Society has failed us. We are living through an epoch of collapse and loss. War, pandemic, and global climate change are compounded and quickly making our planet more and more hostile to all forms of life. As hard as it is to hear these words – to truly internalize their meaning – it is even more dangerous to ignore them. We all know how serious these problems are, but often struggle to understand our place in addressing them. Mainstream environmentalist movements have thus far failed to create large scale structural change. The way we understand these issues defines the types of solutions we consider viable. Addressing these problems requires us to think in entirely new ways about how we relate to each other and the world.
Conceptually, it can be helpful to think about climate change and the associated impending collapse of ecosystems as a war. It is only possible for man (and this war is overwhelmingly waged by men) to wage this war against “nature” because we have collectively tricked ourselves into thinking that we are separate from, and greater than, nature. As Rachel Carson stated so clearly almost six decades ago, “Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself”. We know that all of the systems on Earth are intimately linked, and that we depend on these natural systems to provide the means of life. For example, industrial pollution in The Great Lakes watershed caused a significant increase in cancer rates, birth defects, nervous system damage, as well as large scale ecological harm; however, we know historically that this damage can be remediated by highly organized groups of people who care.
Despite this understanding that our wellbeing is connected to that of others, our day to day lives create and reproduce systems of incredible violence. Proverbially, we are the soldiers that allow the gears of the war machine to continue to turn. Although we all participate in this war, not all of us as deeply implicated as others. The consumption habits most responsible for the ecological crises are only possible for the extremely wealthy.
The idea that this war is waged by humans against the environment is a gross simplification. The wealthiest 10% of the global population (annual household income of $35,000 or more) is responsible for more than 50% of global carbon emissions. Further, the 80 million richest (annual household income of $100,000 or more) emit more than twice as much as the poorest 4 billion people. Additionally, just 100 corporations are responsible for more than 70% of global emissions. A quick distributional analysis of carbon emissions shows that this war is driven by the wealthiest corporations and individuals against all life on earth.
Understanding climate change as a class war, rather than a fundamental human flaw (as the term Anthropocene suggests), is essential to creating an effective climate action plan. As one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, nations in the world, the U.S. plays a massive role in driving the climate crisis. Knowing that the majority of U.S. citizens are disproportionally responsible for global carbon emissions comes as no surprise. Consumer capitalism is deeply ingrained into every aspect of American life. The behaviors responsible for our disproportionate share of emissions are normalized in our daily lives, in fact the most fundamental values that our society is built around reflect the problem we face. Everything from how we source our food, to the way we move through our cities and the types of buildings we live in, American society is wasteful in the most meaningful sense of the term.
The willingness and drive to continually gain wealth is deeply imbedded in our society and acts as one of the largest barriers to taking meaningful climate action. We have spent decades, if not centuries, investing into systems that increase profit for the few while we still fail to meet the material needs of regular people. Take, for instance, the medical system in the United States. Despite spending more than any other industrialized nation in the world, the U.S. has ranked last in a measure of health care quality and access. On top of this, almost 20% of American households owe medical debt amassing to almost $200 billion. Our hyper-individualist culture has validated a system that forces people to choose between seeking care and meeting their basic needs, while hospitals and pharmaceutical companies routinely boast record profits.
Creating a livable future demands we divest from systems of death, such as fossil fuels and the military industrial complex, and invest that money into systems that can actually meet our needs. In our capitalist world, money drives everything. The finance industry is a pain point for climate and human rights organizers fighting for justice. Despite the successes of the global movement to divest from the industries that profit from the destruction of our planet, the fossil fuel industry remains a political and economic powerhouse. Fossil fuel divestment has served as an important tool in removing the industry’s social license to operate, and in the process has led to investments in renewable energy and green technology.
While we certainly need to explore new ways to sustainably meet our needs, these movements have failed to address the root of the problem. The latest IPCC report has made it clear that avoiding catastrophic climate change requires a large-scale overhaul of our current economic system. Simply put, our obsession with growth, the drive to always have more, newer, and nicer things, has put us in the position in which we currently find ourselves. Rather than focus on economic growth, a sustainable future with a livable planet demands that we transition to an economy based around actually meeting our needs, rather than pursuing mythical infinite growth. Degrowth poses the idea of increasing material wellbeing while reducing our material consumption.
This sort of change cannot simply be top down, it demands participation from every corner of society. While attacking personal consumption habits does little to promote positive change, it is clear the U.S., as well as other industrialized nations, have consumed far more than our “fair share” of energy and material resources. The impetus to change rests largely on people in industrialized nations like the United States. As social theorist Murray Bookchin penned so clearly in 1972, the environmental movement
“must be filled in by an authentic popular movement based on the self-activity of the American people… the ‘war must be brought home’, not in the idiotic sense of a civil war – but as a molecular movement, deeply rooted in every community and neighborhood, on every block, literally in every home”.
Regardless of your position in society you have an obligation and self-interest to fight for a livable planet.
Part of what makes addressing climate change so hard is the dual nature of the issue. Winning this war requires all of us to act against the systems that destroy life, but since we depend on these systems we also need to replace them with something regenerative. Dismantling oppressive structures and creating localized human scaled economies depends on creating community power. The only way to adequately address the climate crisis on a global scale is for all of us to face the way these systems work in our own lives.
We are left with an ethical dilemma. To live we are forced to participate in violent systems, yet at the same time we have the agency to resist the violence we cause. So, to what end can we take meaningful action? While climate change and the sixth mass extinction have already begun and are likely irreversible, the quality of life and degree of collapse depend on our behavior today, right now. Exposing the contradictions within our own lives, the behaviors and values that allow us to consume a disproportionate amount of resources at the expense of other living beings, offers an opportunity for Americans to live within their means and pay reparations to the countries most threatened and endangered by our selfish lifestyles. This requires both personal and collective changes. While the enormity of suffering is daunting, it must not prevent us from changing our communities. It is no one person’s responsibility to protect the life systems of Earth, but we all have an obligation to do what we can to resist systems of violence in our own lives.
RCC Fellow — Ethan Vitaz — Pitzer College
Ethan Vitaz is a senior at Pitzer College studying Environmental Analysis with a focus on Sustainability in the Built Environment. Ethan has experience working as an educator and student organizer at the Claremont Colleges. He believes that the largest investors and corporations are most responsible for the current state of our climate and have the largest responsibility to rectify our global situation. He is working for institutional divestment from the Coastal GasLink Pipeline at the Claremont Colleges.
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