There were dozens of beautifully illustrated signs at the climate strike Sept. 20. Many were political: “People before profit,” “Green New Deal,” “System change not climate change.” This isn’t the environmental movement of the past, with its focus on recycling, turning off lights, and taking shorter showers. The fires of protest ignited by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg are something much more militant – and that’s a good thing.
The environmentalism that dominated our discourse for decades in elementary school was individualistic and had a narrow scope. We learned what we could recycle, how we could save water, to pick up litter and to keep our parks nice. It was environmentalism detached from any understanding of what the real causes of environmental destruction were and still are. It was never, and could never be, enough.
The truth is that individuals don’t defend or destroy the environment. It’s our economic system that prioritizes profit over the well-being of humans and our home. Individuals and entities – fossil fuel companies, shipping companies, industrial agriculture corporations and their respective presidents, CEOs and shareholders – all act to increase profit.
For example, in 1977, Exxon Mobil Corporation’s own climate scientists informed the company’s board of directors about the dire outcomes of continued carbon dioxide emissions according to Shannon Hall from Scientific American. Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, relays that Exxon, instead of informing the public of these findings and trying to limit carbon dioxide emissions, decided to cover them up and began a decades long campaign to discredit climate science . Why? Because as the Scientific American states, there was money to be made. Exxon owned (and still owns) billions of dollars’ worth of unexploited oil resources, not to mention all the infrastructure — such as pipelines and tankers — that it had already invested in. To act in a way compatible with the continued existence of humanity would have meant that Exxon would need to stop pursuing profit.
The same profit-centered motive drives deforestation nationwide. Christina Nunez from the National Geographic explains that in Indonesia, rainforests are being clear cut in order to produce palm oil for big corporations. In Brazil, cattle ranches burn down the rainforest to clear more land for grazing in order to raise more cattle to sell, according to Nunez. Extractive industries such as logging and mining result in the loss of thousands of acres of rainforest every year.
All this stems from that same quest for profits. Global Witness states that the indigenous people living in the rainforest are being driven out of their homes by corporations and that there are dozens of assassinations of those who dare to resist the onslaught of these companies. Don’t worry about the massive release of carbon dioxide that results from the destruction of the rainforest. While there’s money to be made, companies will continue to decimate the rainforest and harm the people that live there.
And these are just two of many examples. We cannot stop climate change without also ending capitalism. If we want to stop carbon emissions, we must democratically control our economy. Greta Thunberg explains that 100 corporations are responsible for 71 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and will not stop their destruction – not while money can be made. Fundamentally, this entire economic system – based on fairy tales of infinite economic growth on a finite planet, as Thunberg said – is incompatible with a healthy environment.
Of course it’s divisive to say that capitalism is leading to an environmental catastrophe whose only real solution is complete system change. It’s much easier to aim for policies that would actually get support from both the Republican and Democratic parties than it is to call for an end to the profit system. But politics isn’t about policies that get the support of the elites of the two major parties. Politics is about what is morally right and necessary. Facing a climate crisis, what is morally right and necessary – for there to be a future for humanity at all – is a radical overhaul of this system far beyond what any politician has proposed.
The signs I saw at the climate strike were a breath of fresh air. They may be political, divisive, partisan, but that’s what’s needed. We already see the calamities resulting from the climate crisis – apocalyptic wildfires, vast flows of climate refugees and precarious water sources. This is just the beginning of what will come without drastic change. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that everything will be alright if we “green” our lives, recycle more and turn off the water while we’re brushing our teeth. It won’t. Calling our representatives (or voting once every two years) won’t help either. There is no policy we can implement under capitalism that will be big enough or operate fast enough to prevent the worst of the climate crisis – nevermind mitigate it.
The new environmental movement springing up today is becoming more and more conscious of these facts and thus more and more political. We should all welcome the politically radical direct action of this new environmental movement, as we’ll need to have a hope of saving the Earth.