Slavoj Žižek: Ecology is the new opiate of the masses

While tapping out the previous Malthusian post, I had a quote about the current overbearing orthodoxy of ‘religious environmentalism’ right at the tip of my tongue, but I just couldn’t remember it. It came to me suddenly just now, while doing rep number 76 of my one hundred pullups workout at my ‘hood fitness park and pullup bar (Yeah, I’m a lean mean street gymnast and regular ‘thug’… Go Zef! No kipping).

From the sometimes annoying but always interesting philosopher and provocateur/agitator, Slavoj Žižek with his twist of the famous paraphrase of Marx, “Religion is the opium of the people”:

Ecology is the the new opiate of the masses

-Slavoj Žižek

Here is an interesting interview with Slavoj Žižek, on ‘touchy-feely environmentalism’:

Slavoj Žižek: Wake up and smell the apocalypse
Is touchy-feely environmentalism a new opiate of the people? Why are we paying rent to Bill Gates? Is reality incomplete? Marxist cultural commentator Slavoj Žižek, the most dangerous philosopher in the west, unravels it all for Liz Else.


Your new book, Living in the End Times, is about the demise of global capitalism. What is science’s place in all this?

Science is completely entangled with capital and capitalism. It is simultaneously the source of some threats (such as the ecological consequences of our industries or the uncontrolled use of genetic engineering), and our best hope of understanding those threats and finding a way to cope with them.


Does that mean the way that we think about such threats is wrong?

Yes. One reason is to do with how certain environmentalists delight in proving that every catastrophe – even natural ones – is man-made, that we are all guilty, we exploited too much, we weren’t feminine enough. All this bullshit. Why? Because it makes the situation “safer”. If it is us who are the bad guys, all we have to do is change our behaviour. But in fact Mother Nature is not good – it’s a crazy bitch.

So what should we do instead?

The fear is that this bad ecology will become a new opiate of the people. And I’m against the ecologists’ anti-technology stance, the one that says, “we are alienated by manipulating nature, we should rediscover ourselves as natural beings”. I think we should alienate ourselves more from nature so we become aware of the utter contingency, the fragility of our natural being.

We should alienate ourselves more from nature to be aware of our fragility


Should philosophers be helping scientists?

Yes. For the last few decades, at least in the humanities, big ontological questions – What is reality? What is the nature of the universe? – were considered too naive. It was meaningless to ask for objective truth. This prohibition on asking the big questions partly accounts for the explosion of popular science books. You read Stephen Hawking’s books as a way to ask these fundamental, metaphysical questions. I think that era of relativism, where science was just another product of knowledge, is ending. We philosophers should join scientists asking those big metaphysical questions about quantum physics, about reality.

And what is your take on reality?

There is an old philosophical idea about God being stupid and crazy, not finishing his creation. The idea is that God (but the point is to think about this without invoking God), when he created the world, made a crucial mistake by saying, “Humans are too stupid to progress beyond the atom, so I will not specify both the position and the velocity of the atom.” What if reality itself is rather like a computer game where what goes on inside houses has not been programmed because it was not needed in the game? What if it is, in some sense, incomplete?

All these complex ideas… how do we come up with them?

I like Stephen Jay Gould here: intelligence, language and so on are exaptations, by-products of something which failed. Say I am using my cellphone – I become fully aware of it only when something goes wrong. We ask the big metaphysical questions even though we cannot solve them, and as a by-product we come up with wonderful, solid knowledge.

Slavoj Zizek in Examined Life:

One of the elementary ideological mechanisms I claim is, what I call, The Temptation of Meaning. When something horrible happens, our spontaneous tendencies to search for a meaning, it must mean something… Even if we interpret a catastrophe as a punishment, it makes it easier in a way, because we [then] know its not just some terrifying blind force, it has a meaning. Its better, when you are in the middle of a catastrophe, its better to feel that God punished you, than to feel that it just happened. If God punished you, its still a universe of meaning. And I think that’s where ecology as ideology enters.

Zizek – Ecology: The New Opiate of the Masses (1 of 7)


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