Save us the smugness over 2018’s heatwaves, environmentalists

Oct 3 2018

Matt Hern and Am Johal (*) – The Guardian

In this historically precarious moment, we need something more fundamental than climate strategies built on shame and castigation

There was a barely stifled schadenfreudian glee echoing across the liberal press through this burning hot summer. Environmentalists could scarcely disguise their we-told-you-so smirks as one suffocating heatwave after another rolled over the globe, wildfires savaged landscapes from Siberia to California and broken temperature records kept piling up.

But yearning for catastrophe is an ugly desire, and it is exactly the wrong way to think about global warming. Disasters always hit marginalised people first and worst, and as tempting as it might be to hope the calamities of 2018 bring new kinds of change, that desire only betrays how badly environmentalism needs to be overhauled.

It is a historically precarious moment for the environment. We constantly hear dire warnings from some UN body or scientific panel that we have this many years left and these thresholds before we hit the tipping points and the whole world unravels. Despite this piercing urgency, the languages at hand are so consistently inept that it often feels impossible to know what real change might be or how to talk about it.

The reflexive condescension of environmentalism that looks down on those working in industry is precisely what we do not need. Working people whose livelihoods and families depend on resource extraction have no time for catastrophism, and defaulting to that desire sets back climate justice movements immeasurably.

Ecology has to speak to class directly and confront inequality with believable claims that a different world is possible.

Individualising responsibility is one of capitalism’s prime defensive strategies: reducing ecology to just another consumer decision and isolating governments from culpability. Blaming the choices individual people make in the context of limited options and grinding employment pressures is a fool’s errand. We are all implicated in these extractivist ideologies: we’re all burning almost everything we can get our hands on, and we are as bound up with the contradictions as anyone.

We do not need another set of climate strategies built on shame and castigation. We need something more fundamental – something beyond exhortations to recycle more – that can open viable routes to real action. We need an approach that matches the scale of the problem.

There are better ways to think about ecology all around us. Indigenous communities, who are disproportionately affected by extractive industries, have the most pragmatic and compelling perspectives. We have to understand that ecological destruction is entangled with land thefts and colonisation.

Last month the Trans Mountain pipeline was rejected by Canada’s federal court of appeal due to a failure to meaningfully consult with indigenous people. This was a shockingly positive development, but was matched the same day when Kinder Morgan approved the $4.5bn sale of the entire pipeline extension to the Canadian government.

Justin Trudeau’s baffling eagerness to double down on pipeline expansion underlines the poverty of contemporary ecological imagination. Those two decisions reinforce how essential it is to look to indigenous resistances to define our ecological future.

A critique of capitalism and consumption is necessary but insufficient when examining the state of the environment. Capitalism has proven spectacularly malleable and agile, and it will exist long after any climate crisis is averted, if the crisis is framed only as one of climate. We must destroy the colonial assumptions that dominate our relationships with land and the natural world.

More than ever, we need creative resistance and radically affirmative social visions of the future if we are to take the calamity of global warming seriously. The burning catastrophes of 2018 can and should open up new lines of urgency. But we have to resist the urge to smirk about suffering and refute the smug catastrophism of environmentalists.


(*) Matt Hern and Am Johal are the authors of Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: a Tar Sands Tale (MIT Press).



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