An Equitable Earth: An Essay Series on Climate Change and Capitalism
How Did We Get Here?
This is not your typical climate writing. This is not an overview of the literal decades of climate science to persuade you to “believe” in climate change. This is not a list of ways you can live greener. This is not a telling of all the doom and gloom to come if we don’t act. Rather, it is an exploration of the political, economic, and cultural forces that intersect to create the crisis we face today. It is within these intersections that I believe true climate action will take place. No longer will environmentalism be just of scientists and outdoorsmen but of labor organizers, anti-racism activists, feminists, and all those who fight against oppression and exploitation.
But before we get into that, I first have to ask, how did we get here? And by here I don’t mean how did we warm the planet by a full 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit—we know that burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases that trap heat in our atmosphere that disrupts natural climate and weather patterns leading to increased droughts, flooding, fires, and intense weather events. We know that. But what I mean is how did we get to a point where these facts were ever called into question? How did we get to a point where calls for collective action against a known existential threat are deemed radical? How is it that in 2007, climate change was a bipartisan issue with 71 percent of Americans agreeing that burning fossil fuels affects our climate but only 44 percent agreed in 2011? (In 2020, 60 percent of Americans view climate change as a major threat, but with a decade of potential climate action lost, the damage has been done.) To answer these questions, we need to follow the money.
The 60s and 70s in America saw a string of civil and environmental wins, and many countries across the globe shifted towards Keynesian and socialist economics. In retaliation, conservative efforts at home and abroad pushed for mass privatization, tax cuts, and free trade and ushered in the era of neoliberalism and the culture of unlimited growth that we live in today. As scientists began raising greater concern over the consequences of our current energy and consumptive practices, those on the right immediately understood what even today’s centrists don’t seem to have grasped: solving the climate crisis means fundamentally restructuring our economic and government practices. With a shrinking window to curb emissions and avoid the worst of what an additional 1.8 degrees would spell for the planet, incremental and market-based solutions fall far short. It took a pandemic and global economic shut down for emissions to drop eight percent in 2020, and the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that we must continue decreasing emissions at that same rate for the next ten years to maintain a relatively stable climate. Only through increased government intervention by way of significant regulations on polluting activities and massive funding for green energy development can this be achievable. A collective threat takes collective action which translates to higher government intervention and spending—the exact opposite of neoliberalism.
Thus, to the tune of $900 million a year, major fossil fuel and other corporatist players like ExxonMobile, Koch Industries, and Halliburton fund an array of free market think tanks and lobbying groups. Organizations like the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Ayn Rand Institute saw great success implementing neoliberal principles into policy in the 1980s and 90s. Now, the climate crisis is demanding we reevaluate our current modes of sale and production. Never mind humanity, this is an existential threat to the global economic order and its architects are on the defensive. Their core strategy? Denial. These conservative think tanks and other right-wing groups have been linked to over 72 percent of climate denial books, to smear campaigns and fabricated scandals against climate scientists and advocates. With 97 percent of scientists in agreement (including ExxonMobile’s own researchers) that climate change is human caused and a major threat, this is not an issue of data but of ideology and fear. No one denies that the forecasted consequences of climate change are terrifying, and these groups have concocted the perfect remedy, one we tell our children scared of the monster under the bed, “It’s not real, it’s just your imagination, there is nothing to be afraid of.”
Fortunately, or rather deeply unfortunately, the climate crisis is growing harder and harder to deny. We wait with morbidly bated breath for the environmental tragedy that will spark massive social movement as George Floyd’s murder did for the Black Lives Matter movement. It wasn’t the fires in Australia and the West Coast, it wasn’t a record-breaking hurricane season, it wasn’t spending $2.75 billion on flood diversions in Fargo. Straight denial is no longer effective, so their tactics have evolved and so must our resistance.
Climate Justice is Economic Justice
Now that the majority of Americans believe that climate change is real and must be addressed, why are we not mobilizing on all levels to move our society away from fossil fuels? Only a small minority still tout that it’s all a hoax, yet progress continues to be slow and victories hard won. Having Trump in the White House and a Republican-controlled Congress certainly hasn’t helped, but even Democrat-controlled states and cities have been hesitant to take any aggressive action—Nancy Pelosi famously referred to the Green New Deal as “the green dream, or whatever they call it.” The society-wide cognitive dissonance that comes with facing an existential threat and not doing anything and everything to stop it is enough to make one go mad. But we must ask, why? Why the hesitation? Why the dismissal? As usual, the answer comes down to money.
