kyle hayden for GreenHawks Media
Is it useful to blame “humans” when talking about ecological footprint?
This article is a direct response to the article recently published by GreenHawks titled: “One Earth Just Isn’t Enough: Humanity’s Ecological Footprint” authored by Olivia Bauer.
I want to discuss problematic aspects of some of the premises (unacknowledged assumptions) that contribute to articles concerning climate change and ecological footprint. Articles from publications like Grist, Orion and Salon also mostly miss the mark when it comes to determining responsibility for climate change, environmental degradation and ecological crises.
Here are some premises and my rejoinders to premises I think are present in Bauer’s article. My belief is that the future of environmentalism will be in confronting these unacknowledged assumptions and doing a little bit of self-criticism.
First premise: Humans are to blame for climate change.
That’s true, but it is not the whole story. Sure, human activity since about 1750 has altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere and this will result in catastrophic runaway climate change, especially if methane trapped in permafrost in the northern hemisphere is released suddenly, nearly doubling the current carbon load of the atmosphere. But just abstracting the problem to “humans” as a zoological entity hides the social construction of the issues. What needs to be said about this premise is that this culture, yes, the one of which you are part (if you are reading this on a computer screen you are most likely a member of this culture). This culture, now the dominant culture on the planet, is responsible for climate change. You wouldn’t look at indigenous peoples, or aborigines in Australia, or poor black children in St. Louis and say, “Hey, you’re responsible for this huge ecological footprint.” (1) To say that would be entirely arrogant and perhaps racist. After all, environmentalists never talk about France and Australia in terms of worsening the “population problem.” (2) Noting here that these countries pay women to have more than two children to prevent internal population loss (3), while simultaneously tightening immigration laws.
So why skirt the issue? If your target is the dominant culture, be clear about it. If the poorest 3 billion people disappeared from the planet today, there would be no significant reduction in global carbon emissions (4). The United States contributes about a quarter of global carbon emissions (5). To put it plainly: the United States must be stopped. However, this is never on the top of the list for liberal environmentalists because they are trained to believe the U.S. has some preponderance to moral standards, peace, a “high standard of living” (6) and so on — although all evidence and historical events conflict with this delusion (7). Most of these emissions are not from people driving back and forth from work every day, but from industrial processes that make it possible for people to commute to work.
Second premise: Science is the key to sustainability.
Before we lapse into the therapeutic solutions offered by “Science,” (applying technology without fundamentally altering the way we live) members of this culture must confront the complicity of science in the industrial revolution (8). Most of the applications of science today are reproductions of this destructive culture, which has its beginnings in Enlightenment thinking (9). Science, as it is taught at universities (mostly run like, by and for corporations (10)) has none of the original checks of skepticism, criticism, critique or correction and instead focuses on the production of marketable commodities from nuclear weapons and drugs to software that makes theft from the poor much easier. Anyway, if you think that a little sprinkling of advanced technology will save us: solar panels, wind farms, tidal power or some magical form of energy that has yet to be invented, you are wrong (11). If you don’t know, solar panels and wind farms exist on the background of the fossil fuel economy and can only be maintained by it. A typical wind turbine model from GE consists of 200 tons of steel (even if it is recycled steel), aluminum, copper, silicon and so on. The manufacture and construction of solar panels emits toxins into the air, water, soil and into the people who are recruited to manufacture them, and if we’re honest, they are poor people outside of the United States.
You may have never heard of the Baogang Steel and Rare Earth complex in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, but it is one of the largest processing facilities in the world for the production of “green tech” materials. A report from the Silicon Valley Toxics coalition (12) indicates that among the toxins are “hexafluoroethane, nitrogen triflouride, and sulfur hexaflouride, three extremely potent greenhouse gases which are used for cleaning plasma production equipment.” These emissions are 100% synthetic and are 100% a result of the production of “green” technologies.
The report continues: “hexaflouroethane is 12,000 times more potent than CO2, is 100% manufactured by humans, and survives 10,000 years once released into the atmosphere. Nitrogen Triflouride is 17,000 times more virulent than CO2, and Sulfur Hexaflouride is 25,000 times more powerful than CO2. Concentrations of nitrogen triflouride in the atmosphere are rising 11% per year.” If you find yourself still advocating for a whole-earth solar, wind and tidal energy complex to keep your computer and refrigerator running constantly, you might find yourself on the wrong side of history. Because in order to power everything at present scale with wind and solar is going to take immense amounts of resources, their extraction only made possible on the background of the fossil fuel economy. Are we willing to export that suffering to places we can simply ignore?
Fourth premise: We want the global economy to exist.
