The term global warming first became part of my vocabulary in the fourth grade. Our teacher had decided that it was going to be one of our themes for the quarter, and like the eager students that we were, we went home to conduct research. How long did we take to shower? How much acid was in the rainwater? How many times did we flush the toilet? We were even encouraged to reach out to environmentally conscious organizations. I sent my letter to the Sierra Club, and promptly received a reply with several newsletters and postcards — I was giddy to say the least.
We finished our unit with a group project. As a class, we were going to film a talk show, where one of us would host and interview other students on subjects they had studied themselves. My name was pulled out of a hat, and I was designated the host. I remember I went home that day and I DIY-ed a shirt with the planet on the front, and prepared to ask the hard-hitting questions. I think the video is still hidden somewhere on YouTube.
From that point forward, global warming, which would eventually become climate change, became a major area of study. I began to take the subject more seriously during my senior year of high school when I discovered my personal bible, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate,” by Naomi Klein. I spent the second part of the year researching and preparing a capstone project on climate change and capitalism. Four years later, I have not stopped my research.
The climate crisis has been the determining force of my life. It is the avenue through which I study the world at large. I understand our socioeconomic system through my studies of the environment.
Like many others, I feel very energized by the surge in collective action found around the world. I feel motivated after hearing the speeches of many young leaders. This was the energy I felt when I marched in Berlin earlier this year. I remember waking up and packing a bag to meet up with my friend, Tabea, by the subway. We somehow managed to find each other in the massive crowd of young children and teenagers. We marched across the city, and I began to learn the chants in German. There was a pulse running through the city; young children were marching with their parents, teenagers were yelling angrily for change, and those who couldn’t march sat by their windows banging pots and pans in support. I felt hopeful. I thought if this many voices from all walks of life could unify then there could be change. It was this memory, and my determination to cling onto that hope, that pushed me to attend the Climate Strike in Ann Arbor. I was elated to hear that our city would take part in the Global Climate Strike, so I wrote to my Graduate Student Instructor explaining that I would be missing our discussion to participate in it. I remember typing the words, “I personally do not believe it is fair for me to say I’m a climate activist and not participate in an event like today for fear of my grade.”
So I went. But instead of hope I found a Paramore cover band.
I do not want to dismiss the work of the many activists that participated during the strike, nor do I want to discredit their work. In fact, I want to congratulate the many young speakers that took the stage to express their anger. I do, however, want to think critically about our actions as a growing movement.
What happened in Ann Arbor felt much more like a consciousness-raising event, for an already engaged (mostly white and mostly middle-class) audience, rather than a collective and diverse strike. There is strength in having these events and in finding like-minded people, but we will never overcome the climate crisis until we begin to talk about it for what it really is: a socio-economic crisis. If we fail to consider the historical context of the climate crisis then we are failing our common future.
We live in a neoliberal society that justifies its economic policies under the promise of consumption. This results in the hyper-exploitation of natural resources through extractivism, ultimately intensifying the historical issues proper to capitalism. Neoliberalism advocates for the complete deregulation of markets but this premise of near infinite expansion has led to detrimental effects for society as a whole. According to Klein, within neoliberalism, the role of the state is to “create and preserve an institutional framework” that, according to economist David Harvey, guarantees “liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills.”
More specifically, the state agrees to guarantee the integrity of money as well as mount a defense, within law and order, to aid in securing private property and maintaining the proper functioning of markets. However, Harvey states, “if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education…) then they must be created, by state action if necessary.” The installment of neoliberalism as the hegemonic political force has led to destruction. In particular, Harvey claims neoliberalism broke down the institutional frameworks that had kept society together and in effect, sought “to bring all human action into the domain of the market.”
This understanding of our economic and political system does not only define policy action on the right but it has limited the power of the left. Sure, the mainstream left recognizes the climate crisis in a way that most right-wing politicians fail, but, for the exception of a few politicians, the left is still thinking about reform that seeks to split fairly the spoils of extractivism. According to Klein, they need to deal with the limits of endless consumption.
When we talk of a climate crisis we are inadvertently separating domains of knowledge, and this allows for a division in narratives and distinction between natural history and human history.
If we begin to talk about the climate crisis as the social crisis of our lives then we can reunify man and nature. Such a coalition of crises lets an attack on nature also be defined as an attack on man and in effect the abrasive nature of exploitation and extractivism that proliferates under capitalism and neoliberalism no longer finds strength in a divided front. We can not talk about the climate crisis as separate to the rise of nationalism, the perseverance of racism and structural violence. If we continue to play in the political field arguing, “my crisis is bigger than you crisis” then we have already failed.
We need to stop shaming communities and individuals for their choices. Solely arguing for individual change (carpool, changing light bulbs, vegan diets) erases underlying historical realities of a diverse society. We are so comfortable talking about our individual decisions as consumers but, according to Klein, “this won't add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need.'' We need to talk about collective change.
OUR COMMON FUTURE.
Any action toward a shared goal is good. It gives us energy. It gives hope. These actions make our society more humane and that work can not be discounted, it stops us from slipping into what Klein would label as barbarism. But we need more. We need to acknowledge the underlying fabric of our society, recognize the dark side of capitalism. We need to fight for our common future.