5 Reasons Not to Be An Environmentalist

by Clare Hymer and Dalia Gebrial

7 November 2017


It’s nothing new to say that climate change is the biggest crisis facing humanity today. With scientists telling us we’ve already passed 1°C of warming, and that we’re probably locked into somewhere between a 2.8 and 5°C increase, action on emissions production is urgently needed. But so far our collective capacity for tackling climate change has been limited by a narrow view of what constitutes environmentalism. Here are five reasons not to be an environmentalist.

1. It’s not about the environment.

Narratives around the climate crisis often frame the environment as abstracted from people and society. Climate marches are reliably littered with images of polar bears and romanticised talk of ‘saving the earth’, but rarely centre frontline communities – and how their racialised, gendered and classed positions affect the extent to which they are disproportionately exposed to the impacts of climate change. In the Global North, ‘green’ activism is broadly seen as the domain of middle-class white people expressing an abstracted ‘love of nature’.

Whilst the capitalist logic of commodifying nature for profit at any cost is certainly central to the crisis we find ourselves in today, it is just one part of the story. Forcibly decoupling the climate crisis from the histories of imperialism, capitalism and geopolitical power that made it possible depoliticises the nature of climate change – and the radical transformation necessary to curb its devastation. This allows climate change to be taken on by a range of reactionary forces from the Conservative party to Prince Charles as a means of softening their image. It becomes a safe political domain, when in fact it is a crisis that requires the most systemically challenging and creative answers from our global movements. By separating global warming and extreme weather events from anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles, environmental movements in the Global North misdiagnose the causes of climate change, and in turn misdirect attempts at its mitigation. In other words: more talk on environmental racism and reparative justice, less on penguins and planting trees.

2. It’s not about you.

Another limitation of liberal environmental frameworks is what the climate justice movement calls ‘behaviouralism’ – solutions to climate change that focus on amending individual actions and choices. This means attempting to fight climate change by doing things like switching off lights, recycling our milk cartons and buying ‘eco-friendly’ products. Of course, some elements of our consumer lifestyle will probably have to change to mitigate further climate catastrophe. For example, unless we see major technological innovations, our current level of meat and dairy consumption and travel habits will likely be unsustainable in the long term. However, much more critically, the solution to the crisis is not behavioural: it is political. It involves radically overhauling our economic and political structures, and moving towards a more democratic, egalitarian distribution of publicly-owned energy (also known as energy democracy). This requires a mass transnational movement based on solidarity and collective action – it cannot revolve around the consumer and behavioural choices of individuals. In fact, by shifting the burden of the solution onto the individual, we risk adding to the depoliticisation of climate change as a whole.

3. It’s not about our children.

When it’s not polar bears, climate narratives peddled by policy makers, media outlets and environmental NGOs in the Global North often talk about ‘saving our children’s futures’. The line goes that if we don’t take action against climate change now, by the time our children are grown the planet will be polluted beyond repair. This narrative appeals to a clear injustice – that our children, who aren’t to blame for climate change, will be the ones to face the worst of its consequences.

But the problem is that environmentalists have been warning us of the danger to our children’s futures for as long as global warming has been on the agenda, and those children are now all grown up. This is a narrative that therefore doesn’t address the urgency of the problem: climate change isn’t an apocalypse on the horizon – it’s a crisis that is killing and displacing people now. We also need to question whose children are being referred to. Environmental campaigns that locate the victims of the climate crisis in the future efface the suffering of those in the Global South who are experiencing those impacts today. The only victims visible within this framework – and therefore worthy of being protected – are the white and western children of the future.

4. It’s about reparative justice.

The payment of climate reparations is about recognising the role of colonialism in creating the climate crisis, and the uneven responsibility different nations and groups have in resourcing the solution. At its heart, European colonialism was the first mass-scale extractivist movement; it extracted human and natural resources in the Global South for the economic benefit of elite classes mainly in the Global North. It was unique both in its breadth (the geographical space it covered) and its depth (the extent to which it controlled every part of political, economic, social and cultural life).

This was the context in which the modern fossil fuel industry was born. The ability of dirty energy companies to destroy land in pursuit of its resources relies on the idea that the lives and livelihoods of those who live on it do not matter; that they have no right to community or self-determination. In other words, it relies on racism. Indeed, rampant fossil fuel extraction is one of the clearest, most direct modern-day legacies of colonialism. A decolonial, just transition recognises this historical damage, and works to compensate for it – financially or otherwise. Creating a framework for communities to begin a process of healing must remain central to any project aiming to address climate change.

5. It’s about systemic transformation.

Climate action at the level of the individual can only do so much. In order to face up to a challenge as big as the climate crisis, we need a response that matches the scale of the problem. This means systemic transformation and a complete break with the current global order: an end to the fossil economy and a just transition towards cheap, publicly-owned renewable energy in both the Global North and the Global South – and with it an end to to violence the fossil economy perpetrates, particularly on women, people of colour, migrants and indigenous communities.

Understanding climate change as a problem that works along these lines means that any anti-capitalist and anti-racist movement should be part of the broader climate struggle. It is therefore essential that we reframe environmentalism in order to incorporate these dimensions of the fight – a fight not just for some removed idea of ‘nature’, but for climate justice.

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