Global thinking is something that has been on my mind for a couple of years now. I’m sure it’s really the only way to tackle climate change and I think the coronavirus pandemic has cemented this opinion for me. Now more than ever we’re discovering that we are one human species living on one planet. Our lives are all interlinked and we need to do some joined-up thinking to prevent climate change getting any worse than it already is.
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve also done a lot of reading and thinking over the last year about race and racism and how this links to environmental issues. I’ve been on a bit of a journey confronting my white privilege, which has been uncomfortable at times. (This journey is still ongoing; I’m still reading and learning) I’ve discovered the term ‘intersectional environmentalism’ and found a lot of food for thought following people on Instagram like Marie Beecham (@wastefreemarie), Leah Thomas (@greengirlleah) and Mikaela Loach (@mikaelaloach).
“Intersectional Environmentalism is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people + the planet.” Leah Thomashttps://www.intersectionalenvironmentalist.com/
Quite often marginalized communities are the ones who suffer most from climate change and environmental issues. Using air pollution as an example, minority communities and deprived areas, in particular black communities, are more likely to be affected by air pollution both in the UK and worldwide (Guardian article here and The Hill article here). The UN states that indigenous people are “among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, due to their dependence upon, and close relationship, with the environment and its resources.” On top of this, these communities are the ones whose voices often go unheard, with white voices and white agendas often amplified.
I think it is time to stop the ‘us and them’ mentality. I sit here, a white, middle-aged woman, in my comfortable home in rural north east England whilst elsewhere someone breathes in air pollution because they have little or no choice over where they live, elsewhere someone is forced out of their tribal area by deforestation, elsewhere someone’s culture and livelihood are destroyed by the melting of the ice caps. Just because their problems don’t affect me (yet), it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be concerned about them or try to do something about them. We all live on one planet, everything is linked and sooner or later the ripples of impacts of climate change that are already happening will reach all of us. Some narrow-minded people like to get their knickers in a twist over the immigration of a few refugees across the Channel to the UK, but what will they do about the great swathes of mass migration that will take place when/if climate change really takes hold?
In the UK, we live in a capitalist and consumerist society. The capitalist focus is on private ownership of property and private ownership of the means to produce goods with the ultimate goal of making a profit from them. This prioritises the economy, often putting it ahead of the health and happiness of the population, and uses GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as a measure of how well the country is ‘performing’. Consumerism is the theory that the production and consumption of goods in ever-increasing quantities is better for the economy. Tied in to consumerism are other theories such as planned obsolescence, in which goods are not designed to last and so the consumer ends up buying another in a short time period (usually after the warranty runs out in my experience!). In a consumerist society, people are also convinced by advertising and marketing that they need a product to be a ‘better’ person (eg buying this shampoo will make your hair look better and therefore help you get the job of your dreams, attract a husband and be the perfect mother!).
It doesn’t take a giant leap to understand that prioritising the economy in a capitalist and consumerist society has a cost to the environment and a cost to marginalized communities. Who is going to protect trees and wildlife when they think they’ll make more money from cutting down trees and destroying wildlife habitats to build a factory (or railway line – cough – HS2) instead? Who is going to forego a plastic bottle of shampoo when they’ve been duped into believing that it’s going to make them a better version of themselves? The UK government has also prioritised the economy and the personal profits of their cronies during the coronavirus pandemic, leading to us having the third highest death rate per million of the population in the world. Capitalism wins again!
I don’t have enough space here to properly discuss the way different countries are run and what types of economic systems would best support a healthy environment and provide a fairer society for vulnerable communities. There are lots of specialists in this field with blogs and websites of their own. There have been some interesting new theories emerging of the systems that might be a better fit: circular economies on various scales, as championed by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation or the doughnut economy as created by Kate Raworth, which is being implemented in Amsterdam among other places. Those concerned about the economy suffering if we drastically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels or intensive animal agriculture need to look at the figures for green energy and nature tourism. In areas where these industries are already established they provide employment and bring in money to local economies without sacrificing the environment. It’s great to see communities, cities and even whole countries being brave enough to shake their system up a bit and start trying something new. I hope they are successful and can set an example for others to follow because we need a lot more countries on board taking action.
The climate crisis is at such a critical point that if we don’t tackle it as a global community soon we aren’t going to be able to save the planet. Countries that are not doing enough need to be held to account and pushed to make changes; a kind of global peer pressure! I was relieved to see that on his first day in office President Biden signed dozens of executive orders to tackle climate change, amongst them one to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. In the past, red tape and bureaucracy have formed a barrier to acts being put through UK parliament, almost used as an excuse for governments to drag their feet over tiny changes like banning plastic straws or introducing reverse vending machines. But the last year has shown that if an emergency is big enough then government can put measures in place quickly enough when they need to. Apart from the coronavirus pandemic, I don’t know what emergency is more pressing than climate change. And the two may be interlinked. If we continue exploiting nature as we have been, we might see more viruses like Covid 19 spreading rampantly through overcrowded populations in deprived communities.
We need global thinking and we need it fast.