Climate scientist Tim Garrett of the University of Utah has been working on a model of the global economy from the perspective of a physicist. Although I hate to compare biological processes to social processes, the following analogy will help illustrate the double bind of trying to maintain the global economy (seek prosperity) while mitigating climate change. All the wealth in the world is supported constantly by inputs of energy (13), much like a child’s body. If the child does not eat to continue growing, the child will get sick first, wither and eventually die. Without the energy inputs to support all the accumulated global wealth, a culture predicated on constant growth will collapse. Finally, Garrett understands and therefore we can understand that in order for carbon emissions to be reduced, there must be an overall reduction in global wealth (14). In a phrase: industrial activity must cease, or it will cease.
International trade is essentially a war on the planet. This culture, one predicated on taking things out of the earth in order to make disposable products and exchange them for little bits of colored paper is at base unsustainable. In other words: be careful what you wish for. I hear lots of environmentalists saying “we need something other than the fossil fuel economy.” Usually a “renewable” energy economy or some such fantasy. Well fine, but that’s also not the whole story. Any resource chosen by members of this culture to use as our primary energy source, if we leave our cultural values regarding our relationship to what we crudely call “nature” (15) (16) unchanged, we will simply exhaust that resource probably much quicker than we’ve exhausted oil. Because oil is immensely more energy-rich than something like wood, the immediate potential of exhausting renewable resources is more likely. Burning a liter of oil for use in a machine is like the equivalent of having about 35 strong men come help do a task (17). There has been nothing like that, and there will never been such a potent energy-subsidy again. It’s going away, and we’re going to have to figure something else out (18) (19).
What I am advocating is the realization that these decisions we are making are entirely social in origin. They can be changed. There is nothing concrete about the fact that we have to pay to justify our existence. There is nothing fixed and “natural” about the interstate highway system, or factories, or drawing down three-million-year-old aquifers to grow animal feed. The truth of that matter is that no one decided to be born here, at this time, in any particular land, so it is senseless to be proud of it, and even more senseless to pretend they are at fault for ecological devastation. It simply no longer makes sense to reference “humanity” although the majority of them are members of a suicidal culture. I am advocating we be honest, and take serious stances so that we may confront these very real issues that are already affecting life on the planet.
1 See page 9 in the introduction of Bookchin, Murray. 1990. Remaking society: pathways to a green future. Boston, MA: South End Press.
2 Bookchin, Murray. “The Population Myth Part II.” Green Perspectives, April 15, 1989.
3 See page 54 of Williams, Chris. 2010. Ecology and socialism: solutions to capitalist ecological crisis. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books. http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=557517.
4 See page 89 of Angus, Ian. 2016. Facing the anthropocene: fossil capitalism and the crisis of the earth system.
5 O’Connor, Jane, and Al Gore. 2007. An inconvenient truth: the crisis of global warming. London: Bloomsbury.
6 Berry, Wendell. 1977. The unsettling of America: culture & agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
7 See pages 39-85 for a list and description of all internal genocidal and military actions by the United States against Native American peoples. Churchill, Ward. 2004. On the justice of roosting chickens: reflections on the consequences of U.S. imperial arrogance and criminality. Oakland, Calif: AK Press.
8 See “Our Deserted Country” in Berry, Wendell. 2016. Our only world: ten essays. Berkeley, Calif: Counterpoint.
9 See the epilogue for a succinct description of these phenomena. Merchant, Carolyn. 1980. The death of nature: women, ecology, and the scientific revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
10 Giroux, Henry A. 2016. The university in chains: confronting the military-industrial-academic complex. https://nls.ldls.org.uk/welcome.html?ark:/81055/vdc_100026634070.0x000001.
11 Huesemann, Michael, and Joyce Huesemann. 2011. Techno-fix: why technology won’t save us or the environment. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers.
13 Garrett T.J. 2012. “No way out? the double-bind in seeking global prosperity alongside mitigated climate change”. Earth System Dynamics. 3 (1): 1-17.
14 Garrett, Timothy J. 2014. “Long-run evolution of the global economy: 1. Physical basis”. Earth’s Future. 2 (3): 127-151.
15 Evernden, Neil. 1995. The social creation of nature. Baltimore [u.a.]: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.
16 Or read the interview with Evernden with Derrick Jensen beginning on page 112 of Jensen, Derrick. 1995. Listening to the land: conversations about nature, culture, and Eros. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
17 Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm), and Films Media Group. 2009. TEDTalks: Rob Hopkins – Transition to a World without Oil.
18 Heinberg, Richard. 2008. The party’s over: oil, war and the fate of industrial societies. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.
19 Heinberg, Richard, and David Fridley. 2016. Our Renewable Future Laying the Path for 100% Clean Energy. Washington, DC: Island Press.