It’s True: “This Changes Everything”

This book made me cry, multiple times. I cried, I was shocked, I was angered and horrified. And I also felt the first real sense of ambitious hope ignited in me since I started reading climate change literature when I was a senior in high school. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything really does change everything: she has shifted the winds on the climate change debate, addressing head on that the ideology of unregulated free market capitalism is standing directly in the way of any meaningful action that could be taken to keep human beings—and particularly the fossil fuel industry—from making Earth uninhabitable for the human species and most complex forms of life.

This Changes EverythingThe nearly five hundred page book lays out the parallel histories of the climate movement and the globalization of free market capitalism, showing how in the last two decades—in which we knew that the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was anthropogenic—we not only failed to address the issue but accelerated the rates of our emissions in the name of profit for multinational corporations. Indeed, I find it particularly significant that the Rio Earth Summit was held in 1992, the same year the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed into law. Again and again, efforts to reduce emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change have been directly challenged, and defeated by, the unregulated capitalist model whose agenda is being pushed by the minority corporate-political elites who are concentrating the world’s wealth into their own pockets.

The clarity, precision, and nuance of Klein’s book is staggering, and I feel gives it tremendous credibility. She seems to have left no stone unturned, and addresses the light and shadow of every situation, presenting the moral issues at stake without moralizing. I devoured this book, taking it in over the course of about four days, so the energy and tone completely shaped my waking and breathing mind and body as I read it. Klein brings together a huge range of interconnected issues—from the conservative denialist reaction, to the extractivist mentality that treats Earth as resource without the need to reciprocate, the unholy alliance of Big Green environmental groups and corporate powers, the terrifying hubristic possibility of geoengineering, and the micro-movements she refers to as Blockadia that are fighting extractivism, exploitation, and toxicity in local communities worldwide. I came to understand that the work Indigenous communities are doing to save their lands and ways of life, because they have the rights but not the power to enforce them, are perhaps our last best chance to overthrow the corporate stranglehold on our planet. As Klein writes,

Their heroic battles are not just their people’s best chance of a healthy future . . . they could very well be the best chance for the rest of us to continue enjoying a climate that is hospitable to human life. That is a huge burden to bear and that these communities are bearing it with shockingly little support from the rest of us is an unspeakable social injustice.[1]

Again and again, I felt affirmed that there was something I could do, something we each could do, that would make a tangible difference in whether humanity—and many of our fellow species—will have a future on this beautiful planet. It is simply, or not so simply, a matter of daring to challenge the status quo that has left us a world of inequality, exploitation, and injustice. As Klein writes, “It is slowly dawning on a great many of us that no one is going to step in and fix this crisis; that if change is to take place it will only be because leadership bubbled up from below.”[2]

The next time a major disaster hits, such as Hurricane Katrina, or Superstorm Sandy—as is becoming all the more frequent with climate change—will be the moment to seize when we can indeed change everything:

Because these moments when the impossible seems suddenly possible are excruciatingly rare and precious. That means more must be made of them. The next time one arises, it must be harnessed not only to denounce the world as it is, and build fleeting pockets of liberated space. It must be the catalyst to actually build the world that will keep us all safe.[3]

One criticism I have heard of Klein’s book is that it is too idealistic. In a way, this could be true. But I have come to realize that we do not have the time not to be idealistic. In Klein’s words, “The stakes are simply too high, and time too short, to settle for anything less.”[4]

 

Work Cited

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

 

[1] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 379.

[2] Klein, This Changes Everything, 465.

[3] Ibid, 466.

[4] Ibid.

The Heart of “Global Environmental Politics”

The seventh section of Global Environmental Politics felt to me to be the most important part of this book: “Race, Class, and Geopolitical Difference.” In five concise chapters the oxymoronic ideal of “sustainable growth” and the insanity of basing the well-being of a nation on the numbers of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) were debunked, and environmental colonialism and racism were brought forward as the darkest shadows of the global economic and social systems. Without addressing ecological justice issues humanity cannot change our destructive impact on Earth’s systems—ecology and justice are inseparably intertwined.

