Cancelling the apocalypse?: The era of environmental breakdown and climate strikes

As I write this, huge tracts of the Amazon are on fire, blanketing surrounding cities in a sickly, nuclear winter- like pall of smoke. Meanwhile, ice is melting and fires are breaking out across the Arctic. And this last July was the hottest month ever in recorded human history.

All these extreme weather events are connected. They are stark reminders of the climate crisis. The burning of fossil fuels, the juice on which the global capitalist economy runs, is cooking the planet at a hellish rate. This is driving the collapse of the climate system, threatening the water, food supplies and stable weather that have sustained human civilisation for millennia.

The heating of the Earth is just one part of a more extensive ecological breakdown. Alongside climate change, we are experiencing a massive extinction of most non-human life on this planet, with animals and ecosystems being decimated. As the title of an acclaimed new book has it, we are facing an uninhabitable earth.

Factor in extreme nationalism, racism, militarism and xenophobia and it’s conceivable to suggest that the conditions are in play for human society to collapse within the coming century. Global warming is too vast to be bracketed as just an environmental issue- it will transform every aspect of politics, culture and society.

The environmental crisis is not a speculative future threat. Its social impacts are already painfully visible, even though its often underplayed by the media because it’s not yet directly impacting the rich and powerful. As journalist Leonie Joubert recently wrote, the frontlines of this crisis are everywhere- “you’re speaking about a mother from Beira, Mozambique, whose home and the entire community has been flattened by Cyclone Idai. Or a North African migrant drowning in the waters of the Mediterranean. Or a grandmother going into respiratory failure in a tin shack on the Cape Flats as her home cooks like an oven during a heat-wave”.

The onslaught of bad news can understandably cause hopelessness, anxiety, despair or even a hedonistic nihilism- a “fuck it, we’re all going to drown in the boiling seawaters, might as well do that thing you shouldn’t do,” mindset.

Psychologists have observed a dramatic upswing in mental illness caused by climate anxiety. This fear exists in a feedback loop with popular culture. Sci-fi visions of post-apocalyptic wastelands permeate our social imagination. It subconsciously reinforces the idea that human society will crumble in a cataclysm, leaving a few survivors to pick over the piled wreckage of industrial civilisation.

However, these cultural narratives can also seed an unhelpful pessimism. One counter to despair is anger. Climate change is not the collective fault of humanity. Its main propagators are the rich and powerful. As Kate Aronoff puts it, “While we all in some small way contribute to global warming with our cars and hamburgers, global elites do more to cook us in a day than most people could in a lifetime. From the fossil fuel industry’s extractive business model to the carbon-hungry lifestyles of the rich and famous, it’s a relatively small segment of the population driving the lion’s share of global warming”.

And the most guilty are fossil fuel executives and their politician allies. Not only have they failed to address climate change, they have actively and maliciously accelerated it. A poster child for this psychopathic criminality was the recently deceased, and unmourned, US billionaire David Koch. Koch used his inherited wealth, rooted in polluting industries, to sponsor climate change denial and to kill international efforts to curb global warming.  It’s the young and powerless who will be made to suffer because of the greed of vampiric plutocrats like Koch.

In 2018, the United Nation’s panel on climate change issued a shocking report that made headlines throughout the world. According to the UN, global warming is happening much faster than scientists had anticipated.

But the same report also argues that while humanity is now locked into a much hotter world, political and economic transformations in the present can prevent even worse warming in future. This effort will require a historically unprecedented transformation of the global economy. But the technology and skills exist to draw down carbon pollution and convert to renewable energy.

Climate change activists have long called for a ‘just transition’, in which reducing and adapting to global warming is combined with wealth redistribution and popular control of the economy. Many of these ideas have been taken up by politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, who are articulating bold blueprints for a “Green New Deal”. Even though these are centered in the US, their plans call for international co-operation and will undoubtedly inspire similar proposals across the globe.

However, the scope of the climate crisis is too vast to be left in the hands of politicians. Without the moral fury and creative energy of a popular movement, the rich and powerful who are destroying the planet for short term profit will never be forced to stop and made to answer for their crimes against the planet and our species survival on it.

In the last year, there have been promising signs of a politics of mass climate insurgency. Most notably, in 2018 Swedish teenager Greta Thurnberg began picketing outside the Stockholm parliament as a way of shaming politicians for their cowardly inaction. This has inspired a wave of youth-led actions throughout the world, with students walking out of their classrooms and into demonstrations.

The youth led strikes have inspired preparations for a global climate strike, between the 20-27 September, intended to be the biggest climate action in history.  The call for the strike has a militant urgency and compassion to it.

As we deal with devastating climate breakdown and hurtle towards dangerous tipping points, young people are calling on millions of us across the planet to disrupt business as usual by joining the global climate strikes. Together, we will sound the alarm and show our politicians that business as usual is no longer an option. The climate crisis won’t wait, so neither will we. Going on climate strike means people everywhere walking out of their homes, their offices, their farms, their factories. Already people in 150 countries are organising for the global climate strikes this September. Some will spend the day in protest against new pipelines and mines, or the banks that fund them; some will highlight the oil companies fuelling this crisis and the politicians that enable them.  Others will spend the day in action raising awareness in their communities and pushing for solutions to the climate crisis that have justice and equity at their heart. On a grossly unequal planet, not everyone will be able to take a day off or take part in the same way. But we can all take a stand and make our voices heard.
This incandescent language of anger and hope is nevertheless still diplomatic and constrained. But it contains a radical realisation. In a world, where the rich and powerful hold most of the cards, ordinary people still have the weapon of withdrawing their labour, time and attention and taking to the streets.  Historically, such mass action inspires genuine and transformative social progress.

The pre-apocalyptic, burning world we inhabit is getting more terrifying by the same day. But phenomenon like the climate strikes are reminders that the desire for justice and a future are powerful countervailing tendencies to the greed and lust for destruction that is at the heart of the climate crisis.

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