The proposal of any substantial effort to avert climate breakdown, including The Green New Deal, is often countered with complaints that it will be too costly and too disruptive (as if massive droughts, crop failures, storms, and sea level rise aren’t?).* Regardless, we arrive at the present strategy of climate opponents: economic blackmail. Now that climate denial is no longer as effective, anti-environmentalists have crafted a false dichotomy between the climate and the economy. Conservative political candidates appeal to constituents who are often rural, working class, and economically dependent on the fossil fuel industries by painting environmentally friendly candidates as the enemy, the ones who will take away people’s livelihoods to save a few birds. So far, it has been a winning strategy, and progressive politicians and environmentalists alike need to do a better job of disrupting that narrative and building coalitions with energy communities.
In conservative, energy-producing states like North Dakota, Republican leaders have thus far refused to acknowledge the declining coal industry and continue to block renewable energy developments to the detriment of both the environment and energy communities. Coal has long been a staple of North Dakota’s economy, and the Bakken oil boom has certainly brought financial prosperity to the state. Overall, the fossil fuel industry is immensely popular, and it makes little political sense for anyone to disparage it. That does not, however, excuse state leaders from planning for the future. Be it by economics or policy, the shift towards renewable energy is inevitable, and North Dakota representatives do a disservice to their constituents by trying to deny that. To be fair, wind energy continues to expand across North Dakota with plans for an increase of solar energy production as well; nevertheless, renewable energy only represents approximately a quarter of the energy produced in the state and does not receive the legislative and public support of its polluting counterparts.
In the summer of 2020, Mercer County, heart of North Dakota coal country, passed a two-year moratorium against any new wind development. The ban came after the Coal Creek Station announced it will shut down in 2022, raising economic fears in Mercer and McLean Counties who depend on the coal plant as the major employer of their populations (McLean also passed zoning laws designed to impede wind development). Hazen Mayor Jerry Obeneauer commented on the situation in the Fargo Forum, “”There’s an attack on coal, obviously, across the country. I think we all know and understand that in 20, 30, 40 years coal will be gone.” Notice the choice of words, “an attack.” In some ways, Mayor Obeneauer is not wrong. Environmentalists have been fighting against coal for decades, bringing attention to the array of health issues from its pollution, the damage strip mining does to the land, and of course the fact that coal is an inefficient and heavily carbon-intense form of energy. Advocates continuously fight against the building of new coal plants (often with the unintentional side-effect of keeping older, less efficient plants on the grid longer), but they are not the reason most coal plants, including Coal Creek, go offline. The fact of the matter is that, in simple economic terms, burning coal is more expensive and less efficient than natural gas or renewable forms of energy. Just as VHS gave way to DVDs, the energy industry is evolving, and there is nothing any politician can do to stop that. As Obeneauer said, coal will soon be gone and with it, if we don’t do something, the communities that depend on it.
So, what do we do? Banning renewable energy certainly is not the way to go and will cost those communities jobs and revenue in addition to the losses from Coal Creek. But when asked about the loss of fossil fuel jobs, environmentalists tend to shrug it off as collateral damage with a generic “we’ll train those workers for green sector jobs.” Frankly, that isn’t good enough, and environmentalists do their own disservice to these communities by failing to acknowledge their hardships.
Waylon Hedegaard is a retired North Dakotan boilermaker and labor organizer for the coal industry. He says that, as terrible of an energy source coal is, it is an excellent source of jobs. Coal plants are difficult to operate and demand a large, skilled workforce that can similarly, due to a long history of unionization, demand high wages and benefits. Those type of jobs cannot be easily found in oil, gas, and renewable energies. The offer to “retrain” for a worse job is unattractive or even insulting to a skilled coal worker, especially when it comes from groups who demonize their entire livelihood. (Let’s be clear, transitioning away from coal is crucial for the health of our environment, but combative messaging is not always the right approach especially when trying to build a grassroots movement in which energy workers could be a game changing addition.)
So, what do we do? When Mr. Hedegaard became a boilermaker 25 years ago, he was warned that the industry was in its final stages and to not get too invested. Now, 25-year-olds are entering the industry with high paying jobs they are told, if they elect the right conservatives to fend off the hippies, will last forever. They are putting down roots and investments in communities that, according to Hedegaard, will become “mini Detroits” before these workers reach middle age. He hopes that, as coal plants continue to trickle offline, those still in the industry will take these doses of reality and start transitioning to other industries. But with decades of conservative messaging denying the inevitable and little to no social safety net to catch people when the inevitable comes, the consequences will be great.
