Facing a zombie apocalypse: lessons for climate change

Environmental rhetoric is replete with the call to think as ‘one world’, in the face of the reality that ‘environmental challenges know no national boundaries’. These are themes that urge a larger together-ness, where community is a truly global one that lines up ecological processes with our political ones. Thus far, however, as the ever-more slippery attempts to grasp and implement an effective response to climate change illustrate, these have run up against the inert forces of parochial national demands, legislators responding to the (electoral) short-term, and the intertwining of corporate and fossil fuel interests.

But what would it take to achieve that one-worldness? In a recent article for the Third World Quarterly journal* (academic paywall), Tom Weiss and Martin Burke suggest ways in which climate change might lead to a more global level of identification – how collective identity might shift from the national to the global as a reaction to the threats and implications of a changing climate. As their introduction outlines:

“Our objective is to explore the dynamics of change that might catapult international society to a more cosmopolitan level of ‘world society’, characterised by greater collective identification at both the state and individual levels, in dealing with security threats resulting from dramatic alterations to the globe’s climate. Rather than business-as-usual at global gatherings in Copenhagen and Cancun, is it possible that collective identification might encourage security communities in regions where cooperation is currently weak?

“…We have moved from a Hobbesian world in which states are ‘enemies’ to what Hedley Bull dubbed an ‘international society’ of states as ‘rivals’ with rules. In our lifetimes can we move towards a more cosmopolitan world society of ‘friendly’ states capable of establishing limited regional or global authority to deal with the consequences of climate change? Our answer is a tentative ‘yes’.”

Their fundamental point is the suggestion that the perception of a common fate from climate change will trigger the evolution of collective identity towards the global scale. Cooperation for functional reasons, over time, also transforms the nature of who the ‘other’ is and will enable international politics to move beyond the “anarchy of rivals” to that of friends. The possibilities of world society depend, in their analysis, on:

“Three ongoing social processes may engender increased collective identity among states, with clear consequences for effective international public policy and institution building in the face of climate change. They are increasing structural similarity among states arising from legitimisation of membership norms; the perception of a common fate stemming from climate change, necessitating collaboration and co-ordination at the regional or global levels; and the continuing spread of common values among members of global civil society and transnational networks of epistemic communities working on climate change.”

It’s an essay that is essentially taking stock of the last century of world politics, and presents a fascinating scenario to contemplate. But in the loopy way that my mind connects dots, my caution and pessimism to this scenario stems from the parallels between climate catastrophe so powerful that it does indeed create the perception of a common fate, to the (admittedly unlikely) prospect of a zombie apocalypse.

I posed the following question to a recent class that I taught: how would international relations change in the event of a zombie uprising? By far the strongest and most vehemently argued response was something similar to the process that Weiss and Burke outline: in the face of a common threat, the unit of collective identity becomes ‘humanity’ as a whole, and there would be a worldwide mobilization to counter the threat. Very much, perhaps, like Independence Day (but with zombies rather than aliens).

It’s the intuitive reaction – but I have Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies to thank for injecting some academic reservations to this prospect. These are familiar themes around the challenges of effective and sustained cooperation: responding to the ‘common threat’ is likely to invoke distributional conflict, about how the costs and benefits of action are unevenly distributed; action has to take into consideration free-riding problems in providing the public good; the powerful would use the threat as justification for expansion of their realm of action; societies would have to be convinced that restrictions on civil liberties (zombies) or economically difficult transitions (climate change) would be worth it; bureaucracies would still be subject to dysfunction and organizational inefficiencies, and the coordination problems at the global scale that we’re already familiar with would still remain.

To be fair, Drezner isn’t all doom and gloom; he recognizes the (constructivist) possibility of a “Kantian pluralistic counter-zombie security community in which governments share sovereignty and resources to combat the undead menace…the existential peril posed by zombies could be the exogeneous shock needed to break down nationalistic divides and advance the creation of a world state”, which is the idea underpinning the Weiss and Burke argument.

But where this seems plausible for a zombie apocalypse, where this seems less so for climate change is the same reason why the Weiss and Burke suggestion seems less plausible to me – that the key thing about climate change in this regard is that the ‘other’ is, in fact, ‘us’. The possibilities of collectively identifying as a world society, of a global ‘we’, seem ultimately limited by the fact that it is other humans, whose patterns of overconsumption ultimately lie behind rising emissions and crossing prospective tipping points. For while the catastrophes of climate change may appear to be exogeneous to human activity and behaviour, unlike zombies, they are in fact endogeneous – where the causes are deeply internal to how we live, as a society.

*Thomas G. Weiss and Martin J. Burke, 2011, “Legitimacy, Identity and Climate Change: moving from international to world society”, Third World Quarterly, 32(6), pp.1057-1072.

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