Act: Inspiration

Climate Change, Dinosaurs and the State of the Environmental Movement

August 5, 2019

The environmental movement is in a messy place. It has grown up and become, mostly thankfully, a prominent feature of politics and something people around the world generally know we must take seriously. We have a candidate, Jay Inslee, running on the issue of climate change alone. People today are probably just as familiar with The Green New Deal as the original New Deal itself. In this growth, however, it has started to look less like a movement and more like a talking point. This piece is largely my thoughts on the state of both the movement and a society facing massive environmental change. We find ourselves in a strange place.

I’ll start broadly. Never have we been in such a place where there is not just disaster coming, but we’ve got a pretty damn good idea of what it’s going to look like. On top of that, we know vaguely how to prevent. I say vaguely, and I’ll explain why with a ridiculous example. Imagine it’s 65 million years ago and you and I and all of your friends are T-Rexes and velociraptors and maybe some other more friendly dinosaurs and the like. We’ve just learned, thanks to a bunch of Sauroposeidons, the tallest dinosaurs (thanks, Google), who recently climbed on top of each other and used their long necks to reach above the clouds and look into space, that a massive meteor is coming and will kill you and all your scaly friends. However, they also told us that everything will be fine, so long as we can figure out how to launch a crew of bald, Bruce Willis-looking dinosaurs a la Armageddon and a few thousand pounds of TNT into space so that they can destroy it.

This analogy is, of course, extremely imperfect – mainly in that there is actually hope for us. But I’m not going to go into all of the other reasons why because it’s dumb and references talking scientist dinosaurs and the movie Armageddon (?), but it’s fun and makes my point. We know what we have to do, just not so much exactly how to do it. Earth is warming because there is too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. To slow, and ultimately stop the warming, we need to stop emitting carbon dioxide, and hopefully capture some of it while we’re at it.

This is where things get difficult, and it becomes easy to oversimplify (much as I have already done). One of the reasons for this is, to continue the broad theme here, climate change is such a massive, all-encompassing phenomenon that any kind of action planned with the goal of combating it is going to have a hundred different viewpoints from every single possible field and location and school. Consider one of the most prominent actions talked about today – a carbon tax. Many environmentalists love this idea, and you really can’t blame them. By attaching a price to carbon dioxide emissions, a carbon tax would use existing economic systems to create a structure that would incentivize decreased emissions of carbon dioxide. This is significant and attractive because it does not challenge anyone’s world view. It exists within the norms of a society where prices and economic incentives dictate almost all that we do, and that makes it easy to digest. More on this later. There is certainly an argument to be made for this school of thought. What if we can solve the climate crisis and avoid political revolution and the powers that be can continue to be and everyone can go on living their jolly lives? For lots of us (read: the powers that be) this sounds great.

For an ever-growing group of environmentalists and activists, however, this is not the path forward. This is the group that protests the idea of a carbon tax both on the grounds of justice (A carbon tax would increase prices of everyday goods like gas and food, so it could be harmful for low income populations), and on an ideological level. If capitalism is seen as the system that got us into this situation in the first place, to continue forward with it – even with something like a carbon tax – would only push us deeper into a system that commodifies and exploits nature and people (those without said powers that be). Take a walk through one of the many, often majority people of color and low income, communities that are taking the climate crisis into their own hands and see how they feel about a carbon tax.

Let’s say then that somehow we’ve united these two groups and they’re on board with a carbon tax. Next, there is the significant part of the American population that detests this idea because of the all-powerful three letter word “tax.” Okay, well what if we take the revenue from the tax and push it back into communities, thus keeping the government revenue neutral from this tax. Ideally, the revenue would go towards those who would be most impacted by price changes from the tax. Let’s not forget, of course, that this is still a tax, and as we faithful Americans know, taxes are bad.

Organic farm in Vietnam
The aisle view of an organic farm near Hoi An, Vietnam – Photo taken by Joe Liesman while studying climate justice in Vietnam with SIT/IHP.

Okay, somehow we’ve now got these three groups on board. There is another group that must be discussed, as well. What about the people that simply don’t care? For many, climate change can be brushed off as a non-issue. With enough income and a house well above sea level (or maybe just a second house, somewhere cushy and elevated), it’s easy to think that climate change won’t directly affect you. To this group, people losing their homes and livelihoods to sea level rise, dangerous heat waves, mass extinction – so what? And what about – and the Venn diagram between these two groups is, although not quite a perfect circle, probably pretty close – those who profit off of the systems directly responsible for causing climate change?

What I’ve just presented is a very brief summary of the politics and ideologies surrounding a carbon tax – one potential step towards fighting climate change, in a single country. And I haven’t even mentioned the group of people who don’t believe that climate change is real in the first place.

With all of this in mind, I can move towards my main point. Climate change, at its core, is not a technological issue, it is not a scientific issue, or a political issue, and it is not an economic issue. Rather, it is a cultural issue and an issue of empathy. If everyone woke up tomorrow and decided it was time to take climate change seriously, things would be okay. We have the materials and the know-how to deploy enough renewable energy to supply all of our energy needs (especially if we change the way we think about “needs” and consumption). The question we face now isn’t “Can we do it?” but “Should we do it?” and “What’s preventing us from thinking we should?” We have the ability to stop using fossil fuels, use less plastic, create less waste, and consume less, but we aren’t doing it. The question, of course, is why and the answer, I believe, is disturbingly simple.

