Even in the face of planetary destruction, it is capitalism and capitalistic interests that dictate the response to our current climate catastrophe.
Flashback to September 2018: former California Governor Jerry Brown has a plan to save the world. He explains: “Plastic has helped advance innovation in our society, but our infatuation with single-use convenience has led to disastrous consequences […] Plastics, in all forms—straws, bottles, packaging, bags, etc.—are choking our planet.”
Who would have thought that climate change could be reversed by the simple behavior of consumers, discarding plastic, rather than the one hundred companies that account for the majority of pollution, including ExxonMobil and Shell. Thank God it’s that easy!
It’s 2020. Jerry Brown is out of office. Starbucks is handing out paper straws. In California, the land is aflame. In Oregon, the sky is an apocalyptic red. In nearly every other state, the stench of smoke is filling our lungs, shepherded by gusts of transcontinental wind.
But what about the straws?
If this were a Hollywood film, a big-budget, end-of-the-world extravaganza, we’d be treated to billionaires and computer jockeys screaming at government officials, promising huge sums of money and brilliant, undiscovered solutions that could set the planet right. Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck would be taking a team of hard-working drillers with calloused hands to obliterate the fuck out of an asteroid. DJ Qualls would be slamming his knuckles down on early-2000s keyboards, promising to hack the planet before our core dies. If that sort of film was made today, we might even have Elon Musk building an armageddon-proof dome of stolen emeralds along with a magical machine that somehow rebuilds the ozone layer via dank memes. If it were directed by Jerry Brown, we might even have a beleaguered Kurt Russell running house to house, grabbing the guilty plastics in order to build an ark to save humanity.
Goddamn those straws.
But this is not a movie. There are no renegade scientific geniuses, no selfless astronauts, and no heroic billionaires to save us. Nor are there easy excuses that place the blame on people rather than the corporations and capitalistic interests that have brought us here.
We are here at the brink, looking off the edge of the world, as so many cling to a crumbling precipice, knowing that they will be the first swallowed. The capitalistic forces that once promised a better world are the same forces that are now boiling the planet alive while at the same time onanistically bragging about life-saving innovations, reinventing necessary infrastructure but more inept, more mercenary, and less accessible.
On the edge of oblivion, the richest among us have gilded their self-salvation and their complicity in the rhetoric of transformation. They won’t save us. In fact, we’re here, burning alive, specifically because of them.
Our current understanding of climate change and the solutions to it is divided into the investment in two separate saviors: liberal politicians and so-called woke billionaires. Unfortunately, close inspection of the blunt truth laid out in the previous half-decade violently refutes both of these fantasies.
Consider recent Democratic messiah Barack Obama. Before ultimately denying the final permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline, a move that might’ve been more for the ego boost than anything else, the former president delivered a statement about how the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was making their voices heard, a statement that was no doubt lauded heavily by the media. But this was during the same year he would unleash the worst of what opposition had to offer on those same protesters. Law enforcement would readily and gleefully meet the protesters with tear gas and cannons of ice-cold water, releasing dogs and rubber bullets along the way.
Meanwhile, at the height of the 2020 election, as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi both spit in the face of the Green New Deal (which the latter has referred to as “the green dream, or whatever they call it,” after gleefully accepting campaign funding from the fossil fuel industry), the naked opportunism and hypocrisy of alarmist liberal rhetoric around climate is clearer than ever. Recent neoliberal martyr Ruth Bader Ginsburg stood with conservative justices in support of destructive pipeline projects. Current California Governor Gavin Newsom has been all too eager to tweet out warnings about the incredible dangers of climate crisis and pose for photoshoots in the wreckage of historic conflagrations with Kamala Harris despite approving 360 fracking permits as of July 6, 2020.
This performativity is both gut-wrenching and par for the course: emblematic of where these politicians’ allegiances lie. Even in the face of planetary destruction, it is capitalism and capitalistic interests that dictate the response to our current catastrophe.
And that doesn’t even get us started on the racial implications of the problem.
Just as the violence of capitalism and white supremacy are intertwined in other issues, the treatment of global warming and general ecological destruction is intensely racialized. Whether it’s the fact that politicians have treated the Flint water crisis as a sort of trivial infrastructure issue unworthy of real attention, or the blatant FBI infiltration of and police violence against the indigenous resistance at Standing Rock, the reality that climate change will hit poor BIPOC communities the hardest (and that they will receive the least support) is inescapable. Starting with Hurricane Katrina and continuing through the destruction of Haiti via earthquake (and the subsequent disappearance of promised humanitarian funds), all the way up through the devastation of Puerto Rico, there’s an undeniably white supremacist bent to the capitalist nonsense that defines how we understand what is looking more and more like the end of the world as we know it.
