What we can do now about saving the planet

November 26, 2018

Jeff Melton comments on an article on an article about the California wildfires.

IN HER recent article “Living Through California’s Fire Nightmare,” Ragina Johnson powerfully conveys the awfulness of what Californians have lived through with the ongoing wildfires and the culpability of local government in both making the fires more likely and failing to be adequately prepared for such disasters when they occur.

However, in terms of root causes, the article fails to mention some key details.

Fundamentally, the scale and frequency of these fires is almost certainly attributable to climate change, which in turn is a product of human activity. But in discussing this human activity, Johnson only discusses the burning of fossil fuels, which is a very incomplete picture of what is happening.

Deforestation is also an extremely important factor in climate change. A large and growing portion of the Earth’s tropical rain forests is gone, and at current rates of deforestation, it will all be gone in less than 100 years. Temperate forests, too, have been decimated.

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A major cause of deforestation, as well as a major contributor to climate change in other ways (principally methane emissions from cattle and other ruminants), is animal agriculture, which is estimated to be responsible for over 90 percent of the destruction of the Amazon rain forest.

Indeed, although the burning of fossil fuels may be the largest single contributor to climate change, there is considerable evidence that animal agriculture is the leading overall contributor to the broad spectrum of environmental problems that humanity faces — air and water pollution, species extinction, deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, depletion of sources of fresh water, etc.

Of course, as Johnson addresses in more detail in her other recent article, “How do we stop capitalism from killing the planet?” underlying this panoply of degradations of our natural environment is the capitalist economic system.

All of the monumentally irrational and destructive practices that are driving this planet into an ever-deeper ecological crisis would not be happening, at least not on anywhere near the present scale, if there were not an enormous amount of money to be made by engaging in them. So, indeed, the ultimate solution to worsening climate change and ecological deterioration generally is overthrowing capitalism.

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But what do we do in the meantime? This is where I take issue with exclusively focusing on overthrowing capitalism as the solution to ecological crisis, and the downplaying of the usefulness of individual lifestyle changes and of institutional changes short of overthrowing capitalism.

THERE ARE many pieces of evidence that dramatic institutional change is possible prior to the overthrow of capitalism. I’ll just mention one: the fact that most affluent nations have far lower greenhouse gas emissions per capita — on the order of 40 to 50 percent lower — than the United States. Some such nations are even lower than that, with prospects of much greater cuts through measures such as proposed bans on the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles.

Recent proposals of a Green New Deal by, first, the Green Party and now some more liberal elements of the Democratic Party would, if implemented, bring the U.S. a long way toward catching up with the rest of the world.

Obviously, that won’t just happen. It will require an unprecedented grassroots environmental movement, which in turn can only happen if there is an unprecedentedly large movement for justice generally.

The point is that we know it can (and perhaps must) happen prior to our being able to overthrow capitalism, because it is already happening in other countries that are still capitalist.

And let’s not pooh-pooh the potential of individual-level changes. Johnson claims that “big agriculture and industry are responsible for consuming the vast majority of the world’s water: over 90 percent. Ordinary people have no control over that at all.”

That is simply not true. It is not “big agriculture and industry” generally that is the predominant culprit, but animal agriculture specifically — and whether it is “big agriculture” or not is completely irrelevant.

About 80 percent of California’s water supply is used for agriculture, and the majority of that 80 percent is either directly or indirectly (through irrigation of crops grown to feed animals) used for animal agriculture.

In fact, even if they didn’t go vegan (which would be the preferable change, both for health reasons and because of the inherently abusive nature of exploiting animals for food), Californians could still eliminate the state’s water shortage overnight simply by changing what they put in their mouths: by, let’s say, cutting their animal product consumption down to its average level in East Asian countries.

Another example of individual-level changes that have an enormous potential to make a difference is the use of more energy-efficient forms of personal transportation.

There are already about 5 million hybrid or electric vehicles on the road in the U.S., and although it’s too new a trend for there to be reliable figures on usage, in towns of any size, the enormous growth in use of electric scooters just within the past few months is impossible to miss.

Of course, individual and institutional changes are, in fact, intimately intertwined. To the extent that governments and other institutions (corporations that produce environmentally friendlier products, NGOs, etc.) subsidize, market and regulate more environmentally friendlier individual practices, those practices will grow exponentially. In addition, institutional change itself can revolutionize how we use energy and resources.

We still need to overthrow capitalism, because without doing that, the profit motive will continue to cause environmental damage even in a much “greener” economy. But it is fortunate that there is much that can be done before then.

After all, much as we might wish for it to be so, it doesn’t seem likely at this point that capitalism will disappear in the 12 years or so that a recent report says we have to make major changes.

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