestic work in the United States. Compelled to stay as productive as she can, the Global North worker works harder and longer, consuming large amounts of energy and displacing everything from childcare to cleaning services onto the migrant worker from the Global South. The Global South woman has come to the US because local industries in her home country, such as fishing, have been decimated by climate change fallout; the Global North woman works longer hours to be able to keep afloat amidst rising costs, including, but not limited, to those due to local wildfires.

There are many kinds of people who are a part of this coalition of the exhausted, and there are many different versions of these movements. Even though the paths of these two people look very different, and society forces them to have as little human contact as possible, their fates are intertwined, and they have an extraordinary set of common experiences—especially exhaustion. Many people need, ecologically and socially, a slower, more reasonable, more commodious pace of life. If we pay attention to these feelings, we can learn how a bigger and broader movement can be brought together—and quickly. 

Often, we’re told that we’re living in a beautiful, dynamic world that we’ll lose if we slow down, forcing us to live in burlap sacks and eat sawdust. But capitalism is already making most of us do that. We can imagine new ideas but also recover ones that have been phased out which would have made things more livable for everyone. Some of the things we need now are actually dreams of the past. 

RR: One of the most heated chapters in your book takes on the thinkers that say: socialism means taking over the machine, not turning it off—and only one kind of worker can do it. What are the negatives of this approach?

ASC: The problem with many of these thinkers is that they create a very narrow idea of the working class. They ostensibly include domestic workers, farmers, and service workers when discussing working class. But they then go on to say that these workers aren’t politically effective because they are not close to the point of production. By this argument, the only people that can be part of a politically effective climate movement are, say, unionized workers in industrial sectors, specifically in the production of electricity. But by this definition, most of the people in the world today aren’t actually working people! Doing this dismisses most of the working classes—not only in our country but worldwide. More here.