Global Environmental PoliticsHerman Daly lays out in plain terms how the delusional myth of economic growth is simply not possible on a finite planet, whether we label it sustainable or not. This perspective ties in with Jonathan Rowe’s explanation of GDP, and how this worshipped number counts as positive the most destructive aspects of society. He writes,

Cooking at home, talking with kids, walking instead of driving, involve less expenditure of money than do their commercial counterparts. Solid marriages involve less expenditure for counseling and divorce. Thus they are threats to the economy as portrayed in the GDP. By that standard, the best kids are the ones that eat the most junk food and exercise the least, because they will run up the biggest medical bills for obesity and diabetes.[1]

Is it any wonder that the human relationship with the Earth’s ecosystems is broken when our own society is so fractured by a misplacement of values? How can we continue to appeal to the economy as the highest good when it is destroying the very fabric of relationship between humans and within ecosystems?

The latter half of the book’s seventh section portrays the blatant injustice done upon the populations of the global South in the distribution of the costs and accountability for climate change and pollution. Colonialism is as much alive today as it was under the British Empire, but it is disguised by other names and economic ideologies that allow egregious injustices to be perpetrated upon the world’s poor. The final chapter by Robert Bullard, “Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement,” shows not only how internationally toxic waste is foisted upon those with no political power to protect themselves, but even how the U.S. is a microcosm of this international situation as pollutants are outsourced to minority communities that lack the political voice to speak in their own defense. What shocked me most was how consciously this location of toxic materials is chosen by those in power, whether the majority white zoning boards and planning commissions or top officials in the World Bank. Bullard concludes by saying,

The crux of the problem is that the mainstream environmental movement has not sufficiently addressed the fact that social inequality and imbalances of social power are at the heart of environmental degradation, resource depletion, pollution, and even overpopulation. The environmental crisis can simply not be solved effectively without social justice.[2]

As a white person living in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, one of the wealthiest locations on the planet, I can feel my tremendous privilege and social position as I read these words. I have to ask myself—stripped of naive idealism—what real power do I have to make changes on behalf of social justice that are in responsible allyship, that do not perpetuate the systemic injustice that stratifies this world? Simply put, as one individual, how can I help?

Work Cited

Nicholson, Simon and Paul Wapner, ed. Global Environmental Politics. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015.

[1] Jonathan Rowe, “Who is an Economy For?: Rethinking gdp,” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 222.

[2] Robert Bullard, “Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement,” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 245.

Is “Just Water” Just About Water?

“There are many types of wilderness, literal and figurative; there are many types of thirst, material and spiritual. But there is only one water molecule that sustains life in conditions of aridity; its presence or absence shapes human lives.”
– Christiana Peppard[1]

Not until my final day of reading this book did a friend point out to me the dual meaning of the title of Christiana Peppard’s short book Just Water. While it sounds as though Peppard may be indicating that the book is explicitly focused on water, the subtitle, Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis, indicate that the book is about much more, and that the “just” in the title is additionally pointing towards the justice issues bound up within the fresh water crises plaguing the planet. Just Water is about the justice of water, and Peppard is addressing the water crisis from the angle that access to fresh water is a right-to-life issue, particularly as defined by the Catholic Church. Just WaterFirst of all, I was struck by the astrological correlation in the world transits that took place over the roughly two week period when I was reading this book along with my classmates in the course Ecology in a Time of Planetary Crisis. Over this period of time the Sun has been in a conjunction with the planet Neptune, and the archetype of the Sun in world transits sheds light, and brings focus and clarity upon whatever it touches, which in this case is the Neptunian realm of water, spirituality, religion, and ethics. Furthermore, the Sun-Neptune conjunction is square to Saturn, which archetypally relates to crisis, conflict, shortage, pollution, and justice. Saturn-Neptune, which first came into orb about a year ago and will be in the sky for nearly three more years, can manifest in world events as drought, water shortage, contamination and toxicity, and conflicts over water rights, among many other multivalent expressions. To be reading Just Water when the Sun was aligned with this transit felt particularly significant. As for the content of the book itself, I found myself having mixed feelings about how the material was presented. The chapters relating directly to the global water crisis—or crises as Peppard points out, since the issues with water are diverse and differentiated based on local context—were extremely engaging, important to take in, and indeed quite frightening. The second chapter especially, titled “A Primer on the Global Fresh Water Crisis” laid out many of the hard facts of how human beings are using and wasting water, mining “fossil water” from aquifers that will never be replenished on a human timescale, and capitalizing on water packaged in disposable plastic bottles sold to those in first world countries who have easy access to clean tap water, while millions around the world do not have a guaranteed source of clean, fresh water. The global water crisis is afflicting those who are not causing it to a highly disproportionate degree, while those who are responsible are largely sheltered from the effects. The parts of the book with which I struggled most were when Peppard drew on the teaching of the Catholic Church, particularly Catholic Social Teaching (CST), as an ethical resource for how to address the water crises. While I felt she had a legitimate argument for drawing on CST, at the same time the chapters relating to the Church felt disjointed and at odds with the rest of the book, as though they were not fully integrated. If the title of the book had been Just Water: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis I could have understood better where she was coming from, but in reading the book it felt like she was trying to use the Catholic voice as the sole ethical voice addressing the water crises. While this is not necessarily true, I still wish Peppard had defined her position more clearly from the beginning, even in the title, or that she had drawn on other religious and spiritual traditions to provide additional ethical perspectives on the issue of water rights. I came away from reading this book recognizing that the global water crisis is as dire as climate change, and yet does not receive nearly the level of press as global warming does. While I can go online and roughly calculate my carbon footprint, I do not know how to calculate my water footprint: the amount of water that goes into everything I use, from the water I drink and bathe in, to the water used to grow everything I eat, to the water used to make all of the products that see me through my day-to-day existence. I cannot even begin to fathom the scale of that water usage, and yet it feels so essential that I be able to access this information and somehow change my behavior based upon it.

