If climate change is the symptom, capitalism is the problem
Our planet cannot handle a model of eternal growth. We live in a finite system and capitalist innovation can only take us very far. Finally, we lack resources. The climate seems to be the limit.
Too often climate change is reduced to the quantification of greenhouse glass or the melting of ice caps. These indicators of climate change are important in verifying the existence of the problem, but they are less constructive in helping us understand where the problem of climate change is coming from. Understanding the source of climate change means going beyond the source of GHGs and looking at the power relations that drive capitalist growth.
We know about climate change because we have a science to understand it. Many people are familiar with the standard accounts of the natural sciences, separate accounts of society. Fewer people are familiar with social science explanations of climate change, much less incorporate notions of power into the explanation. The first step in understanding climate change is to understand how power operates in the history of capitalist civilization.
Most studies on climate change treat society as a black box or explain the problem as that of a homogeneous humanity. Take for example the idea of the Anthropocene where humanity is treated like a kind of plague, completely disconnected from nature. In this line of thinking, humanity itself is the problem. But this line of thinking ignores the stories of power dynamics within humanity and between humanity and nature. It does not recognize the contributions of the liberal arts to the understanding of power.
The Anthropocene line of thought suffers from a capitalist ideology which reduces the relations of power and production to simplistic human activities. Building humanity apart from nature allows an idea like the Anthropocene to proliferate. In this understanding of the world, people are not animals and are not part of ecological systems. Instead, a small portion of humanity represented by European colonizers is metamorphosing into the quintessential representation of humanity (as the culmination of evolutionary processes), dominating nature as God on earth while those who have been colonized are thrown out of historical consideration with their decidedly no decision. Anthropocene knowledge and management of nature.
Guillaume Cronon documents the changing relationship of European colonizers to nature in the historic expansion of what is today the United States. Cronon illustrates the ideological transformations that have placed white men as a substitute for God, dominating nature and able to control nature through science, itself a socially constructed standard of objectivity. The historical separation of a small segment of humanity from nature while simultaneously relegating this vast majority of humanity to an intermediate state – neither sufficiently human nor sufficiently natural – means that today this more or less small segment of humanity controls science and therefore how we conceptualize the problem of climate change. This conceptualization constructs humanity as a problem.
But humanity is not an undifferentiated whole. Only a small part of humanity, associated with Euro-colonizers, succeeded in colonizing the world and dominating an abstract nature that included the vast majority of its peoples. The reduction of most of the world’s populations to non-humanity or to nature began with the debates at Valladolid in the 16th century. It was during these debates that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were first identified as “savages” and needed to be civilized through Christianization. This Christianization served as a justification for the dispossession and occupation of land. Taking over the land and enslaving (or virtually enslaving) the working classes was aimed at extracting untold amounts of wealth for the colonizers. Revisiting old natural resource extraction sites as technological innovations capitalize on new resources such as lithium is a recurring process that propels the global capitalist economy. The solution cannot lie exclusively in so-called sustainable technological innovation.
The economic imperative of accumulation and profit has not worked and does not operate independently of social processes. Not only was the material wealth extracted from nature that propelled capitalism forward largely lost in the 16th century, but the knowledge of entire civilizations was intentionally destroyed and suppressed. The written Mayan language system was burned down in the Diego de Landa fires. The knowledge documented in the Inca Quipu communication system has been destroyed. What more was lost with the shaving of entire civilizations in the Americas?
When you understand that more than half of the world’s humanity was considered inferior to human, and their civilization and cultural existence were erased from the historical record, it is difficult to comprehend the idea of the Anthropocene. Yet the Anthropocene argument serves a purpose. It allows the richest countries to shirk their responsibilities by imposing their will on the places and peoples that their companies have underdeveloped. This allows those in power to focus political attention on shorter showers and ditch plastic straws as solutions to climate change. This despite the fact that the engine of capitalism is growth for the sake of growth.
As Edward Abbey wrote: growth for the sake of growth is the cancer cell ideology. Our planet cannot handle a model of eternal growth. We live in a finite system and capitalist innovation can only take us very far. Finally, we lack resources. The climate seems to be the limit. The past year has seen the most extreme temperatures on record and extreme weather events are more frequent than ever. Carbon dioxide levels, the primary measure of climate change, are the highest ever measured. As climate expert Peter Gleick wrote on Twitter, the last time carbon levels were this high, humans didn’t exist.
We need to cultivate in society an appreciation of the power dynamics in the relationship between capitalism and the rest of us, people and nature. There are ideas to be learned from understanding how power plays a role in the relationships of humanity in nature throughout capitalist history. Social inequalities are environmental inequalities, these inequalities are an accumulation of wealth and privilege for a small number of people who benefit from a history of oppression.
The rich need a better understanding of how sexism and racism work as social structures in the same way they intuitively understand the economy. It takes more effort, but by learning and addressing our personal role in inequality, we can achieve a more just and equitable society which in turn will fight climate change.
Climate change is the result of our current social organization. It threatens all of humanity. The modification of our current social organization offers the possibility of creating a society in nature where all life is valued.