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The climate emergency is a crisis of capitalism

We can’t solve systemic problems in silos, or with a reductive focus on individual facets of a much bigger, more fearsome, beast

Economic CrisisEnvironmentSocial Movements

On May 17 2023, the day this photograph was taken, the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) from the Government of Canada measured 10+, the highest rating possible. Photo by Dwayne Reilander/Wikimedia Commons.

If you’re reading this, it’s almost guaranteed that you are experiencing the season we used to call “summer” more viscerally than usual. Maybe you’ve been feeling it in your lungs and eyes, trying to stay indoors as your community jostles with a handful of other Canadian cities for the illustrious title of “worst air quality in the world.” Or maybe you’re packing your things, trying to choose which family photo album to take with you as you prepare to evacuate from the massive wildfires burning in the boreal forests of northern Québec and Ontario, or from one of the hundreds of fires ignited by lightning in British Columbia over the last several weeks.

Maybe you’re lucky and you haven’t been directly impacted, but it’s been the wakeup call you needed to finally pack that emergency “go bag”—as well as a new source of baseline anxiety.

The scale of this year’s fires is so huge, and impacting so many people, that environmentalists, climate campaigners, and virtually everyone fighting for a better, more ecologically healthy world are seeing it as a “critical juncture”: a moment that, if leveraged effectively, could lead to transformative change.

This has led to some disagreement over the key drivers of this year’s unprecedented fire season and how climate campaigners should be framing it.

Some are, understandably, focusing their ire on federal and provincial logging and forestry policies. They blame the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires on a century of overzealous fire suppression (and the banning of Indigenous cultural burning), rampant clear-cut logging, and a hair-brained approach to reforestation (monoculture plantation-cropping).

This argument is, of course, correct. Even the BC Forest Practices Board, far from a radical institution, recently urged the provincial government to undertake a “paradigm shift” in how it manages forests.

According to this camp, logging companies and the governments that continue to permit them to ransack our collective home are the culprit.

Others, laser-focused on climate change, are adamant that devastating fires are a result of a century of rapid industrialization enabled by the burning of fossil fuels. The rapacious acceleration and expansion of the fossil fuel industry, these advocates say, has produced heat-trapping gasses that are warming the planet, leading to protracted fire seasons, longer and deeper droughts, more lightning, and higher intensity fires.

This argument is, of course, also correct. Climate scientists have been predicting exactly what we’re seeing for decades, and Canadian scientists continue to link the fires to climate change in real time.

According to this camp, our ire should be directed at fossil fuel companies and, similarly enough, the governments that continue to permit them to ransack our collective home.

The disagreement between these groups appears to be based on the idea that these are two separate problems with two separate solutions, and that we—the environmental movement writ large—are so collectively disempowered that, given what appears to be a moment of political opportunity, we need to focus our energy specifically on one achievable goal.

There’s truth to that latter point: the environmental movement and the left more generally are incredibly weak after decades of neoliberal assault.

But the former point—that these are separate problems with separate solutions—misses the mark on two counts, and obscures the answer to the latter problem.

The reality is that forest policy, wildfire management, and climate mitigation (and adaptation) aren’t actually different things. This isn’t a vague categorical claim: it’s a scientific one. We continue to treat carbon emissions as though they’re the be-all and end-all factor in the climate fight, but that myopic focus obscures a grim reality: we are on the cusp of fatally wounding the biosphere in nearly countless ways. Overloading the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses is just one driver of this rapidly escalating crisis.

The “planetary boundaries” framework is one attempt scientists have made to quantify and understand the ways humanity—specifically, the wealthiest decile of humanity—is sabotaging life as we know it. The latest research in this area suggests that we are in dangerous exceedance of six out of nine of the planetary boundaries that “demarcate[e] a global safe operating space for humanity.” These boundaries interact with one another through feedback loops: land-system change (caused, for example, by clear-cut logging) releases greenhouse gasses, reduces freshwater availability, and extinguishes biodiversity. Each of these impacts in turn has its own knock-on effects, including causing land-system change to accelerate further.

Planetary boundaries researchers aren’t the only ones to make this claim: the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has been releasing reports making this argument for years. One of the key messages from the IPBES report published last year is instructive for understanding how advocacy efforts can work to overcome both our collective disempowerment and the challenge of calling for systemic solutions to systemic problems:

Despite the diversity of nature’s values, most policymaking approaches have prioritized a narrow set of values at the expense of both nature and society, as well as of future generations, and have often ignored values associated with Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ world-views.

That’s a politically cautious way of saying that capitalism is destroying the planet.

Which is the second reason that hyper-focusing our advocacy on specific issues isn’t the answer to our collective disempowerment. Fighting each individual manifestation of capitalist destruction is like playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole: battle for decades to win a small victory (like BC’s “deferrals” of old growth logging) only to have a dozen more destructive and exploitative issues pop up around you, often masquerading as “solutions” themselves.

These single-issue campaigns have a place in the same way that union battles for wages and improved working conditions have a place: tangible, achievable wins can improve the lives of, well, all life, in the here and now. But when we fail to situate these campaigns within a broader context, within a broader campaign against capitalism’s perverse valuations of human and more-than-human lives, we risk allowing capitalism’s dynamism responding to each of our victories with new forms of exploitation and destruction.

The wildfires, the heat, and the droughts devastating various parts of Canada this year are indeed an opportunity for organizing. But insisting that we focus our efforts just on forest policy—or more specifically, on old growth logging, or on glyphosate use, or on monoculture tree plantations—misses the big picture, the answer to the question: “Why is our forest policy so problematic, despite decades of science, advocacy and activism?”

The same goes for focusing specifically on oil companies. They may seem uniquely villainous, but their misdeeds are enabled and even induced not by individual greed but by structural forces built into capitalism.

The logging companies, the fossil fuel companies, the chemical manufacturers, Big Tech, arms makers, and even the nascent “clean” energy industry are all using the same toolkit to ensure that the capitalist state continues to work for them—at the expense of a livable planet.

To stem the tide of the ongoing ecological crisis, our campaigns for environmentally sound land management and for drawing down fossil fuel production need to situate themselves within the broader landscape of struggle against capitalism. That’s how we build a movement that’s big enough to make real change. The alliances that environmentalists keep hoping to build with labour and with Indigenous peoples aren’t about carefully singling out niche issues where agreement can be found. They’re about recognizing capitalism as a system based fundamentally on the exploitation of people and the land.

I sincerely hope that campaigners are able to make these wildfires into the “critical juncture” we’re all waiting for. But doing so will require taking an approach that makes one thing clear: human social structures exist within complex ecological systems. We can’t solve systemic problems in silos, or with a reductive focus on individual facets of the much bigger, more fearsome, beast.

Nick Gottlieb is a climate writer based in northern BC and the author of the newsletter Sacred Headwaters. His work focuses on understanding the power dynamics driving today’s interrelated crises and exploring how they can be overcome. Follow him on Twitter @ngottliebphoto.


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