This summer, like many summers in recent memory, was hot. July 2019 was the hottest month in recorded history. Greenland’s ice sheet lost 11 billion tons of ice in one day. Smoke from Amazon fires blotted out the sun in cities thousands of kilometers away. The ominous prognosis that we have only 12 years to prevent irreversible, catastrophic climate change, seems grim.
In the face of a phenomenon that promises to fundamentally change the planet and our relation to it and one another, many people respond understandably with anxiety. How can we go on with our lives like normal while the future is uncertain? When climate change is characterized as apocalypse, others feel overwhelmed and powerless to change anything. And perhaps most troubling, some believe that humans deserve extinction for what we’ve done to the environment (as though all of humanity shares equal blame for and equal consequences of climate change!).
Instead of succumbing to despair or condemning humanity to extinction, we must organize. We must move purposefully to bring about transformative environmental and climate justice. To do this, we must also have a clear-eyed understanding of the root causes of this environmental crisis.
Yes, climate change is driven by human activity—but not just any human activity. It is capitalism, working in tandem with white supremacy, settler-colonialism, and imperialism, that has threatened not just the environment but the lives of primarily Black, Brown, and Indigenous people all over the world.
The Amazon burning is a stark example of this. The Amazon rainforest was purposefully set on fire to clear land for cattle ranching, displacing indigenous peoples and destroying the land that sustains them. Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsnaro has favored increasing agribusiness industry access to the Amazon at the expense of environmental conservation and Indigenous territorial integrity.
Indigenous people make up 5 percent of the world’s population and protect 80 percent of its biodiversity, putting them—and especially Indigenous women—on the frontlines in the struggle against exploitation and making them some of the most vulnerable communities to capitalism. The threat to the environment and native people is neither an unintended consequence nor a misguided error of this system. To fuel the insatiable demand for expansion and profits, the removal of native Amazonians and exploitation of their land for logging, mining, ranching, and other industries is integral to the functioning of capitalism. Capitalism provides the profit motive behind white supremacist, settler-colonial logics of dispossession and violence against Indigenous communities, their land, and their cultures.
But before we blame exclusively Bolsonaro for the Amazon fires, we should examine the fact that the United States played a role in creating the conditions of this disaster. There is evidence that the Obama administration backed a soft coup in Brazil, which paved the way for a right-wing government friendly to US corporations (like BlackRock) and capitalist interests. This is just one example in an extensive and ongoing history of United States intervention and imperialism in Latin America that has consistently placed Western capital above workers, poor folks, people of color, Indigenous peoples, and the environment.
So it is disingenuous to say that “we” are all responsible for climate change and then to condemn “us” to extinction when it is generally the Global North driving climate change and the Global South bearing the brunt of the consequences. According to the World Resources Institute, between 1850-2011, the United States was the single largest cumulative emitter of CO2, producing 27 percent of global emissions. European countries emitted another 25 percent. Data from the World Bank shows that OECD countries, whose 36 members are predominantly concentrated in the West, produce an average of 2.2 kg/capita/day of waste—double the next biggest waste-producing regions. All the while, Western nations have dumped millions of tons of their plastic waste in Asian countries like China, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
And of course, the United States military is the biggest polluter on the planet. If we are going to get serious about addressing climate change at its root, we must also recognize that American militarism and imperial aggression have been not only the means for intervening in countries to install governments with capital-friendly, environmentally-destructive policies, but also a direct contributor to climate change.
The environmental crisis is not a rapidly-approaching future. The consequences of climate change are already here. People in the poorest countries of the world are already dying of heatstroke, hurricanes, and diseases. Some regions of India may become too hot for human habitation by 2100. This summer, in the middle of a 100 degree heatwave, Con Edison preemptively cut off power to low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York. Because of environmental racism, low-income communities of color breathe polluted air, drink poisoned water, live next to waste facilities, and are thus significantly more vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change.
All this points to the great urgency to get at the root of climate change if we want to enact transformative environmental justice. Solutions must be rooted in radical change—combating settler-colonialism that has displaced and killed Indigenous people and erased their cultures, combating capitalism which has fueled the destruction of the planet for profit, combating racism which positions Black, Brown, Indigenous people around the world as the communities most at risk to climate change. What we need is eco-socialism, rooted in an understanding of capitalism, racism, imperialism, and their intersections if we are to protect our homes and one another.
We are living in the crossroads of history. We either devolve into fascism as Western capitalist nations adapt to climate change by further extracting resources from over-exploited countries and closing their borders to people displaced by instability and environmental disasters facilitated by the West.
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Or we choose eco-socialism and choose to struggle towards another world where our relationship with the environment is based on sustainable coexistence, where Indigenous peoples have full control over their land and their destinies, where Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) everywhere can live in clean air, fresh water, peace, and prosperity.
Annie Yang is a Trinity senior. Her column, “planting seeds,” runs on alternate Mondays.