“How can the very system that is designed to unmake and inscribe her also be the one to save her?”
-Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (92)
“System Change Not Climate Change” is a slogan we’ve seen at many protests over the past few years... now appearing primarily on instagram and twitter (mostly in the form of hashtags) advocating for immediate climate action. This slogan is usually a way to callout governments from the United States to Sweden to India to Kenya, to do more about climate change and ensure our future. This slogan also alludes to—what is usually called, and rarely explained, a ‘Just Transition.’ According to the Climate Justice Alliance, a Just Transition:
represent[s] a host of strategies to transition whole communities to build thriving economies that provide dignified, productive and ecologically sustainable livelihoods; democratic governance and ecological resilience.
This concept was conceived of by environmental justice activists and labour unions who sought to ensure communities of color, low-income populations, those in geographically vulnerable areas, immigrants, workers and other marginalized communities were not left behind, and at the forefront of, a transition away from the fossil fuel economy. A Just Transition is supposed to combat eco-apartheid. Last week on June 25th, an article was published on BBC about a report a UN research expert submitted that warned about “climate apartheid.” This article shares several examples of wealthy people and corporations relying on the private sector to address climate and environmental disasters. It also mentions how the ‘Global South’ will suffer the majority of the consequences of climate disasters.
Arguably both eco-apartheid and/or climate apartheid are already happening. As charges were dropped against government officials in Flint; The Gullah and Geechee people have lived on an island for four centuries that will disappear if climate change is not reversed; as the Greenland arctic melts because of record high temperatures; and not to mention, the people of the Marshall Islands having to relocate because of sea level rise. These realities illuminate how marginalized populations and people in countries outside of the U.S. and Europe are already dealing with environmental degradation and ecological breakdowns caused by powerful institutions extracting and hoarding resources. As it stands, a wealthy few and greedy corporations are trying to escape climate change rather than halt the business practices and divest from the systems that have caused it. Fortunately or unfortunately, the rich cannot escape climate change unless they can grow gills to breathe under water. Even if a few wealthy individuals may die a bit slower than the rest of us, we may all indeed die premature deaths. A Just Transition is not only about equity, clean energy jobs, or low-income communities of color... it is about the survival of all humanity.
The earth will not die, it has gone through cycles of extreme environmental changes over centuries; but humans will perish and we will take other living species with us if we do not completely transition our economy, values, and way of life. A Just Transition requires a paradigm shift. Human survival requires a paradigm shift. There is no separate survival. The rich nor the eco-fascists will survive alone because without the rest of us their way of life and the world they/we currently inhabit will not be able to be maintained. Who will grow their food? Who will pick their food? Will the soil even allow for food to be grown?
In 2017, a report was published that identified 100 companies since 1988 who are responsible for more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron were among the highest emitting companies. In 2014 the Union of Concerned Scientists published an article stating “the U.S. Military is the largest institutional consumer of oil in the world.” Recently, information regarding the Pentagon’s CO2 emissions has resurfaced the conversation about the U.S. military’s fossil fuel consumption more broadly. According to a report released by Brown University in June 2019 and referenced in a Forbes article, the U.S. Military emits more CO2 than Morocco, Peru and several other industrialized countries. It is not only the extraction of fossil fuels that has caused the climate crisis that we are in. It is precisely the exploitation, over consumption, unequal distribution and mismanagement of natural resources by—primarily—U.S. and European corporations and governments that has led to our impending doom.
The people and geographies who are already suffering from the consequences of climate change, who are already mired by myriad environmental and social injustices inflicted upon them by these same institutions and governments, are not to blame for where we are now and the rapidly closing window of time left to transform our world. It is the pandemic inequity of the global economy that is and will continue to be our undoing. The same institutions of power, such as ExxonMobil and the U.S. military, who wreak havoc and diverse forms of destruction on communities around the world—are making life on earth more and more precarious. While I do not blame the many low-income, people of color, and immigrants who go to the military because they have limited options or who work at fossil fuel corporations because those are the jobs available in their area, it is clear these institutions do not truly value life (and often value some lives more than others).
The current system comprised of corporations and governments valuing profit over everything else will not lead us into the future. Our current system of privatized natural resources and investor-owned companies that are supposed to provide public services for people, but instead care more about making money. Our current global economy with manufactured water scarcity on indigenous land and around the world, widespread wildfires made worse by global warming, Indian farmers committing suicide because of Monsanto’s violent control of seeds, Dhaka receiving two-thousand climate refugees per day… and I could go on. Our current systems of government, how we define economy and progress, world trade agreements, continual displacement from the land (in the form of gentrification and under NAFTA), our disconnection from ecology in North America, Europe and other wealthy high-consuming nations will not allow for a transition away from fossil fuels. If we want a Just Transition or any transition that promises human survival, then we have to radically alter the current systems of power and extraction that have taken hold across our planet benefiting a few wealthy individuals and condemning most of humanity in the wake.
Jason Hickel, writing on the values of the Yellow Vest Movement in France said: “Real climate policy, they [the Yellow Vests] say, requires widespread economic changes, and should target the real drivers of climate change: rich consumers and, above all, corporations. I agree with them.” He ends this blog by saying: “I have always been clear that the transition requires justice as a core principle.” The systems of power I am talking about, the corporations and governments I mentioned, do not currently practice justice as a core principle. In order to survive and build alternative futures starting from justice, sustainability and resilience—we have to create entirely new ways of living. It will not be easy, but it is not impossible. There was a world before the one we are living in now and hopefully there will be a world afterwards, if we do what is right—not what is profitable.
We must start by undoing the current environmental, political, social and cultural injustices plaguing our world. We know that all injustice is interrelated, caused by valuing profit over life. Simultaneously we must invest time, energy and resources into ecological, community-based networked models. Investing in structures that do not use the same processes as our current fossil fuel extraction-based economies, and are not managed by a few wealthy families and a handful of corporations. Radical change will be collective, common and geographically specific. The transition will hold those accountable who have actually created the situation we are in—not the majority of us who are victims to it. As Jason Hickel made clear, what the Yellow Vests and several other social movements around the world believe, real climate action requires ubiquitous economic, political, and cultural change. Especially and primarily from—what we refer to as—Western nations. We cannot change our possibilities for life without actually changing our way of life.
I often hear people saying if we don't transition society in a just way then the outcome will be inequitable. I disagree. At this point in the climate crises, if we don't transition out of this extractive economy with justice as the foundation then none of us will survive. The inequitable, uneven distribution and management of resources has led us to near destruction. If there is not redistribution and justice, humans will perish. All humans will perish. A Just Transition is not about equity, it is a necessity of survival.