Written in collaboration with Kamene Mang’oka
“Who are you going to believe? Me, or your own lying eyes?”
– Richard Pryor
Upon arriving in the West, we have realised a few undeniable things. First, people actually talk about the weather: very often. Second, fast food is horrifyingly cheap and prevalent. Finally, the society really cares for the environment, or at least that’s how it appears. Littering is heavily fined, families enjoy exotic camping trips in deep nature, and the Great Barrier Reef is hailed as one of the world’s greatest wonders. It is not unusual to hear pleas from concerned friends to consider veganism, repeated cries of “No plastic straws!” , or to watch presentations in school to take shorter showers and remember to reduce, reuse and recycle. These actions appear to provide people with the comfort to sleep at night feeling as though change is being perpetuated, though its implications are largely negligible. It’s admittedly difficult to truly comprehend the hopelessness and dread of the future of our environment; reading steadily more alarming statistics and hearing desperate scientists are insufficient to fully visualise the dark reality. Even more difficult, is the admission that the environmental movement that exists today is largely the product of a capitalist system. It seems to emphasise critique of individual actions instead of the reform or dismantling of larger systemic structures that perpetuate and produce exponentially worse impacts than any individual ever could.
Currently, climate change disproportionately affects the most vulnerable people. Chances are, a country being wiped out from ecological catastrophe would be a small, equatorial, developing island nation, and it’s likely not that country’s own actions which would be responsible for its demise. Instead, it is probable that carbon emissions from disproportionately large and wealthy countries led them there. It is fairly plausible to disbelieve the tenacity of climate change when your home country isn’t sinking— literally. Currently, the largest polluters are powerful and wealthy nations. Based on the 2017 National Science (Oxford Academic) Review, 10% of global income earners are responsible for almost as much total greenhouse gas emissions as the bottom 90% combined. Something rarely emphasised is that national borders themselves are irrelevant to environmental crises and many would argue that environmental crises are in fact humanitarian and human rights crises— with resource shortages, unpredictable weather catastrophes and mass displacement of populations. This problem requires a fundamental restructuring of our entire existing political and economic systems— a fundamental restructuring of our governmental organisms, our corporate incentive structures, our regulations and our consumer mindset.
Public awareness of climate change is consistently rising, but what does that really do? Even if people believed climate change was real (it is) and believed it is human-caused (it is) and believed we needed to do something about it (we do), real power is concentrated in the hands of so few that policy often does not correspond with public desires— unless those desires are also financially beneficial to nationalistic and corporate interests. The few environmental policies passed are often largely empty and serve as public appeasement instead of tangible change. Perhaps this sounds pessimistic or conspiratorial. Let us look to the facts.
To begin with, people get their information from educational systems and largely, the media. Media of today is largely corporate owned. In 1993, 90% of media was owned by 50 companies. Today, starting in 2011, the same 90% is controlled by 6 companies and may soon be owned by 2. These 6 companies include Comcast, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS. They control 70% of cable and can make up to 275.9 billion in revenue annually. Educational systems themselves are usually created by the government, which is supposed to prioritize the welfare of the populous. However, corporate hegemony often has a larger say in politics than the people. As true financial power lies in the hands of very few, politicians often have to play ball with “special- interest groups” whose financial incentives often go against the will of the people and the environment. As seen with the hugely successful coal, oil and gas lobbies, economic and political systems reward and systematically reinforce exploitative and monopolistic behavior. As recently reported by The Carbon Majors Report, 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 and over half of the carbon emissions are due to just 25 companies. Massive corporations generally follow the practice of outsourcing their damages and privatising their gains, leaving widespread environmental catastrophe behind.
This is epitomised in the recent infamous trial between Chevron and the people of the Lago Agrio region of the Amazon. Throughout three decades of oil drilling in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Chevron dumped more than 16 billion gallons of toxic waste into the rainforest, leaving locals to suffer from cancers, miscarriages and birth defects. In an area commonly referred to as “Amazon Chernobyl”— considered one of the most polluted places on earth— Chevron (operating as Texaco), discharged billions of gallons of benzene-laced “formation waters” into local waterways from 1964 to 1992 and abandoned roughly 1,000 toxic waste pits. Last year, Chevron reported revenues of $134 billion and profits of close to $40 billion, while rainforest villagers generally could not afford to buy basic medicine or potable water— which poses another challenge given that most natural water sources in the affected area have been poisoned by Chevron’s toxic waste. Chevron has spent an estimated $2 billion to hire 60 law firms and 2,000 lawyers to target the villagers and their lawyers since the case began, refusing to pay the $12 billion environmental judgment for dumping billions of gallons of untreated carcinogenic oil waste into the rainforest. They recently began working on legal proceedings to force Ecuadorian rainforest inhabitants who live in these devastated communities to turn over $837,000— and possibly as much as $32 million— for costs and legal fees associated with its discredited retaliatory “racketeering” case in the United States. Governments are not exempt from this careless or intentional export of environmental damage, with the US military producing more hazardous waste than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined and has left its toxic legacy throughout the world in the form of depleted uranium, oil, jet fuel, pesticides, defoliants like Agent Orange and lead. Often, political decisions of nations are not carried out in servitude to the best interests of the Earth, the future, or even its own people.
