Whose Consumption Is Killing the planet?
Whose Consumption Is Killing the planet?
By Ragina Johnson and Michael Ware / systemchangenotclimatechange.org

It's not the impoverished billions, and it's not the majority of American consumers, either.

THE CONSEQUENCES of human-induced climate change are dire. Crop failures will increase. Severe weather and rising sea levels will wreak more havoc. Species are being wiped out by the hour--and the continued existence of our own is threatened.

Even without the threat of climate change, we live in a world of vast inequality, where the majority of the world's population struggles to meet basic needs like putting food on the table--while corporations refuse to pay living wages, and decent health care and housing remain unaffordable for many, when there is access at all.

As of 2010, 2.4 billion people in the world were living on less than $2 a day--more than one-third of the world's population. Close to 1 billion people live on less than a $1 a day on average. Nearly 870 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, according to UN standards--around one in every eight people on the planet.

The growing numbers and size of urban slums throughout the world have typified this poverty in the modern era. One-third of the global urban population lives in what are classified as slums--6 percent of the urban population in developed countries and a staggering 80 percent in developing countries. Most slum dwellers live without clean water or other infrastructure.

Yet some people would have us think that the growing ranks of the poor are the real source of environmental stress and food shortages, rather than demand from those who rule in the Global North.

This is simply not true. According to environmental writer Fred Pearce, the poorest 3 billion people are responsible for only 7 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases, while the richest 7 percent produce half of all emissions.

Clearly, the world's poor are not driving climate change. Food shortages have more to do with the price of food, not its availability.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

MANY IN the environmental justice movement are rejecting the racist arguments about "overpopulation." But mainstream environmental organizations still typically accept the idea that "buying" is at least a major source of the ecological crisis. The belief is that consumer choices and individual lifestyles, especially in the wealthiest countries, drive the unsustainable devouring of resources around the globe.

The persistent stereotype is that average Americans, especially working class whites, just love gas-guzzling pickups, junk food, plastic, God, the Republicans and shopping at Walmart. Of course, people like this do exist, but they are not as universal as the stereotype suggests--and moreover, they are more of a symptom of the world we live in than a cause of it.

The plain truth is that most of us, even though we live in the country most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and environmental destruction, are powerless to shape the economic system--and have had no say in the creation and maintenance of a fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure.

The fact of higher emissions in the Global North is often presented using per-capita consumption statistics--which suggest we are all equally to blame. As a PBS television special noted, for example, "The average North American consumes five times as much as an average Mexican, 10 times as much as an average Chinese and 30 times as much as the average person in India."

The trite conclusion is that we should all just consume less and recycle more. But all this directs our attention away from the primary driver of environmental destruction--namely capitalism, a political, economic and social system run undemocratically by elites at the expense of the planet and ordinary people.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THIS SOLUTION of reducing personal consumption also doesn't take into account the one in six people living in poverty in the U.S.--and that statistic is according to official standards, which understate the actual numbers of the poor. These "North Americans" don't consume enough food on a daily basis, not to mention their lack of access to housing and health care.

Roughly, 70 percent of U.S. consumption takes place among the top 20 percent of income earners. The wealthiest 5 percent of Americans own more than the rest of the population combined.

Beyond the gap between rich and poor, the environmental destruction caused by corporate consumption and production dwarf those of individuals. Roughly two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions since the beginning of the industrial age have come from just 90 major companies, according to researchers writing in the journal Climatic Change.

This lopsided reality applies to other forms of pollution. According to Heather Rogers, author of Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, for every pound of household waste, there are another 70 pounds of waste created by industries like mining, manufacturing, agriculture and petrochemicals.

The corporate elite decide how and where electricity is produced, not consumers. And even though a recent study shows broad support for more public transportation, particularly among the young and lower-income people, our car culture is ruthlessly defended and promoted by the auto and oil industries, even now.

Despite these facts, the "all Americans are to blame" approach was used to explain the second Iraq war. Supposedly, our addiction to oil, suburban homes and SUVs caused the U.S. invasion--George W. Bush sent in U.S. troops so American consumers could have more oil. The consumerist logic was that if we just rode bikes or at least used fuel-efficient cars, war would eventually stop.

But the end goal for U.S. imperialism in Iraq was to use oil as an economic and political wedge against its main competitors on an international scale, including Japan, India and China. At the time of Iraq war, the U.S. got about 13 percent of its oil from the Middle East. Since then, the U.S. energy boom has led the Obama administration toward rebuilding the U.S. economy on the basis of cheap fracked natural gas and shale oil--and clearly, the U.S. is no less prone to going to war.

U.S. corporations and their political partners in Washington don't try to control Middle East oil because they are following orders from U.S. consumers. They want control over world energy supplies to leverage American corporate interests in a global economy prone to crisis.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

MANY ANTI-capitalists would agree with all of this, but there is still debate about whether a reduced standard of living is necessary in the advanced world to get the kind of drastic emissions cuts necessary to head off environmental collapse.