Work Cited

Peppard, Christiana Z. Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014.

[1] Christiana Z. Peppard, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014), 182.

Continuing Thoughts on “Global Environmental Politics”

The fourth section of Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner’s anthology deals with the international state system, and its ability, or lack thereof, to deal with global ecological issues, particularly climate change and mass species loss. The section opens with the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, drafted in 1992. I was both struck that this document was drafted over twenty years ago, and found myself questioning the validity of many of the principles in face of the reality of the ecological problems before us. For example, the continued emphasis on sustainable development made me question whether sustainability is really the emphasis, or is it rather a mere “green-washing” of development as usual? What would happen if the term were reversed, and instead we created “developmental sustainability,” or some other means of prioritizing resilience over exponential growth? Overall, the declaration does not examine the underlying assumption that the economic growth model is the only way forward, or consider that it may inherently have a dire ecological cost.

Global Environmental PoliticsMoving forward to the next chapter by Jennifer Clapp and Peter Dauvergne, entitled “Brief History of International Environmental Cooperation,” I was repeatedly discouraged by the numerous ecologically-oriented political gatherings that have been held over the last fifty or so years that have had relatively minimal impact compared to the scale of the ecological issues we face globally. Why has so much effort been put into agreements if very few of them are legally binding? Why are there seemingly no immediate social consequences when agreed upon goals are not met by various countries? Is there a way to make international state agreements more effective and binding or, like the ecological crises themselves, must they be both borderless and bioregional in order make a real impact?

Having “Wild Hope”

Opening the first pages of Andrew Balmford’s book Wild Hope: On the Front Lines of Conservation Success, I found myself feeling immensely skeptical. I usually have held a somewhat wary view of conservation, tying it to the ideologies of Gifford Pinchot, a contemporary of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, who advocated for the conservation of wild places so that their resources might be available for future generations (as opposed to Muir’s preservationist view that desired to preserve wild places for their intrinsic value and sacred beauty). I have agreed with many of the critiques articulated by William Cronon, who sees preservation of wilderness—defined as wild landscapes untouched by human impacts—as a fantasy of civilization born of Romantic ideals. Yet I also know that it is absolutely vital that human beings begin to lessen our impact on wild landscapes and to make room for the countless multitude of other species with whom we should be sharing this planet.

Wild HopeDelving into Wild Hope and reading of the different conservation projects that are having positive impacts across the globe gave me just that: hope. It is such a nourishing experience to taste hope in the face of all the devastation we have caused. While the stories of conservation success clearly had shadow sides—deadly violence to protect endangered animals, economic incentives based on the same capitalist model that has created the destruction in the first place—what inspired me was that around the world people are taking action. Although the odds are clearly against those who wish to slow ecological decline, reverse climate change, and save thousands of species from extinction, I have always felt that we should still use all of the imagination, creativity, and will that we have to take action on behalf of the Earth. Sometimes when the air is particularly thick with despair I still know that at a karmic level this is what must be done, even when it seems hopeless on the surface.

Perhaps what I appreciated most in Wild Hope was the level of creativity and imagination expressed by those who want to make some difference in conserving the ecosystems of our world. I believe imagination is a great gift to ecology, one that gives those drawing on its power a sense of deep connection and aliveness. Drawing from the wellspring of imagination seems to inspire in others a desire to do the same. Perhaps the greatest value in reading Wild Hope for me was that as I saw how others were engaging creatively to find solutions and participate in holding actions, I felt more inspired to continue with the work as well.