Politicians and media personnel have zero incentive to question or report the misdeeds of their parent companies and corporate funders. If anything, their criticisms or sharing of information would negatively affect their profit motive. So, why would they?
This issue permeates socially, whereby the modern, catchy and capitalistic narrative of environmentalism fed to us by the media and pop culture creates a divide in the environmental movement itself. On the ground, the narrative manifests itself within the populace to a varying degree according to privilege. When individual efforts are overemphasised, they disproportionately affect those from lower income brackets. An analysis of the effects of the environmental crisis must take into account intersectionality in coping with potential solutions. Many argue that the ideal “Westernised” view on sustainability exemplifies a form of classism where marginalised groups are disproportionately affected by global climate-change issues. With the people largely powerless already, those who have historically been oppressed are, at best, ignored and, at worst, systematically targeted as they fail to have adequate means and political power to air their concerns when it comes to environmental issues. A classic example is the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, where the US government was willing to sacrifice the water security, land and health of the indigenous people of the Meskwaki tribe to prioritise pipeline construction, causing large scale outcry from the Meskwaki people and internationally. The government was selective in whose interests to protect and serve, thus the very same system put in place to protect and serve its citizens failed to achieve its purpose. The pipeline, which was initially supposed to pass through a majority white, suburban neighbourhood was relocated to indigenous territories after outcry from the locals. When relocated to indigenous territory, locals there immediately protested against the pipeline, blocking its path of construction. The government largely ignored the protests and instead sent in militarised police to protect the pipeline which proceeded to use tear gas against the civilians— which many argue was an act of domestic terrorism. In this situation, the government acted as an arm to the interests of the pipeline, arming a corporation with a militarised wing of police to repress and even attack a group of peaceful protestors from one of the poorest communities in the US, fighting for the right to clean water. It is often the most marginalised people of our society who will pay the greatest price in the global struggle with climate change. In fact, ordinary people are constantly picking up the tab for institutions who are rarely fairly held accountable for their actions. With no accountability imposed on the worst culprits, it is difficult for many to judge everyday working consumers for picking the easiest options available to them; for example, a single working mother rushing to the supermarket for her weekly restock and picking the cheapest, most recognisable option, not thinking deeply about the ethical and environmental implications of her decision. The modern narrative of environmentalism seems to leave majority of responsibility on the shoulders of consumers, while corporations continue to produce majority of the waste and carbon emissions. Even if every single person recycled all of their trash, took quick showers, turned off unused appliances and only drank tap water it wouldn’t even scratch the surface of foundational change that needs to occur.
The options made most available to us to fight this crisis only makes sense because we think it is individuals or the masses causing the problem. Because we are not conscious of what is truly being done to the environment, and by whom, we cannot effectively fight this crisis. While we are kept occupied with plastic straw initiatives and feel a sense of righteousness when we take an extra second to recycle our paper cups, we are ignorant to a true source of our environmental struggle. We are therefore incapable of holding corporations and governments accountable for their crimes against the environment and humanity. With the large scale deception of the population to serve the needs of the few, the only thing that corporations, governments and media entities really need to do to is sow doubt. The idea we’re being sold is that our little individual actions are having an impactful effect, but not only does it not solve the crisis but this narrative has been carefully orchestrated in a way that it would never actually have an effect on the people at the top. Their priority is not solving the crisis, it is eliminating damage to themselves and keeping the masses superficially occupied.
Institutions and governments are made up of people and should serve the needs of the people, but it is clear that we the people must demand this. Environmental justice and equity are issues that should be at the heart of solving environmental problems. It is absurd to think that everyone has an equal environmental impact or that everyone is at the same level when dealing with issues of climate change. Those with privilege, wealth and power will always have an upper hand. On a micro scale, their opinions will be heard more, their concerns listened to, their trendy movements will have larger audiences and more funds than those of minorities. On a macro scale, when power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of so few, long term environmental policies, ethical, economic and political structures of the world relies on hoping for goodwill and well intentions from these powerful groups—which, if we look at history, may be a naive position to hold. This begs the question, how can we make our voices heard when the structures put in place have been created to silence us?