Recycling helps us avoid tackling Climate Change

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Climate change and environmental destruction are contentious and disputed topics.

Recycling helps us avoid tackling Climate ChangeIn the US, for instance, there is a powerful faction of Republican politicians who flat-out deny that climate change even exists. In Britain, the former Environment Secretary, Owen Patterson, under David Cameron, is also a climate change skeptic, oddly enough. The current one, under Theresa May, does not appear to be much better in that department either. And it has become worse in the USA under Donald Trump. That is not to say that it was good under Obama.

These denials go against science: carbon emissions have increased by 35 per cent since 1990, and climate change is responsible for over 300,000 deaths a year, a figure that could rise to half a million people by 2030.Or so, at least, we are being told. It is blindingly obvious that we are heading towards environmental destruction and any failure to admit this is negligent and dangerous.

The climate is changing though – and I am swaying that rather carefully – whether all is down to CO2 emissions is another thing altogether. I would actually say that the entire thing of focusing on “carbon emissions” is also making us fail to look at other culprits, for which we, as humans, are also responsible, such as pollution, exploitations of soil and forests, etc., ad infinitum. Ever since they but the word carbon in front of emissions we have failed to look at the other contributing factors that used to go by the name of pollution, from air pollution, to pollution of soil, water and land. But that kind of pollution cannot be traded in the form of carbon certificates, those modern day indulgences.

The international system has set numerous targets to resolve the crisis, such as the UN Millennium Development Goals on the environment, but they are rarely, if ever, met. The many environment summits which regularly take place also fail to produce tangible results, with the big powers failing to agree on terms. On top of that they emit more pollution than almost anything else as those leaders keep jetting around the globe, together with entourage and journalists in tow. And let's not even talk of all those eco-organizations whose people also do this.

On the micro level, people tend to make quite an effort. We are often told to monitor our carbon footprint and in many countries, recycling has become normalized, a part of people's daily routine. These micro-level changes are theoretically somewhat reducing our environmental crisis. Or so we are led to believe.

A greener approach is encouraged by the governments, for both businesses and ordinary citizens. Despite this, the environment is not really improving. When we take our small green steps, we tend to assume that we are solving the problem, and that we do not have to worry about it anymore. This veneer of “action” misleads us and essentially pulls the wool over our eyes, stopping us from asking deeper questions about the environment and what truly contributes to climate change and wider environmental degradation.

We recycle our waste, but do not link it to the consumer society we live in. The media and advertising industries are constantly telling us to buy things we don't need, yet we rarely, if ever, link this to climate change. Our efforts to recycle nullify us and prevent deeper thought. In addition to that there is “greensumption”, the believe that we make a change when we buy “green” products. Hello!! We are still consuming and in that department often things that are greenwashed rather than anything else.

Debates surrounding the environment seldom link the problem to capitalism, and they are too often seen as separate issues. Capitalism is the elephant in the room.

Our capitalist world encourages and ingrains a consumerist mentality that is driving us to environmental ruin. It has been estimated that if everyone consumed at the same rate as your average American, then the world would only be able to support 1.4 billion people.

Capitalism, however, needs that kind of mentality to exist in order for corporations to thrive, and doing the recycling is not going to change our consumerist habits. Therefore what is really needed is a change of system not a change of habits. That, though, the powers-that-be (but really shouldn't be) are hardly going to tell us now, are they.

It is precisely this ideology that is behind the extraction of resources meant to facilitate our lifestyles. The environmental damage done by extractive industries far outweighs what we can achieve as individuals on a micro-level.

The United Nations Environment Program a while ago released a report highlighting how environmental damage caused by Shell in Ogoniland, Nigeria, could take more than 30 years to be reversed. Still, we don't make the link between what happens in places like Ogoniland and our consumer lifestyles at home. There is a huge disconnect there and environmental NGOs are often closely linked to big business, so they can't act as whistleblowers anymore. In other words, very few can do so, nowadays and it is up to us, the people, to make a noise.

Extractive industries have a huge influence in the policy making sphere, particularly in the US. It has been estimated that 94% of US Chamber of Commerce contributions went to climate denier candidates, with the oil and gas industries' lobby worth almost $1.5 billion per year.

It is, therefore, not difficult to see who is shaping policy and why our environmental crisis has only worsened in recent decades. As long as there are powerful interest groups influencing the EU and the US governments, it is unrealistic to expect international conventions to ever make a difference.

Big business has more say than local groups, such as indigenous people, who often have a powerful environmental message to share, but who are persistently ignored. It is beyond irony that the richest most powerful countries in the world are racing towards disaster while the so-called primitive societies are the ones at the forefront of trying to avert it.

There is definitely merit in reducing our individual environmental footprints, but in the grand scheme of things, it is unlikely to make any difference to the Planet's environmental outlook; at least, not as long as capitalism reigns supreme.

Encouraging micro-level changes and giving money to green NGOs merely serves as a smokescreen to prevent real in-depth analysis. It almost facilitates a system whereby corporate-made environmental degradation can continue, while we keep on recycling and forget about the problem.

In order to truly make a change we must begin to ask deeper questions about the society in which we live in and start trying to operate outside of the status quo capitalist framework. Thus we must change the system and no, social democracy will not make one iota of a difference here either the politicians in this often refer to themselves as democratic socialists.

But, as long as we are going to be lulled to sleep by the recycling message, and to believe that we can make a great and significant difference if we but separate our waste properly, etc., we will never get the idea to call for a change of system. Unless, however, the system is changed we – and our children and children's children – are not going to have a Planet on which to live. It is as simple but also as crass as that.

See for this also my article “Fighting climate change and poverty in the Third World at the same time?

© 2018