Recycling helps us avoid tackling climate change
Climate change and environmental destruction are contentious and disputed topics.
In the US, for instance, there is a powerful faction of Republican politicians who flat-out deny that climate change even exists. In Britain, the Environment Secretary, Owen Patterson, is also a climate change sceptic, oddly enough.
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. It is blindingly obvious that we are heading towards environmental destruction and any failure to admit this is negligent and dangerous.
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 met. The many environment summits which regularly take place also fail to produce tangible results, with the big powers failing to agree on terms.
The 2011 Durban Climate Change Conference is a case in point – we’re three years later and no agreements have been reached. All these meetings are mere rhetoric aimed at duping the public into thinking that our leaders are taking action.
On the micro level, people tend to make quite an effort. We’re often told to monitor our carbon footprint and in many countries, recycling has become normalized, a part of citizens’ 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 isn’t improving. When we take our small green steps, we tend to assume that we are solving the problem, and that we don’t need 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.
Over-consumption ties into a critical point, as raised by David Cromwell, co-founder of Media Lens and author of Why Are We The Good Guys. 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 engrains a consumerist mentality that is driving us to environmental ruin. The World Watch Institute 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.
However, capitalism needs that mentality to exist in order for corporations to thrive, and doing the recycling won’t change our consumerist habits. It’s precisely this ideology that’s 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 Programme recently 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.
Extractive industries have a huge influence in the policy making sphere, particularly in the US. Climate change organization 350.org estimates that 94 per cent 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.
Thus, it’s 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. Noam Chomsky aptly described this in a recent interview with Salon: ‘It’s 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 carbon foot prints, 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.
Amit Singh is a graduate of the London School of Economics, who works on the World Views of Nature Project, examining how local philosophies should have more sway in creating effective and inclusive environmental policy. Follow him on Twitter here.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.