The Social Roots of Ecological Collapse

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[Written by Joy Dakers she/her)]

[Photo by Jamie Morris on Unsplash]

Content Warning: discussions of climate change, race, and death

The idea of rewilding is not a new one. It means ‘undoing’ capitalism. Capitalism is the fuel of climate change, it creates the super-rich who pollute the world far more than the rest of the planet. Hopefully, if rewilding takes place, earth will heal enough that we end up in the beginning, with a fully thriving ecosystem unaffected by human greed – a full and thriving state of nature. Most people will have heard of climate change and the detrimental effects it is having on our planet. Why, despite our recycling systems and technological breakthroughs, do we still face a ticking time bomb? Combating climate change is more complex than doing some light-hearted recycling or going on a campaign march. It has its roots in centuries-old structures, like colonialism, coupled with today’s capitalistic urges that do not only destroy the earth but also create a deep seated “global apartheid”. 

The idea of Social Ecology was first coined by Murray Bookchin, who asserted that our ecological problems stem from deep-rooted social issues: the interconnected systems of patriarchy, imperialism, the state, and capitalism. This means that the ecological issues we face in the present day will only be understood and begin to be solved, once we have had a grasp on our society and the factors that influence it. Capitalism has dominated nature, driven by a ‘grow or die market’; this is when the perpetual growth that capitalism strives for impacts the environment through its bleak attitude of ‘survive or don’t’. Its destructive grip over society facilitates an exhausting, ever-expanding market that forces social transformation by exchange rather than mutual aid.

Franz Fanon said, “For centuries Europe has stopped progress in other people and subjugated them for its own purposes and glory; for centuries it has suffocated almost all humanity in the name of its supposed ‘spiritual adventure.’ See how today it oscillates between atomic and spiritual dissolution”. This encapsulates the historical lead up to, and current neo-colonial birth of ecological issues. Complex social issues founded in the past and present add to the reasons why rewilding has not taken place yet. There is a clear link between the earth’s ecology being destroyed, colonialism, and capitalism. They are inextricably connected – the former using the latter to extract resources and boost profits. Thanks to capitalism’s push for profit, it has expanded across the globe and into every inch of the natural world. It has fed the population of the global north with the ideology of materialism, which drives our unquenchable thirst for ‘more quickly’, plundering therefore our most valuable resource: the natural world. Both the exploitation of the global south and the increase of materialism are due to capitalist profit incentive. The ecological disasters that are ever increasing, are intrinsically linked to the structures our societies operate with and within.

You may think that because climate change affects everyone without exception, it is a collective cause that has the potential to mobilise populations to make changes. However, studies have shown the opposite is true. The biggest contributors to global warming are the rich who are able to avoid the catastrophes they create. On the other hand, the most vulnerable communities are the ones faced with the burden of natural disasters through their subjection to continual discrimination and disenfranchisement. For example, Hurricane Maria massively affected the Puerto Ricans who were failed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in terms of their slow response and recovery time (1 year after the hurricane hit to be exact). This emphasises the ongoing colonial nature of the US and Puerto Rico’s relationship, showing how the communities that are most vulnerable are cast aside. The social exclusion that is caused by climate change is on a constant rise, the more frequent and disastrous, natural changes become. The fact is that climate change is exacerbated by multi-millionaires that have shares in fossil fuels and funded lobbyists to block solutions. Clearly, the climate crisis is not one that affects us all equally, being instead one that deepens the existing level of chronic inequality in global communities. 

Moreover, as hedge funds and private equity funds buy and privatize public resources, such as water and electricity, they further the polarisation of these communities. A recent UN report stated, that climate change does not only destroy our natural habitat but also creates a “global apartheid”. As the rich pay to get away from the consequences, the rest of the world is left to suffer. At the same time, the likes of the Koch brothers and Rebekah Mercers constantly bombard us with climate-sceptic propaganda further disenfranchising the public. That’s not to mention the millions of dollars put into lobbying and blocking decarbonisation efforts at all levels. An Oxfam report estimated that the number of billionaires investing in fossil fuels rose from 54 in 2010 to 88 in 2015, making it clear that the rich would rather invest in short term profit, than think about the future of their grandchildren.

Grassroots campaigns such as XR aim to popularise the climate change revolution, however, there are still class and colonial issues within XR. Climate change affects everyone – it is inescapable – but even activists alienate those in minority groups, those that often feel the effects of climate change the most. While XR has been a great mobilizer for climate change activism, it has also given birth to a kind of ‘institutional fetishism’ that has created issues in relations to power. Institutional fetishism, according to the philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger, is “the imagined identification of highly detailed and largely accidental institutional arrangements with abstract institutional concepts like representative democracy, a market economy, or a free civil society”. The hypocritical message of ‘we are all in this together’ broadcasted by XR activists seems hollow when XR arrestees send flowers to a Brixton police station, praising the officers for their ‘professionalism’, even though black men had died while in their custody. When street protests are held outside hospitals and people with physical disabilities struggle to conduct their daily lives, it sends out a message of exclusivity in activism. By refusing to name the ecological fuses of colonialism and capitalism, which marginalises  those who need activism the most, simple platitudes are offered as opposed to  meaningful campaign narratives. 

Climate change is a far more socially complex issue than what is shown by popular climate activist groups. It has roots in marginalisation, and colonisation and it furthers the polarisation of our communities. Without the rich looking into the long term, they will continue to decimate our natural world in order to make a short term profit. Climate change is here to stay and if important steps aren’t taken now, namely rewilding, there will be no long term. 



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