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Beyond Trump and Toothbrushes: The Socioeconomic System Causing Climate Change


Blog 2 of 5 in UKYCC's Systems Change Not Climate Change series. Blog 1 available here.

In these politically dystopian times, much of the media would have you believe that our future will be dictated almost entirely on the whims of a few leadership personalities and that the only way you can halt the incoming ecological disaster is to wave goodbye to your plastic toothbrush.

For activists, it’s easy to ride the wave of these narratives as they offer simple targets for resistance. But are rallying cries to “Stop Boris” or “Dump Trump” actually holding us back?While it is conceptually straightforward to pin our current economic, ecological and political crisis on two rich blonde blokes, it’s vital we look beyond personalities. If we dig deeper, we will unearth the underlying systems, discursive frameworks and structures that have facilitated this nightmarish political reality to grow in the first place.

We all know (at least those of us who aren’t the President of the United States) that climate change is caused by human action: by burning fossil fuels, flying planes, mining, animal agriculture and the like. But why did we do these things? At such an alarming and destructive rate and scale?

The climate crisis is not an unhappy accident but rather a direct result of an economic system which gives corporations free reign to exploit people and planet in a never-ending pursuit of profit. Attempts to curtail corporate power in recent decades have been tossed aside in the name of a growth-driven mantra which allows capital to move and do as it wishes. All of this takes place in the name of freedom, but in reality, for the direct benefit of a tiny wealthy minority.

Citizens in the Global South have been subjected to the opening of their markets to international corporations and foreign investment, all in the name of development. These companies have no obligations to the well-being of people or the environment, only to their shareholders: to growth, efficiency, deregulation, and above all, profit.

This is not a new phenomenon, just a renewed way of Western countries exploiting the resources, environments and people of the Global South, as they have done for centuries, through their colonial and imperial powers.

Despite promises that the market would bring about untold global prosperity, the world has become less and less equal. In 2018, 26 people owned the same amount as wealth as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity.

Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. Exxon Mobil (the world’s 5th largest corporate emitter) knew about the threat of climate change since at least the 1970s. Instead of making this vital knowledge public, Exxon pumped millions of pounds into think tanks and groups to promote climate denial.

The globalisation of the world’s economy has placed exceptional strains on the ecosystems of countries in the Global South and those largely inhabited by indigenous groups. It appears that many governments and corporations have decided that some groups are “structurally expendable”. Environmental policies, laws and regulations are not “colour blind”. It is no coincidence that areas facing the most dangerous levels of pollution and prime spots for dumping toxic waste, tend to be in areas largely inhabited by poor communities and people of colour.

Rich corporate elites have relatively little to fear from the threat of climate change as it is those who are least to blame for the crisis who will feel its worst effects. Sub-Saharan Africa is responsible for less than 4% of global emissions but will feel some of the worst effects of climate change. Wealth acts as a safeguard against hunger, homelessness and overheating. Those with the least suffer the most when food prices are hiked and natural disasters strike.

The scale of the crisis can (understandably) feel overwhelming. Making sense of complex historical, economic and political structures and thinking about how to change them is no easy task. Focusing on tangible, small changes we can implement in our own lives might feel empowering but it is also extremely convenient for corporations and power-holders. Somewhere between that Blue Planet episode and the unveiling of London’s new not-so-pretty water fountains, every green bean worth their salt has acquired a shiny new water bottle and refusing a plastic straw has become the new favoured form of micro resistance. This is all well and good. But with the IPCC telling us we have only 11 years to avert climate catastrophe, it feels a bit like responding to the news that your house is on fire by buying it a new air purifying plant you saw on Instagram.

Instead of narrowly focusing on individual consumer changes or getting bogged down in the politics of personality behind calls to 'Stop Boris’ and ‘Dump Trump’, we need to understand the political and historical forces which brought us to climate breakdown in the first place.

Our current world order puts freeing flowing capital and the greed of a tiny capitalist class above the lives, rights and needs of vulnerable communities and fragile ecosystems With no time to lose, a bamboo toothbrush might be a nice accessory but it's not enough. The solutions we wish to see implemented are specific to the structural problems of power in the modern world. We need to demand systems change.


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