Climate change: the second big denial
My father passed away at the age of 89. A year or two before he died, I went with him to see his cardiologist. The doctor did not mince his words. He said my father was very ill and would probably die soon of a heart attack. he had them more and more frequently. My heart ached hearing those words, imagining how my father must have felt. As I left the office, I put my arm around his shoulder and asked him how he felt. To my amazement, he said he was fine. “But what about what the doctor said?” I asked. “Oh, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he replied. And to emphasize this point, he raised the back of his hand in the air as if swatting a fly.
My father’s reaction was one of total denial. Today, as a society, we are doing the exact same thing with climate change, and for the second time. But this version is quite different from the original.
The first time, the very existence of climate change was called into question; many people refused to believe that the earth was getting warmer. But thanks to the work of thousands of scientists around the world, there has been a significant change. Today, according to various polls and studies, about two-thirds of American adults believe in climate change.
We can consider this progress, because the first step in dealing with any problem is to recognize that it exists.
But while most Americans now come to terms with global warming, people have found a new way to hide from the truth. This time it’s about root cause of the problem. The standard narrative, which we hear from almost all commentators on the subject, be they scientists, writers or journalists, is that climate change is the result of our industrial civilization. The problem, according to the explanation, began in the 19th century in England and parts of Europe, when large industrial factories first sprang up. These businesses needed large amounts of coal to operate. As the industrial society developed and spread around the world, it required other sources of energy, namely oil and gas. Over nearly two centuries, the extraction of these fossil fuels has resulted in a massive buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere that has heated the earth to unprecedented levels. While the accumulation began many years ago, it has skyrocketed since the end of World War II.
This account of the climate change story is accurate; Global warming did start two centuries ago. But as an explanation of root cause it is wrong. This is because the industrialization of society was itself the product of an earlier development, the birth and rise of capitalism. Capitalism, based on private property, wage labor, ceaseless growth and accumulation, was the ancestor of industrial civilization, not the other way around. And it continues to drive industrialization and climate change today.
With rare exceptions, capitalism created the modern world. Its achievements were extraordinary, far exceeding those of all previous civilizations combined. Just look around and you’ll see evidence everywhere – in the car you drive, in the computer you turn on, in the television you watch. Etc.
But all the material progress capitalism has brought us has come at a monstrous cost to the planet. In its relentless pursuit of profit, capitalism has plundered the earth of its resources and in doing so has turned nature, our best friend, into our worst enemy. At first the plunder was more limited, but once capitalism unleashed consumerism into the world, it saw no limits.
It is reality staring us in the face. But, like my father years ago, we choose to deny it.
According to almost all scientists, we are rapidly running out of time in our fight against climate change. We must face the truth – right now – that capitalism and a healthy planet are incompatible. Their needs and metabolisms are diametrically opposed. One requires unbridled growth; the other requires moderation and special attention. We have to choose between them. We can not have both!