Why are we here? Who are we? What is our place in the world? People have been asking questions such as these for centuries.
Looking outside, I see trees in summer foliage moving in the breeze. Behind them, buildings and a soft grey sky. The harsh hum of traffic, the cries of birds. The world is a patchwork - of grassland, of concrete, of vast oceans, of uncountable and tiny things, of huge masses. Everything is interconnected through flows of materials, creation and decay, and now, the symptoms of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change.
Climate change, the climate crisis, or whatever you choose to call it, is recognised by the majority of citizens and scientists worldwide to be the result of human activity. The rampant extraction and burning of fossil fuels is center stage, triggering protests and public dialogue. Meanwhile, headlines on atmospheric CO2 stand alongside those on socio-political unrest, human rights, ecosystem destruction or conservation, healthcare, international politics and market dynamics.
It is no coincidence that the most prominent narratives feature hierarchy and exertion of power in some form.
We will only make lasting headway in tackling climate change if, alongside the need for decarbonisation, we acknowledge that the climate emergency is an issue of wider socio-ecological injustice and violence. The triggers and impacts of climate change are related to or the same as those in other struggles where domination is exerted over an ‘other’. To face up to one, we must face up to them all. Whether or not you think you’re impacted (you are), we are all living in what bell hooks calls a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. This system is in direct opposition to human freedoms, and to the Earth, which is borderless, interwoven and finite; it can only ‘give’ so much. Yet the system demands more.
Colonial European nations, institutions and men took land, other cultures and women as things to be conquered and ‘tamed’. In many cases, they still do. Patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity and other interlocking structures of oppression are experienced and present today in numerous ways, for instance through the gender pay gap, the objectification of female bodies, disregard of migrants’ rights, exploitative working conditions, persecution of the LGBTQ+ community, and by silencing certain voices. Narrow views towards the ‘other’ are often closely correlated with contempt for the environment. We are now seeing relentless extraction of resources, and the annexing of land for building, for monoculture agriculture and plantations, for industry, consumerism and ‘growth’. The lack of care and empathy in the socio-political system extends to the appropriation of the environment.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes:
“I look east and the hills before me are a ragged range of clear-cut forests. To the south I see an estuary dammed and diked so that salmon may no longer pass. On the western horizon, a bottom-dragging trawler scrapes up the ocean floor. And far away to the north, the earth is torn open for oil.”
This story has long been familiar the world over. The 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm acknowledged that a capitalist, consumerist society is working directly against the ecological needs of the planet. More recently, the IPCC Report on 1.5 Degrees warned that we have only twelve years in which to prevent catastrophic warming and ecosystem collapse. The IPCC’s Land report, to be released in August, will demonstrate the stress already being placed on the very soil beneath our feet. The growth so valued by the capitalist system is not compatible with tackling climate change or caring for the planet that feeds us.
We have come so far from where we should be; from the root of everything.
Yet there are still many places where people honour our deep connection to the Earth and to each other. Kimmerer asks, “What happens…when allegiance lies with winds and waters that know no boundaries, that cannot be bought or sold? The boundaries of what I honor are bigger than the republic. Let us pledge reciprocity with the living world.” These teachings chime with those honoured by indigenous peoples the world over, and it is to such thinking that we must [re]turn.
The historically marginalised are among the most skilled environmental protectors. Long before white Europeans colonized and appropriated land around the world, indigenous peoples were living in harmony with nature. 40% of the world’s ecologically-intact ecosystems are under indigenous stewardship, and indigenous communities protect over 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Learning from those who respect natural limits and who practice sustainable, regenerative agriculture must be a key tenet of the system going forwards. Many civil society organizations are already acting to ensure that indigenous and community rights are strengthened and protected, enabling them to continue with their crucial work as stewards of biodiverse, carbon-rich ecosystems.
However, in nothing short of madness given the challenges that we face, countless projects focussed on economic growth still ride roughshod over those rights and nature. There is also a lack of critical media conversation. Recent Extinction Rebellion and ‘Fridays for Future’ protests have achieved airtime, but talk is not going far enough. Our institutions, including those that produce or fund the media, are stuck in the stagnant status quo. New ways of seeing society are critiqued as unrealistic, and people are dissuaded by an apparent lack of alternatives. Anyone who challenges “the norm” is labelled ‘extreme’, when challenging the status quo should be the status quo.
So what do we need for transformative change?
Number one, it will take abandoning competition and ‘growth’ as the aim, in favour of collective governance and renewal.
It will take re-prioritising indigenous knowledge and ways of understanding the world. It will take understanding and acting-upon the message that every human being has the right to freedom (of movement, of speech, of choice, of protest), and the right to be protected from visible and invisible violence.
It will take the empowerment and election of women, people of colour, indigenous and other politically underrepresented groups, including into climate decision-making bodies. Enabling these groups to share their deep knowledge and disproportionate experience of climate impacts will protect all of us.
It will take shifting from a position where humans ‘possess’ nature, to a mutually beneficial relationship with the natural world. The wellbeing of ecosystems must be respected, and defended where necessary through law, as is already taking place in some countries. When we respect nature, we are more likely to be acting in ways that are sustainable, equitable and just.
We must work to dismantle all structures of oppression, and to heal the assumed division between people and nature. All of us depend on this planet, and we can only save ourselves if we also save our neighbours, our waters, our soils and biodiversity. We must break down the barriers and see ourselves as part of one interwoven whole.