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Environmentalism is not just personal, it is political

By Nick Meynen.

In the TV documentary series “Years of living dangerously”, Thomas Friedman goes to Syria to make the link between climate change and war. He also talks with Condoleezza Rice, who says that climate change can create a tipping point for conflicts like in Syria. Friedman claims it is no coincidence that the civil war started at the end of the worst drought in Syrian history ever recorded. Farmers fled to cities, the regime failed to provide support and that created the fertile soil for a violent conflict.

We can call all Bolivians, Bangladeshi’s, Burkinabe and others “political prisoners” of our times. They are prisoners of our political choice to continue on the path of economic growth, consumption growth and resource extraction growth. Despite all intentions of decoupling, the amount of oil consumed in the world keeps on rising, just as the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, reaching 400 ppm now. The climate doesn’t care about creative bookkeeping, political rhetoric and the tendency to communicate only positive messages.

While climate change is a waste problem, many other problems arise at the start of the ever growing production chain. We notice that everywhere in the world, ways of resource extraction are getting more damaging and causing more social conflicts. The resource extraction frontier moves from the easy accessible deposits to sites that are harder to reach, in more densely populated areas and more vulnerable ecosystems. As we write, oil from the Arctic is being shipped to Europe. Drilling is planned in the Yasuni National Park, where in one hectare of forest you can find more tree species than in entire North America. Then there is fracking, tar sands and what Shell is doing with the Niger delta, where oil amounts equivalent to one BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill goes into the fragile and densely populated delta … every year.

And while our consumption keeps on rising we see a global decline in biodiversity, drinkable water per capita from California to China, fish stocks, forested area, ice caps and so on (see Heinberg). Even our well being is no longer improving above a certain point of income – which we in Europe and the US have reached a very long time ago (see Wilkinson). Nevertheless, we keep insisting that economic growth is part of the solution, while instead, in many regions, it is the main problem. It has caused monoculture plantations to quadruple in size within just two decades. It has caused a rush on land, due to our increasing overconsumption and waste production and our self proclaimed basic human right to drive a car, take cheap flights several times a year and eat strawberries at Christmas.

In order to move toward a sustainable world, we need to tackle the roots of the problem. We’ve seen one market based solution failing after the other one, with the global trade in carbon emission reductions as the most notable example. We’ve also seen technological solutions fail because of rebound effects, or an increase of resources needed to make the technology function.

The only way to reduce the pressure, injustice and eating of the earth’s capital is to reduce our needs and greed. To do that, we need stronger product norms, corporate accountability, better legal frameworks etc. Governments can ban products that are designed to fail, they can jail CEOs that knowingly destroy ecosystems and recognize ecocide as the 5th crime against peace. Strong and visionary governments will be needed.

We, as consumers, can do our part, but behavior change will not be enough. We can also divest from the fossil fuel industry and boycott the companies that produce the unburnable fuels – just like we successfully boycotted the Apartheid Regime from South Africa. The EJO just managed to convince Stanford University to divest from coal, for a total of 18,7 billion US $. But we are also citizens: so with important elections coming up in key regions and countries like Europe, India and South Africa, let’s keep this holistic, environmental justice and long term perspective in mind when we go voting. Inform yourself, consider your values and then make a good choice.

Photo: Young girls who have voted for the first time showing fingers marked with indelible ink after casting votes in Bangalore, India.  Photo: K Murali Kumar.

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