Warning: Austerity may be Disguised as Sustainability

Climate Change has become a mainstream issue on the left in recent years. While Republicans continue to be beholden to the oil industry, Democrats and other liberals have formulated plans to address the existential crisis facing the planet. Despite this flicker of hope, upon listening to the rhetoric coming from celebrities, entrepreneurs, and activists in the environmental movement, it seems sinister intentions lay beneath their veil of concern. As a movement that has historically represented white upper-class yuppies, it should come as no surprise that the policies and solutions they lay forth will inevitably affect poor people. I’ve written about this issue before, commenting on what I find as bourgeois individual solutions to a collective problem.

Sustainability has become the staple buzzword of the mainstream environmental movement. From the top-rated green universities to the largest environmental NGOs and even your neighborhood composting program, eco-friendly folks centralize sustainability as the primary action people can take to curb their carbon footprint and do their part to avert climate catastrophe. With global temperatures expected to rise to 4 degrees, dramatic weather events exploding across the world, and seemingly zero-hault expected from both the military-industrial complex as well as the mass extractivism of the major fossil fuel companies, the task at hand seems incredibly daunting.

So, what solutions do eco-liberals suggest to combat such overwhelming circumstances? Recycle! That’s right, if we establish recycling programs in major cities and suburban communities than we can significantly lower human contribution to climate change. The only problem with this is that most consumables are not recyclable. For this to actually work, we’d need to revamp the entire production process. Another solution is energy efficiency. Remember to use LEED-certified light bulbs and to unplug all electronics! Even if they’re off, plugs drain a miniscule almost non-measurable wattage of electricity from the circuits. Nevermind that your local mall uses 4000 times that amount of electricity. Other solutions range from driving exorbitantly expensive hybrid cars made from coltan mined in the Congo to reducing the amount of water you use in the shower. We engage in these frantic obsessive activities to build the illusion of ethical contribution. Notice how all of these solutions target consumers, off the assumption that we can continue to live with the same standard of living as long as everything is labeled “green.” These individual contributions affirm the selfish notion that they’re doing their part while doing nothing to stem ecological devastation from the larger extractivism driven by corporate institutions. As stated by cpsoeller’s Iron Law of Sustainability, the more a society discusses sustainability, the less sustainable that society. Hunter-gatherer cultures did not have a term for sustainability. It was simple just the way they lived.

In the Western industrial context, sustainability means energy austerity. You can’t save the world by unplugging your refrigerator yet these are the very solutions mainstream environmentalists peddle to poor and working class communities.  These eco-conscious yuppies are totally divorced from the social and economic realities of everyday people so they are oblivious to the ways in which their “solutions” actually sound like austerity. So much focus goes into curbing individual habits instead of challenging larger institutions that their commitment to battling environmental catastrophe sounds disingenuous.

Take the California Water Crisis for example. The combination of climate change in conjunction with heavy resource extraction struck California with one of its worst droughts in years. Governor Jerry Brown announced the first ever rationing program after revelations that the state only has a year’s worth of fresh water left.  The rhetoric sounds familiar with Brown emphasizing that all Californians will have to make do with using less. However, the big agricultural giants are strangely exempt from this rationing program leaving the burden to fall upon small farmers and predominately Hispanic communities. Even though Big Agro accounts for 80% of the state’s water consumption, they were given a free pass to continue draining California of the last of its life force. In fact, evidence suggests that the extractivist mentality of agriculture, oil and gas businesses led to California’s current drought crisis even though there were many signs in the past decade that this would spell doom for the region. Now, poor families are forced to “live within their means” or move out of the state because aggro-business profits are more important than life. And this is all committed under the guise of sustainability. Nothing could be further from the truth plus it exposes the liberal environmentalists as racist ignoramuses that are totally disconnected from working class experiences.