Capitalists don’t have any real incentive to curtail this mess, not when they can further take advantage of natural disasters, especially in those places that have little to no power to fight back. In the aftermath of the continued devastation of Puerto Rico, for instance, we saw energy companies like Whitefish jump in to save the day at a hefty cost, with less focus on people than profit. TigerSwan, the security firm that was a fundamental tool of insurrection against the Standing Rock movement, has undergone an eco-friendly rebrand, now offering its services for good, for security measures in unsafe instances in disaster-stricken areas.
But the insidiousness of this is not always so naked.
Even when people like Elon Musk and others in the Silicon Valley bubble say they have an investment in stopping environmental collapse, they’re also only ever looking for the most exploitative ways to deceive you. Electric cars are quiet, clean, and stylish, but never mind, of course, that buying them brand-new might end up causing more air and carbon pollution in the long run. Never mind that any potential cleanliness these products boast depends mainly on the cleanliness of the country’s leading power sources. Don’t pay attention to the fact that these vehicles don’t simply come out of the ether and need to be manufactured before they hit the streets.
Erase the fact that manufacturing doesn’t always have the greenest, most environmentally-minded roots. According to a 2016 Wired article, electric cars need to be light, which means they need to include a lot of high-performing metals, like lithium and other rare minerals. “Rare metals,” author Lizzie Wade writes, “only exist in tiny quantities and inconvenient places—so you have to move a lot of earth to get just a little bit.”
Elon Musk gets to sell you the easy comfort that comes with easy, largely symbolic gestures.
Even the aforementioned Green New Deal, the so-called progressive way out, serves only to give capitalism a greener face. Since it’s nonbinding, there’s technically no reason for any legislators to take action. And, since the resolution calls for “investments to spur economic development, deepen and diversify industry and business in local and regional economies, and build wealth and community ownership,” and these investments are going to be allocated from banks and “other public financing,” it’ll ultimately be at the behest of corporations and other interested parties, instead of the other way around. Dedication to growth is an inherent feature of capitalism, so any policy “solution” put forth by leaders of a capitalist society is bound to fall short of the actual needs of the situation.
In his 1925 poem “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Elliott wrote about “the dead land…the cactus land,” before predicting that the world would end “not with a bang but with a whimper.” These words seem to hold horrifically true now: portending an empty, self-aggrandizing, and impotent phalanx in the face of armageddon, a wasteland created by the slow encroaching inaction of a world unwilling to face disaster as it throws itself, unceasingly, against the door.
Though Elliott was speaking about the insanity and trauma of the First World War, his frustration and pessimism feel equally potent nearly a century later, as we watch the world crumble under the weight of environmental malfeasance, capitalist vampirism, and the empty gestures that feign compassion yet embolden cruelty. While we might imagine a doomsday defined by super volcanoes and biblical tempests, that apocalyptic bang will, ultimately, be ushered in the whimpering, equivocating, self-sustaining bullshit of corporations all too eager to suck the life from the flesh of the earth, and then turn around with Steve Urkel “ain’t I a stinker” sheepishness as the chickens come home to roost.
Because this is the way in which liberalism and capitalism point us: towards market solutions, towards the band-aid over the bullet wound, while these systems themselves are simultaneously producing the bandages and firing the gun. Sure, we could go a step further in putting our faith in ecological modernization. We could lean into this idea that new and developing technology will save us and the environment, and that salvation will come in the form of solar panels and electric cars because the future is now! However, this idea doesn’t consider how little impact these solutions will ultimately have as long as capitalism keeps wantonly pillaging, no matter the banner of “green” conscientiousness the system uses to shield itself from scrutiny. Putting our faith in such companies is arguably the primary reason we’re in this environmental mess in the first place, and allowing them to privatize the solution while dodging accountability for the majority stake they hold in causing the problem will leave us with little more than clean vehicles via which to outrun the total collapse of security, health, and environmental stability when this problem finally reaches its horrific climax.
We can sit, watching for whatever happens next, waiting for straw bans to finally take hold, for the solar panels and the electric cars. Still, as we put our faith in some sort of corporatist Deus Ex Machina, we have to come to terms with which god we’re hoping for, and which machine we think will produce Him.
The flames that are engulfing the world and the smoke that’s choking our lungs will likely be coming from that very same machine.
The world is on fire. Long live industry’s inferno.
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