The organization Deep Green Resistance (DGR), for example, holds that "civilization, particularly industrial civilization, is fundamentally unsustainable and must be actively (and very urgently) dismantled in order to secure a livable future for all species on the planet," according to one summary.

While many people reject the controversial politics and tactics of DGR, their position on deindustrialization is often understood as the only remaining solution for serious environmentalists. We must all return to a more natural existence, which likely would mean growing our own food.

We do need a different type of society that is not based on chaotic and unplanned growth, in which we would need far less energy. But does that mean a return to a more primitive way of life--or a planned, rational and sustainable system that raises the quality of life for the majority of people in society?

For many of the world's poor, including those living in the U.S., wherever they live, there is daily struggle to get access to food, electricity, water, education--that is, the most basic elements of a human existence. The idea that these people, who already live with far too little, need to "go back to the land" and "live with less" seems like an insensitive joke.

The romantic view about de-industrialization glosses over the entrenched systemic problems of poverty, racism and inequality, and therefore throws out an important part of the solution--the type of sustainable, smart and coordinated development that is needed to raise the quality of life for everyone on the planet.

The de-industrial argument is based on the same "per-capita logic" that blames all Americans for environmental problems. While this more radical version targets capitalism as the cause of the crisis, it also dismisses the idea that working people could organize together to reconstitute and reshape our society collectively.

Yes, we need to radically and quickly transform current industries--but how will that take place? By industrial sabotage carried out by an elite group of eco-warriors, the only people who really "get it"? By pre-figurative experiments that overwhelm the system? Or by a revolution of the vast majority in society that wrests political and economic power from the rich, and transforms ourselves and our way of life in the process?

Any solution to climate change will require a sane, democratic and planned economy that stops making cheap shit people don't need, that ends wars, that radically curbs waste and pollution, and that transforms all the other things keeping energy and transportation demands so high. This must begin with people organizing throughout society, especially in their workplaces, to have a say in what we produce and how we produce it.

Demands for jobs as part of the solution must align with these priorities--not by simply adding green jobs and renewable energy to the mix under capitalism. A just transition must address historic inequality and uneven development, and reject the laws of profitability by taxing the rich and nationalizing polluting industries to shut them down.

Understanding the capitalist system is key to building the climate justice movement we desperately need to achieve these goals. The lifeblood of the capitalist mode of production is constant accumulation in its search for profit. It's a system based on ruthless competition, chaotic growth and never-ending waste.

Ordinary working people and the poor in the U.S. and around the world aren't to blame for the crisis we face. It's not our individual consumption that is destroying the world. Capitalism is burning our planet as it preys on the world's resources--human and natural resources alike.

The elite of this country--from political leaders to their buddies in the corporate boardrooms--are the ones destroying our planet. We must organize collectively to stop them.

4.0 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 12,717 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 3,366 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Donald Trump Is the Mirror and Hillary Clinton Is the Mask
Chris Agnos · 2,081 views today · Disclaimer: I do not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for president. I think the scope of the political debate is far too narrow for the kinds of actions that need to...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,892 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 1,796 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Mark Corske's Engines of Domination (2014)
60 min · 1,760 views today · Political power -- armed central authority, with states and war -- is it part of human nature? Is it necessary for human communities? Or is it a tool that ruling elites use to...
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 1,482 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
10 Quotes From an Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society
Wisdom Pills · 900 views today · Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 874 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 773 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 682 views today · Some clever folk have been replacing precocious 6-year-old Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, with Donald Trump and the results are, well, take a look...
Gil Scott-Heron Deconstructs Colonialism and Black History in His Own Unique Style
3 min · 676 views today · His-Story: I was wondering about our yesterdays, and starting searching through the rubble and to say the very least, somebody went to a hell of a lot of trouble to make sure...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 608 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Planet Earth II Could Be Best Nature Doc Ever Made
3 min · 438 views today · 10 years ago Planet Earth changed our view of the world. Now we take you closer than ever before. This is life in all its wonder. This is Planet Earth II. A decade ago, the...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 387 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Anarchists - What We Stand For
unknown · 375 views today · Anarchism : The word “anarchy” comes from Greek and means “no rulers”. As a political philosophy, anarchism is based on the idea that organization does not require rulers—that...
For Those Who Don't Want to Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils
Peter White · 309 views today · Ranked-choice voting is catching on, and Maine might become the first state to help citizens vote for candidates they actually want.
Are You Lost in the World Like Me?
3 min · 291 views today · Animated film by Steve Cutts for 'Are You Lost In The World Like Me?', taken from These Systems Are Failing- the debut album from Moby & The Void Pacific Choir. 
World's Low-Cost Economy Built on the Backs of 46 Million Modern Day Slaves
Deirdre Fulton · 269 views today · 'Business leaders who refuse to look into the realities of their own supply chains are misguided and irresponsible.'
The Revenge of the Lower Classes and the Rise of American Fascism
Chris Hedges · 267 views today · College-educated elites, on behalf of corporations, carried out the savage neoliberal assault on the working poor. Now they are being made to pay. Their duplicity—embodied in...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Whose Consumption Is Killing the planet?