"The solution to climate change cannot lie entirely in so-called sustainable technological innovations."
By Samantha Fox, Ph.D.
Too often climate change is reduced to a quantification of greenhouse glasses or melting ice caps. Indicators of climate change are important to verifying the existence of the problem, but they are less constructive in helping us understand where the problem of climate change comes from. To understand the source of climate change means looking beyond the smokescreen of indicators to examine the power relations that drive capitalist growth.
We know climate change because we have a science to understand it. People are familiar with the standard natural science narratives, narratives that are divorced from society. Fewer people are familiar with the social science explanations of climate change, even fewer still incorporate notions of power into the explanation. The first step to understanding the deeper problem of climate change is understanding how power operates in the history of capitalist civilization.
Most climate change scholarship treats society as a black box or explains the problem as one of a homogeneous humanity. Take for example the Anthropocene argument that treats humanity as something of a plague, disconnected from nature. In this line of thought, humanity itself is the problem. The power dynamics within humanity and between humanity and nature under capitalism is absent. Also missing are the contributions of the liberal arts to understanding power.
The Anthropocene line of thought suffers from a capitalist ideology that reduces relations of power and production to simplistic human activities. The construction of humanity as distinct from nature allows such an idea as the Anthropocene to proliferate. In this understanding of the world, people are not animals nor are they part of ecological systems. Instead a small part of humanity represented by European colonizers transmogrifies into the quintessential representation of humanity (as the culmination of evolutionary processes), dominating over nature as God on Earth while those who have been colonized are ejected from historical consideration along with their decidedly not Anthropocene knowledge and management of nature.
William Cronon documents the changing relationship of European colonizers to nature in the historical expansion of what is today the United States. Cronon illustrates the ideological transformations that situated white men as a stand-in for God, dominating over nature and able to control nature through science, itself a socially constructed norm for objectivity. The historical separation of a small segment of humanity from nature while simultaneously relegating that vast majority of humanity to an in-between state—neither sufficiently human nor sufficiently nature—means that today that more-or-less small segment of humanity controls the science and therefore how we conceptualize the problem of climate change. This conceptualization constructs humanity as the problem.
But humanity is not an undifferentiated whole. Only a small part of humanity, associated with Euro-colonizers, managed to colonize the world and dominate over an abstract nature that included the vast majority of its peoples. The reduction of most of the world’s populations into non-humanity or nature began with the debates at Valladolid in the 16th century. During these debates, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were first codified as “savage” and in need of civilizing through Christianization, which was was used as a justification of land dispossession and occupation. Taking control of the land and diminishing the majority of humanity into dehumanized workers served the purpose of extracting untold amounts of wealth for the colonizers.
Appropriating resources and using dehumanized labor to extract said resources is a recurring process under capitalism. Revisiting old sites of natural resource extraction as technological innovations capitalize on new resources such as lithium propels growth in the capitalist world economy. "Colonize, dominate, extract" is the mantra of capitalist growth. The solution to climate change cannot lie entirely in so-called sustainable technological innovations.
The economic imperative of accumulation, of profit did not and does not operate independent of social processes. Colonized peoples lost their lives and material wealth extracting wealth from nature in a process the benefited a small class of colonizers and propelled capitalism forward. Colonizers destroyed and repressed the knowledge of entire civilizations. The written Mayan language system was burned in Diego de Landa’s fires. Knowledge documented in the Incan quipu communication system was destroyed. What more was lost with the razing of entire civilizations in the Americas?
When you understand that more than half of the world’s humanity was deemed less than human and their civilization and cultural existence was erased from the historical record, it is difficult to comprehend the idea of the Anthropocene. Yet the Anthropocene argument serves a purpose. It allows the wealthier countries to eschew responsibility by imposing their will on the places and peoples their enterprises have underdeveloped. It allows people in power to focus political attention on shorter showers and abandoning plastic straws as solutions to climate change. This despite the fact that the engine of capitalism is growth for the sake of growth. This logic is squarely in the realm of material production and is the source of climate change.
As Edward Abbey wrote: growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. Our planet cannot handle an eternal growth model. Growth was only possible through processes of dispossession and appropriation on the one hand and the differentiation of humanity into a value hierarchy. Inequalities in society are inequalities in nature. Our capitalist world-system, based as it is on infinite accumulation, has failed us.
We live in a finite system and capitalist innovation can only take us so far. Eventually we run out of resources. Climate appears to be the limit. This past year the world has seen the most extreme temperatures on record and extreme weather events are more common than ever. Carbon dioxide levels, the primary measure of climate change, are the highest they have ever been measured. As climate expert Peter Gleick wrote on Twitter, the last time carbon levels were this high humans did not exist.
We need to cultivate in society an appreciation for dynamics of power in the relationship between capitalism and the rest of us, people and nature. There are insights to be gained from an understanding of how power factors in relations of humanity-in-nature throughout capitalist history. Social inequalities are environmental inequalities, those inequalities are an accumulation of wealth and privilege for a small number of people who benefit from a history of oppression. People need to appreciate how sexism and racism operate as social structures in the same way they intuitively understand the economy. It takes more effort, but by learning about and addressing our role in dehumanizing inequalities we can realize a more just and equitable society which in turn will address climate change.
Climate change is an outcome of our current social organization. It threatens all of humanity. Altering our current social organization offers the possibility of creating a society-in-nature where all life is valued.
Samantha Fox is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology. She conducts research on extractive development and indigenous autonomy in Guatemala.