As sustainability becomes a hip new trend with twenty-somethings, universities seek to cash in on this golden opportunity. College sustainability programs represent hipster capitalism at its worst. With so much focus on energy efficiency and recycling, the school effectively shut out debate over systemic economic factors contributed by the school’s financial investments. Even though the current student-led Fossil Fuel Divestment movement coalesced to address this concern the main focus still revolves individual consumption habits. Granted, some schools like the University of Edinburgh have a more intersectional approach to their movement linking ecological devastation, economic austerity, labor and feminist issues together. Students there even occupied the university finance building to directly confront and call out the bourgeois forces pulling the strings at the school. However, movements like Edinburgh’s are the exception, not the rule.

American university movements still seem beholden to the financial sector, not seeking to offend potential “allies” working in college finance departments. In Carlisle Pennsylvania, for example, Dickinson College has a cozy relationship with the US Army War College and its investment portfolio is supplemented with hordes of contracts with the Defense Department as well as the top fossil fuel giants. Given that the Pentagon uses 400,000 barrels of oil a day, any support of the US military through financial grants goes against the college’s mission of sustainability. Like plenty of other universities, Dickinson is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2020, which is a pipe dream. The obsession with obtaining carbon neutrality obscures the insane logic behind such a move. Its impossible to offset pollution. Just because a school invests in renewable energy and grows its own food does not offset the energy consumption used by the college nor the pollution emitted through its transportation infrastructure.  As long as  a university maintains investments in environmentally exploitative business ventures, it will continue to be culpable in the destruction of the planet. Dickinson, in fact all American colleges and universities, should follow the Edinburgh model and adopt direct action tactics under the banner of a radically diverse movement.

The fossil fuel divestment movement is part of the anti-austerity movement and until white eco-yuppies figure that out they’ll continue to support half-assed measures in an attempt to save the civilization that brought about this ecological crisis in the first place. On top of this, these “solutions” are marketed as the ideas of highbrow suburban entrepreneurs when in fact many of these innovative techniques are actually centuries old. In that late 1970s, the radical black liberation group, MOVE, preached an ecological lifestyle. They wore their hair in braids, walked around naked and recycled excess food scraps back into the garden from which they came. That’s right, black people pioneered composting. Now its exclusively the domain of bourgie white hipsters. Yuppie environmentalists appropriated the sustainable practices of black and indigenous societies into white culture so they can be mass marketed as consumer lifestyles. Just as every major industry profits of the global drug war, every major industry profits from the destruction of the planet. It is absolutely impossible to make capitalism sustainable, let alone “environmentally-friendly.” Yet, the message from the mainstream environmentalists seems to support continued military imperialism through organizations such as the Center for Climate & Security that seeks to unite military leaders and security professionals to create a climate-resilient world. The heaviest polluters in the world want to be in charge of handling security issues as the world undergoes catastrophic climate change? We have a term for that: ecofascism.

Let’s thank the radicals for morphing Occupy Wall Street into the anticapitalist anti-racist movement that we call Black Lives Matter. This current social movement represents exactly the type of mindset activists of all stripes need to adapt. Notice how as much effort is going into discrediting the Toms of the black middle class and faux allies of the political leadership class as is going into dismantling institutions of white supremacy. Your rank-and-file Black Lives Matter activist is not calling for electing anybody or advocating for a particular reform. They are calling for an end to mass incarceration, a permanent end to the racialized caste system that has been at the foundation of American history. Why do white environmentalists struggle so much with creating a similar radically intersectional approach to climate change? In December of 2014, a BLM rally gathered in New York’s Union Square just a few feet from a Climate Change rally organized by a different organization. Despite opening a dialogue between the two rallies and the climate activists’ insistence at cooperation, they did not march with the Black Lives Matter protestors when the time came.

The environmental movement let itself become institutionalized. The People’s Climate March, while an excellent opportunity to radicalize newcomers, was still sponsored by the industrial elite. BP was allowed to march with the indigenous peoples they helped decimate. And environmental celebrities like Al Gore and Bill McKibben still peddle the myth that there is nothing inherently wrong with capitalism that can’t be fixed with a good election. Enough of the bullshit. If this crisis is half as bad as these celebrities make it out to be, then we need to totally remake society from the ground up or else risk a century of resource wars and neofeudalism.


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