It’s hard. Lifestyle change is not easy. Take me, and this morning. I’m an environmental student. I work at an environmental organization. I actively try to use less and lower my impact when possible. On my way to work – at this environmental organization – I stopped my gas car at a Dunkin Donuts and got myself breakfast and an iced coffee in a plastic cup with a plastic lid and a plastic straw. Is using plastic sometimes the worst thing in the world? No. But it goes to show that changing your ways, even for something you truly believe in, can still be difficult. Times when I do things that are environmentally harmful make me question not only my own commitment, but it makes me think – if I’m not committing entirely to making these lifestyle changes, how can I expect other people to, as well?

The downstream view from Dak Mi Hydropower Station
The downstream view from Dak Mi Hydropower Station, Vietnam – Photo taken by Joe Liesman while studying climate justice in Vietnam with SIT/IHP.

Depressing, answerless aside over, we can return to the question of empathy and those that do not care. For much of the western world, the climate crisis just doesn’t seem like a crisis. Of course, it is, but what I mean is that sea level rise might not affect me anytime soon. A heatwave isn’t going to be such a problem for me because I can always return to my air-conditioned home and I can go to work in my air-conditioned car (using more energy, of course). This is the problem we face now. Unchecked, obviously, these issues will become significant for everyone, no matter the wealth or status of the individual. And they’re already significant for millions of people around the world. We are around the corner from an inevitable refugee crisis (if you think the refugee crisis of today is significant, just wait a little longer) as millions of low-lying communities become uninhabitable.

It’s worth clarifying, briefly, why sea level rise is a problem. The problem is much broader than some may think. Some of the harm will come simply from shorelines moving back and new, once dry land, being consistently submerged. The much larger problem, however, is flooding and saline intrusion. Sea level rise, when combined with more extreme weather, will lead to significantly more frequent and more intense flooding events. When these floods reach agricultural areas along coastlines, salt from the ocean will destroy crops and make land unfarmable. A sea level rise of one foot does not mean just land an additional foot above sea level is at risk, but a much greater and more extensive area becomes at risk for flooding. Rich, productive farmland will be lost along with many of the world’s cities.

Wrapped up deep underneath the prevailing narrative that is climate change and too much carbon is the degradation of nature, of species, and of all non/more-than-human life. We hear news all of the time that we are now in the midst of the sixth great extinction (not only is there an asteroid coming, but some not so friendly dinosaurs are chopping down forests and polluting the oceans and damming rivers). These articles inevitably end with a call to decrease carbon emissions and move towards other forms of energy. But what will this do about the sixth extinction? Sure, some species are dying because of high temperatures and increased ocean acidity, but the greatest culprit is habitat loss. Perhaps there is some merit to this situation. If it is the loss of species that will make people care about climate change – even if the two aren’t strictly 100% related – then maybe that is ok.

But then we must ask the reverse question. What are the many climate change activists fighting for? Of course, they would like to see a lower carbon world. But why? So that we may save ourselves from a world turned against us or so that we may save everything else from us?

I believe this is a bit of a square-rectangle situation. Option A does not include option B, but B certainly includes A. Option A is the greenwashing of growth. This option asks how we can continue to expand our machine while doing so in a way that least impacts the environment. Sustainability of our society, as the word has become known today, is not the sustainability of Earth. Option B does not qualify its environmental goal in this way. Option B pushes for, first and foremost, the preservation and growth of nature – of its prosperity and of the role it plays in our lives, not as a resource or a home but as a companion, an ally and an equal. As something we are a part of, as opposed to separate from. Inside the sustainability of the planet and all of its life and gifts is the sustainability of ourselves. In the preservation of species, of forests, rivers, glaciers, and plains is the movement away from carbon, from habitat loss,  overconsumption, and waste.

The fight of the future, I believe, must include the growth of this alternative option. Much like everything else today, and partly because of its quest to stay relevant and applicable, the environmental movement is becoming quantified and computerized. It asks what the price of carbon is. It asks precisely how many acres of a forest we must preserve to maintain its integrity as a habitat for the species that call it home. While this is not my preferred view, I would certainly rather these questions be asked than not. This is what option A looks like.

Option B instead asks, how much of this forest do we need to cut down? But more importantly, it asks why we need to cut down the forest. Is it to build a roof over our heads or because we want bigger yards? This is not to call for a destruction of luxury or fun or toys or having only what we need and nothing more. It is to say, however, that we must examine the way we live, we must examine our world view, and we must ask questions about the world as it is and as we want it to be. Perhaps in this examination we may find that our lives are more fulfilling, more purposeful, and more joyful.

It is here that the carbon tax issue becomes problematic. It is being pushed by the mainstream environmental movement as the solution to all of the environmental woes. If we can just get a carbon tax, they say, if we can just decrease our carbon emissions, everything will be fine. This is not to say that I don’t understand the importance of regulating carbon. But the fight needs more than that. We need to not only change our source of energy, but ask what energy we need in the first place.

It is easy to throw away these thoughts as romantic, as unrealistic. But I am not the first to make these claims and I will not be the last. The conversation you hear about the environment on CNN is not the conversation taking place in college dorms or outdoors clubs or in community centers or on farms or in the heads of those who hope and fight and when they sleep they dream of mountain air and when they close their eyes at work for just a moment are no further removed from the ocean than the fish who swim in it. And they are getting louder.

“I am going to listen to the wind and see what it tells me, or whether it tells me anything at all” – Paul Kingsnorth

Joe Liesman

Joe Liesman is an Environmental Studies student at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He writes about nature, climate change, and his love of the outdoors. When not at school, Joe can be found at his home in Pelham, New York, or somewhere on the road.

Tags: alternatives to neoliberalism, climate change responses, environmental justice movement