There are moments in teaching when students elucidate a point more clearly and precisely than the teacher can. There are moments of self-discovery when everyone in the room is not merely learning, but reorienting their very perspective on the world, asking new questions in new ways. One such moment happened yesterday in my lecture on ‘Capitalism and Climate Change’. The class were discussing Timothy Mitchell’s outstanding political critique of our fossil fuel-based social order, Carbon Democracy. We were working in groups and interrogating our understanding of what Mitchell is trying to say about what is at stake politically in oil-fuelled societies. In effect Mitchell is arguing (I believe) that oil dependent societies came about as a means of undercutting the power of organised labour and of exercising monopoly power in the global market, and that the particular materiality of oil was critical to this project. It is an important argument, if one that I am not wholly convinced by, tainted, as I feel it is, by a certain vulgar materialism.
Nonetheless, there was clearly great interest amongst the group in Mitchell’s perspective. During the discussion three different groups, without prompting, used the same word to describe their understanding of what Mitchell was getting at: ‘ridiculous.’ It is an intriguing word, and the fact that they all used the same term was equally compelling. Something had struck a chord. Something was being seen here for the first time, simultaneously, by a number of people in the group. It was such a curious ‘teachable moment’ that I immediately chose to pursue the theme. Why had they used that word? What did they mean ridiculous? For one group, the notion Mitchell explores that oil companies might undermine their own production in order to push up market prices for their product just made no sense. It was clearly irrational economically and socially; for another, looking at Jevons’ Paradox, the fact that supply and demand might act to turn energy efficiency into the perfect system for the exhaustion of fossil fuels, yet without some kind of conservationist response, was just as perplexing. For others the political effects of using oil to undermine democratic power was disturbing and even counter-intuitive.
It was one of those moments when the assumptions that we have about how the world should be come into open conflict with how it actually is. It was a point where competing rationalities, common sense versus good sense, became apparent. It appeared in a feeling shared by the group in a common point of confusion. I offered some comments on what it might mean to even state that such phenomena were ridiculous when, from the capitalist perspective, they might be perfectly rational, and even beneficial. One student commented that they felt they were being ‘pushed to the left’ by it all, but, as I pointed out, no-one had actually done any pushing at all. The experience was valuable precisely because it was so spontaneous. There was no question of it coming from some pre-existing political agenda of my own; it came from the sense or feeling of my students, who no doubt have a diverse range of political perspectives of their own. Yet this situation had created some kind of a feeling in common. Something can’t be right with a society organised on such irrational lines, can it?
We left the matter there, unreconciled. I felt that we had made such a common leap of self-understanding it was important to leave any question of the conclusions to be drawn for another moment. We had all shared an insight into ourselves, and for the moment that was enough.