It can seem like the dichotomy is true: to save the environment we have to sacrifice the economy. But let us be reminded that this is a distraction. The environmentalist’s fight is not against the worker nor is the worker’s fight against the environmentalist. Coal workers deserve to live on a healthy planet as much as any other living thing, let us welcome them into our fight for our collective future by offering them means to ease their transitions and mitigate the consequences of coal’s and other fossil fuels’ end. Climate justice is economic justice, that intersection is key. Environmentalists must expand their understanding and efforts to include these intersections. To advocate for climate legislation without support for unionization, Medicare for All, affordable education, and proportional taxation of the wealthy does nothing to address the situation that allowed for these false dichotomies to be created in the first place. Our collective fight is against exploitation—of the planet and of the people.
*To clarify, The Green New Deal is a set of resolutions and ambitions. It does not contain any concrete policies whose costs can be estimated. The frequently cited $93 trillion price tag is an estimate from a right-wing think tank that made broad assumptions over what the Green New Deal would entail and does not factor in any of the economic benefits that may result from the suggested investments.
Eco-Superiority and a Culture of Exploitation
The climate crisis exists in two fascinating and different roles: cause and symptom. As scientists study how climate change will cause shifts in weather patterns, as communities invest in climate resiliency, and as animals adjust migration patterns and habitats, climate change seems to receive the most attention as a cause of other phenomena. However, when asked how did we get here? What is the cause of the cause? The answer is, of course, the burning of fossil fuels perpetuated by a handful of companies and supported by corrupted politicians. While this answer is correct, it is not necessarily complete. If you push further, you find that the source of the ecological crisis is the same source of other deep failures of our society, namely racism and misogyny. Our society is plagued with a culture of exploitation and greed from which white supremacy, patriarchy, and the climate crisis result as symptoms. It is not until we shift our very understanding of our relation to others and our natural world that we truly create an equitable and sustainable world.
When learning about racism and misogyny, simple hatred does not seem like the total answer as to how and why these issues came to be. Surely, hate is the primary motivation for many individuals to support and engage in these systems. Hate reinforces them but did not build them—people must be motivated by something more and must see a benefit from these systems.
The economic and egotistic benefits of the theft of women and people of color’s labor and their social subjugation is evident—the economy of the Western world was dependent on slave labor for centuries, and our modern 40-hour week is still dependent on unpaid domestic labor. However, as much as greed is a part of human nature, it cannot fully overcome our innate sense of fairness and justice. Every human knows it is wrong to treat another human how women and people of color have been treated. In order to secure broad social approval for these systems, women and people of color had to be seen as less than human or otherwise inferior. Thus, throughout American history, people of color have been given lower legal status than whites—the famous three-fifths Compromise enshrined in the Constitution is one example. Today, people of color continue to be stereotyped as more aggressive, less intelligent, less susceptible to pain, and overall “less civilized” than white people. Likewise, women were deemed too weak, too unintelligent, and too dependent to be allowed to hold positions of power and were confined to roles of unpaid labor in the home. Today, they continue to be objectified and discriminated against for the benefit of men. By creating these stereotypes, it becomes broadly accepted that it is justifiable, even natural or right, to misuse these groups for the benefit of the superior group. It is dehumanization for the sake of exploitation.
Similarly, the Earth has been robbed of its intrinsic value in the hegemonic Western culture and has, in its own way, been dehumanized. In this way of life, Nature does not have its own spirit or soul to which we can relate to; instead, Nature is narrowly defined as a resource to be managed for material goods or recreation. Further, humans are viewed as somehow external or even in opposition to Nature, expressed in concepts such as “man-made versus Natural” or “man versus beast” as if that we create does not come from the Earth and we are not animals that walk upon it. Through this combination of viewing Nature as somehow outside of ourselves and the Earth as something to be valued only in how it serves our needs, we have developed a system of “eco-superiority.” This is akin to white supremacy and patriarchy by placing one group, humans, above another, all other parts of Nature, and allowing for the exploitation of the latter to the benefit of the former.
Early North American colonial texts describe the land as a wilderness or a wasteland and chastised the Indigenous peoples for, well, wasting it. Indeed, this was used as an excuse to steal the land from its original inhabitants—Native people were not extracting the full value of the land, so it must be justifiable, even natural or right, for the colonizers to take it. This eco-superiority is so intrinsic to Western culture, it is mandated in the Judea-Christian Bible, “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28, emphasis added).
Only by considering ourselves somehow outside and above the Earth and its systems have we been conditioned to treat Nature so unsustainably and so cruelly. For too long, we have lived outside our own natural limits. Solving the climate crisis will take more than ending the use of fossil fuels just as racism was not eradicated by abolishing slavery or the patriarchy dismantled by allowing women the right to vote. All require a deep cultural and psychological shift away from hierarchy and exploitation and towards stronger relationships of interdependence, a shared sense of abundance, and an understanding of our collective Nature.
