When most of us practice environmentalism, it is often in the form of changes to our own lives. We might forgo meat and plastic, ride the bus, recycle, shorten our showers, or even grow our own food. Those of us who can afford electric vehicles and solar panels–have them. We do our best to reduce our personal carbon footprint. However, on average, people are not the ones most responsible for climate change and other forms of environmental devastation.
The Carbon Majors Report found that 71% of all carbon emissions came from 100 companies, and traced 51% of emissions back to just 25 companies. However, the greatest singular polluter on Earth is still missing from that list. That is because it is not a company at all, but the United States Department of Defense, with “39,000 contaminated sites” to its name, according to Newsweek. Clearly, the environment is not an individual issue. Yet too often I see people, especially young people like myself, looking no further than our own lives and actions when it comes to the environment.
It is not hard to understand the reasons behind this. A rugged individualist mindset is drilled deeply into the American consciousness, and has been since the nation’s founding during the Enlightenment. Just think of how many books, movies, TV shows, plays, etc. you have consumed where one person, acting alone, changes the world. It is a nice fantasy, but we have got to ask ourselves who it benefits. Under capitalism, this individualist fantasy can easily become a form of cultural hegemony, that is, the process of manipulating a society into accepting the ideology of the ruling class, thus making people consent to their own oppression. Cultural hegemony in America often involves cultivating a certain insidious blindness to institutional factors and material conditions.
For example, the widely repeated idea that the oppressed can simply “lift themselves up by their bootstraps” which ignores the myriad obstacles set in front of people by forces like systemic racism, misogyny, and economic disparity.
The individualization of environmental activism is absolutely a hegemonic phenomenon. When we were preoccupied with our own habits, we only point our fingers inwards and not at the corporations or military. Even worse, there are some cases individualist environmentalism has been transformed into a marketing campaign, as less harmful, supposedly “eco-friendly” versions of various products are sold by multi-billion-dollar companies. Our desire to preserve our planet can be exploited for profit, sometimes by some of the same people killing it.
This is not to say we should not still be introspective and hold ourselves accountable, or that what we do in our own lives is futile. Small-scale personal and community action is essential. We should absolutely continue to live as sustainable as conditions allow, keep our reusable straws and water bottles, our bicycles, our neighborhood vegetable gardens. All these things make a small impact at best without mass-scale organizing and action to accompany them.
The fact is that climate change is an institutional issue. Countless greenhouse gasses and toxins are pumped out by the few for whom devastation is merely a side effect of their own short-term pursuit of profit and power. It is also an immediate issue, and a life-or-death one.
As Bill Nye, everyone’s favorite pop scientist, reminded us: “It’s not 50 or 75 years away – it’s 10 or 15.”
The effects of this growing catastrophe has already cost many human lives, in the form of hurricanes, floods, wildfires, tornadoes, and other natural disasters whose frequency and impact are dramatically increased by rising global temperatures.
The lack of response from government and the higher class makes it seem they think that those killed were living in poverty, therefore, are unimportant. In this way, climate change can be considered a form of environmental class warfare.
In order to confront an institutional issue, collective action is needed. Those who continue to churn out greenhouse gasses and toxins in the name of profit are immensely destructive, but are still very few. History has shown us that true power lies with the people. It is up to all of us to look outside ourselves, and act together, using all means available to us to hold those in positions of wealth and privilege responsible for what they are doing, and to form a system that values our planet over profit.