Global Warming as a Symptom of our Social Condition

Global Warming as a Symptom of our Social Condition

The Pacific Ocean, furrowed and folding like disturbed fabric, shifting, collecting, foams over 63,800,000 square miles, from Alaska to Australia, brine-green and shifting deep, slapping sea-spit at gull and open air. It is large and empty, but 270,000 of its slapping miles are busy with the flecked, non-degradable remains of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Here, shifting water welts and is slashed by the orange, the scuffed white of plastic bags, the trailing emptiness of discarded toys, gyring in perpetuity, umbrellas, bottle-tops, turtles with bleeding noses, buoys, tyres, condoms, dolphin fins raking torn fishnets. The 21st Century metropolis is not made up of shining corporate spires and stiff walks from the tube to tall offices, but swarming micro-plastics and twirling straws, scratches of torn bubble wrap, shadowed by palm trees, shivering through an area the size of Texas [1].


It is tempting to see this flotilla of gubbering waste as uniquely human and in many ways it is. Since the agricultural revolution, where we first found hegemony over the food chain and nature, waste, destruction and extinction has been a fact of human existence. Because of humans the rate of species extinction is at least 1000 times higher than without [2], the mean temperature has shifted up roughly 1.5 degrees in 100 years [3] and Co2 levels are 80 parts per million higher than fifty years ago [4]. By 2030, scientists claim we will have reached the point of no return. From there, extinction is inevitable. Things are bad, things are awful.


Things are terrible, but the picked-apart trash, the stinking heaves of crumpled garbage aren’t representative of humanity as lazy and entitled, wrecking the planet for short-term rewards. They are representative of our present and centuries-old social condition, which has always carried the potential for destruction, back past the ravaged dustbowl of America in the 1930s, past the whirrs and dark, elbowed machinery of the industrial revolution, past all the endless, unthinking and uncaring ravishment of nature for profit.


Everyone should recycle, everyone should switch to a greener energy provider, everyone should try and walk or take the bus instead of driving because it’s easy and makes a difference. But, as has always been the case, the people with the biggest capacity to enact meaningful environmental change, the politicians, the CEOs, the lawmakers, are failing chronically to even try. It is not the people, but the makeup of our society that has ultimately failed the environment.


As per government reports, for every tonne of household waste in the UK, there are six tonnes of industrial waste. When we think of industrial waste we think of impossibly green pips of uranium and toxic chemicals. The reality is most industrial waste is fully recyclable, but corporations are not incentivised enough to care. More, any gesture towards environmental change by multinationals should be greeted with mistrust. We have evidence over the past few years that Volkswagen and Exxon (and they’re almost certainly not the only ones) have worked explicitly to either misrepresent data or actively hide the reality of their product, with Volkswagen in particular circumventing climate regulations, while calling themselves the cleanest car on the market.


They have been fined massively for this, but more than punishment, what needs to be examined is why Volkswagen and other multinationals still have a motive to unduly damage the environment. Why is their still opportunity for corporations to profit out of this destruction, when scientists and politicians alike are now in near total agreement that our future existence is literally on the line? This can only be seen as a symptom of the naturalisation of abstracts like profit and power as goals unto themselves. Success is no longer survival, as it was for most of human history; success is a barely-noticed extra zero on the bank balance of a CEO.


We have not needed to work to survive in so long, we have moved so far from the immediate needs of our bodies that when the biggest threat to our existence, bigger than the predation of Paleolithic animals, bigger than the pluming smoke of an atomic bomb, is confronting us, we have no idea what to do. Instead, we shift in the swamped nothings of finance, politics and rhetoric without doing anything meaningful, because our social structure has led us to chafe against anything that isn’t profit-driven. This is an economic and social system that, as the garish adverts, as business conferences, as the Financial Times tell us can only function on ‘continual growth.’ Yet, a system that relies on ‘continual growth’ to function in a world that has finite space and finite resources is not only unsustainable, but a logical impossibility.


Things are worse. At the very top tier of politics down, special interests and hypocrisy consistently frustrate efforts to save the earth. Donald Trump claims there is a ‘political agenda’ behind the claims of climate change scientists. The fact that major oil and gas companies with notoriously bad records on climate change are and have always been among the biggest donors to his party apparently has nothing to do with political agendas at all. Of these donors, Exxon is unsurprisingly high up the list; the biggest, Koch Industries, is responsible for dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of aviation fuel in protected wetlands: dead-eyed fish mouth globbed oil on wet mud; they scull rotten in the heat.


The UK is no better. Last month, three men were sentenced to over a year in jail for protesting a new fracking site near Blackpool. This is the first time someone has been arrested for the act of protest alone, since a 1935 demonstration in favour of grouse shooting. The judge had family ties to the oil industry. He accused the defendants of using the public as ‘collateral damage,’ as if fracking isn’t doing exactly the same. 8 months before that, Theresa May, who has frequently shown that like businesses she values the financial expediency that fracking offers over environmental sustainability, praised her party’s ‘proud heritage’ of conservation. The last conservative government scrapped the Green Deal for home insulation and ended subsidies for offshore wind farms. This conservative government is overseeing a scheme of exporting recycling to the continent that is currently under investigation by the EA, because vast swathes of plastic waste is ending up in rivers and lakes instead of the recycling plant.


If our politicians are content to passively reinforce the culture of profit before survival, because it keeps their own pockets lined or because the politics of gesture has usurped the politics of action, we can’t expect businesses or individuals to behave any differently. We have water shortages that are killing people in Africa. We have whole species that will soon be talked about in the past tense. We have natural disasters rending people’s homes. We have cathedrals of fetid, lapped rubbish, pelicans slicked with iridescent petrol, coral bleached white, and all of this, all of it is a symptom of a socio-political structure that has never cared and hoped you didn’t either, that has subjugated the earth for the ‘continual growth’ it requires, though that growth is only felt in the profit margins of the few, and that has continually quashed movements for environmental change with feigned hope and hollow treaties. They are playing with our literal extinction. All this is not an opportunity to excuse yourself from doing your bit for the environment, but a reminder to organise and hold your government to account too, before whale-bile plastic, blue aluminium cans in tall grass and greed lie too thick-strewn for us to keep going and I just think that will happen, soon.


[1] This is the lowest estimate. Some have it closer in size to Russia.