Sitting with “The Sixth Extinction”

“If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book in your lap.”[1] In this one sentence, in the final chapter of her book, Elizabeth Kolbert implicates you, the reader, as the cause of the sixth mass extinction of species on this planet. When reading of the human impact upon Earth, upon the other species with whom we share—or do not know how to share—this planet, it can become so easy to want to seek the source of blame outside oneself, to charge other humans with responsibility for the ecological crisis. But we have been “othering” for far too long, and it is time to take that responsibility within ourselves. So I am sitting here with this book on my lap, I am writing these words on my computer screen, and I know that this crisis is my fault. What, then, do I do with this deeply personal recognition, a recognition that must break afresh upon us again and again if we are to move forward honestly in this field?

The Sixth ExtinctionMy response to Kolbert’s book was wholly positive, a response I do not take lightly. I felt that she was undertaking a task similar to Bruno Latour’s Science in Action in which she opens the mysterious black boxes that create our scientific knowledge to reveal the specific and all-too-human processes of knowledge creation about our planet’s geological and biological history. Her research undertaking in itself was highly impressive; to make it so accessible to a wide audience in such an intelligible way I find even more so. Somehow this volume on mass extinction was not written in a depressing tone, as so much environmental literature is, but rather in an empathic human tone, taking in the emotional reality that we hold many responses to this material and cannot remain in one emotional state for long. The human response is ever changing, and the tone of this book reflected that. Yet I did grieve too: for the loss of the amphibians, the calcites, the rhinos, the coral reefs, the rainforests, as well as the ancient losses of mastodons and the other great megafauna, the ammonites, the auks, the Neanderthals. Of course, I cannot name them all here. No one has ever named all the species we have lost from Earth, nor will we ever be able to name all those who we are bringing to extinction now. But as we wake up to the reality we have created, cannot we remember Aldo Leopold’s words and recognize how far we have come as a species as well: “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun.”

Work Cited

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York, NY: Picador, 2014.

[1] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York, NY: Picador, 2014), 266.

Thoughts on “Global Environmental Politics”

Upon reading the first three sections of Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner’s new anthology on the current state of the planet, I was struck by how succinct and compelling each of the short articles were that comprise the book. The volume is clearly made for a classroom setting, and I felt the content was accessible to a wide range of readers. What was particularly striking though was the continual interweaving of both hope and despair carried by the various authors’ voices. For example, Alex Steffen’s chapter “Humanity’s Potential,” while not naïvely optimistic, still gave me the sense that if we lose ourselves to pessimism we will actually be in a worse situation than if we engaged the crisis with some sense of hope. Hope is not certainty of outcome; I feel hope is something deeper, perhaps more akin to faith.

Global Environmental PoliticsOn the other hand, Stephen Meyer’s essay “End of the Wild” carries within it a true and necessary sense of mourning of the inevitable extinction of species accelerating on the planet due to the activities of our own singularly prolific species. Meyer makes the distinction that while there is nothing we can do to save the loss of the wild this is no reason to not do anything. He concludes:

The end of the wild does not mean a barren world. There will be plenty of life. It will just be different: much less diverse, much less exotic, far more predictable, and—given the dominance of weedy species—probably far more annoying. We have lost the wild. Perhaps in 5 to 10 million years it will return.[1]

His final note is clearly one of despair and grief, deep emotions we must allow ourselves to feel if we are to engage with this crisis in any realistic way.

The book opens with two essays that both address the name of the new geologic epoch into which humanity has ushered the planet: the Anthropocene. Elizabeth Kolbert and Charles Mann both speak to the meaning and uses of this term: whether to use it ironically or seriously, what the impact of naming the epoch might be, when one might date the beginning of the Anthropocene—whether from the invention of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, or even further into the future when the effects of climate change are absolutely undeniable. The question that continued to arise for me in relation to the term Anthropocene is, will it awaken humanity to the fact we have become a force of planet Earth as powerful as the geologic and hydrologic cycles and that we must take responsibility for this power, or will it reinforce the anthropocentric hubris that led us to this crisis in the first place?

Work Cited

Nicholson, Simon and Paul Wapner, ed. Global Environmental Politics. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015.

[1] Stephen Meyer, “End of the Wild,” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 57.