Looking Forward with LandBack
I told you at the beginning of this series that this is not your typical environmental writing; I do not want to add another voice to the chorus of “apocalyptic rhetoric” spelling out the details of imminent ecological collapse. It is not that I believe this type of communication is harmful and certainly not that it is incorrect, rather that it has the unfortunate effect of paralyzing the reader. Understandable as it is unfortunate, the existential threat of the climate crisis is simply too great for many to directly face, what with all the other more immediate crises we deal with daily from rising healthcare costs to discrimination to income inequality. What further separates these issues, besides just sheer scope, is that all other crises are negatively impacting people’s lives now and solving them would bring immediate relief. For most in the industrialized North, climate change has yet to immediately impact us. Of course, with intensifying fires, hurricanes, flooding, and droughts that is quickly changing, yet these events can still be mis-contextualized as isolated tragedies. What’s more, addressing the climate crisis demands immediate and drastic changes in every facet of life, and humans much prefer acting on short term known rewards than future potential risks. As crazy as it sounds, avoiding the catastrophes outlined in apocalyptic rhetoric is not enough incentive for societal action. It is not enough to give people something to fight against, the climate movement also needs to give them something to fight for. It is not enough to maintain the status quo, rather people need a dream, a vision for a radically more sustainable and equitable world. We see this in part in the Green New Deal, pairing climate action with economic equity. Even more compellingly, I believe we see this vision in the LandBack movement. On the surface, LandBack is an international effort to return stolen lands to Indigenous peoples, but it is also the intentional struggle to reject the culture of colonialization and exploitation in favor of a more harmonious way of being.
The LandBack movement started as a demand to return Pe’ Sla or what is known as the Black Hills in South Dakota to the Lakota people. Pe’ Sla is sacred land and integral to Lakota ceremony; however, when gold was discovered, the U.S. Government broke the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and invaded the lands for colonial development. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1980 that the U.S. unlawfully broke the Fort Laramie treaty, Pe’ Sla has yet to be returned. Nevertheless, the LandBack movement has seen increasing wins across North America and continues to be centered in the climate justice movement. Even the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognizes Indigenous rights to be integral to addressing the climate crisis. Across the globe, lands still held by its original inhabitants have been Ground Zero for the fight against fossil fuels. At the time of writing, Indigenous water protectors and allies have been camped for two weeks in northern Minnesota blocking construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline. If completed, the pipeline will carry tar sand oil across Anishinaabe lands and waters threatening sensitive wetland areas and wild rice lakes, a traditional food of the Anishinaabe. The Wet’suwet’en First Nation in Canada has been protesting development of a natural gas pipeline across its unceded territory for several years culminating in police confrontation in early 2020. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota and South Dakota brought land defenders from across the U.S. to block the Dakota Access Pipeline after it was rerouted to cross the Missouri River on the tribe’s treaty land and were met with intense state violence and police brutality. The LandBack movement seeks to uphold treaty rights and honor tribes’ relationship to their land, air, and water. As the Lakota water protectors chant, Mni Wiconi, water is life.
LandBack is more than respecting tribal sovereignty however, it is a rejection of colonialism and an opportunity to build a better world. Marcus Briggs-Cloud, a Maskoke man and co-director of the Ekvn-Yefolecv Maskoke ecovillage, says that,
“Landback affords us the opportunity to decolonize our relationship to land…By decolonizing, I mean that we have to reject the commodification and exploitation of land. We have to reject the extractive economy and be willing to live simply. If we’re not living as minimalists, I think we’re fooling ourselves that we’re in right relationship with the Earth and all living beings She hosts. If it’s not the land we’re living on that’s being abused and exploited for capital, it’s some other Indigenous peoples’ traditional homelands that are being abused.”
Source: Grist – Returning the Land
Already the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies seek to adopt some of the natural resource management practices of the original caretakers of the affected lands, especially when it comes to fire management and controlled burn practices in areas that were subjected to decades of “abstinence only” fire prevention. It is not enough or just, however, to commodify Indigenous teachings while continuing to underserve and oppress Indigenous people. As Briggs-Cloud states, LandBack directly opposes the exploitation of the land and its people and offers a model of interdependence, respect, and care towards which we may evolve and a vision we may fight for.
Source: Lakota People’s Law Project – #LandBack is Climate Justice
Further Resources & Education: Idle No More