By Olivia Oldham
Climate change and environmental degradation are not just environmental issues. Yes, we are pumping ever-more poisonous gasses into our atmosphere, fouling our rivers with deluges of chemicals, and dumping so much plastic into our oceans that soon, there will be more plastic than fish. And yes, the future of our climate at more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures looks more than a little dicey, but the fact is that we are not all equally at risk. Climate change is a social justice issue, and it requires climate justice.
Spatial distribution of impacts
The spatial distribution of the negative effects of climate change--such as droughts, floods and extreme temperatures--will be uneven. In general, parts of the world which are already more vulnerable to shocks, due to factors such as poverty and relative disadvantage, are likely to be most severely affected. According to the IPCC, it is highly likely that the Arctic, global drylands, small island developing states and ‘Least Developed Countries’ in general will be at highest risk as the planet continues to heat.
Impacts in place
Beyond the regional variations and associated injustices related to the spatial distribution of the impacts of climate change, there is also variation and injustice in the way these changes and resulting weather events impact different people living in the same place. For example, Hurricane Katrina--the type of event which will become more frequent and more extreme as our planet heats up (regardless of whether the 2005 disaster itself was made more likely by climate change)--resulted in dramatically uneven and unjust outcomes for residents of New Orleans and the surrounding area.
The hurricane affected everyone--of course; storms ‘don’t discriminate’. But people do. Centuries of racially-motivated discriminatory land policies across the affected region have resulted in severely geographically segregated communities. In New Orleans itself, at the time of the disaster, African American communities disproportionately occupied low-lying land in areas prone to swamp-related flooding. This meant that communities of colour were more heavily impacted by the direct effects of the levee breaches.
After the storm, African American communities were left stranded in the ruined city for longer than other communities; majority-black neighbourhoods had poor access to transportation, due to decades of discriminatory city planning. Four days after the storm, 200 mainly African-American residents tried to walk out of the city along the highway, they were met by police and were driven back with guns and a police helicopter. Regardless of the immediate motivation for this act, it is clear that the natural disaster that was Katrina affected certain people far more severely than others. Not only that, but this disproportionate and unfair distribution of effects was systematic and calculable, based on intertwined questions of race and class. In many ways, then, it can be argued that the disastrous element of the hurricane was not at all natural, but rather socially constructed in that the negative impacts were largely the result of social policies and discrimination.
The litany of discriminatory impacts of Hurricane Katrina are too lengthy to be fully listed here, and the list of environmental disasters which have disproportionately affected people of colour and the socioeconomically vulnerable could fill an entire library. If you’re interested in learning more, check out this free online course on environmental justice.
It’s not just climate change itself
Beyond the uneven impacts of climate-related disasters, the industries and activities which are causing climate change are also causing significant racial and class-based injustice. For example, you might have heard about the ‘No DAPL’ movement that took place in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017, protesting a section of an oil pipeline leading from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. The point where the pipeline was to cross the river was moved from its original location, after it was decided by planners and engineers that a spill could have negative impacts on drinking water in the Missouri capital, Jefferson City. So, the crossing was moved to land stolen from the Standing Rock Sioux in 1958, within a kilometre from the present-day boundary of the Standing Rock Reservation. In this new location, the impacts of a spill would be the same as in the previous one--only here, they would only affect Indigenous people, rather than the majority white Jefferson City.
The peaceful protests of the water protectors--both local Standing Rock inhabitants and supporters from across the country and indeed around the world--were met with violent repression using counter-terrorism tactics. The pipeline eventually went ahead, leaking oil even before it became fully operational.
Again, this is not the only example of injustice perpetuated by those seeking to profit from the degradation of the environment and the continued emission of fossil fuels into the atmosphere. For example, back in April, Celine Barclay wrote a piece for the OCS blog on environmental ‘martyrs’--environmental activists, usually from and in the global South, frequently Indigenous, who have been murdered for resisting activities such as illegal logging, or the violation of land rights.
The fact is, climate change and other environmental damage do not affect us all equally: some people are disproportionately affected, usually based on their race and their class. We can trace these inequalities back to the era of colonisation and slavery, and the continuing practices of discrimination which exist to this day across the globe, as well as the exploitative nature of modern capitalism. Together, these legacies continue to enable the erasure of the suffering of the many so that a few might profit as the world crumbles.
We need to recognise that the climate crisis is also a crisis of justice, so that when we fight to change the world, the world we end up with is better for everyone, not just those of us privileged enough to sit at home writing about it on our laptops.
By Celine Barclay
For Christians, Jesus is the archetypal martyr, nailed to a wooden cross. We might draw a visual parallel between Jesus’s crucifixion and the murder of environmental activists, whose tree hugging pose, with arms outstretched, prefigures their martyrdom for having resisted illegal logging. While we might be cautious when drawing parallels between Jesus’ death and that of environmental activists for reasons that will be examined below, nevertheless, some interesting points arise from the comparison.
We might call these activists martyrs insofar as their deaths have often conferred greater attention to the cause they defended than their activism during their lifetime. As Ken Saro-Wiwa, an activist executed after criticizing the activities of the multinational oil companies in Nigeria said, “I am more dangerous dead”. Yet whilst some environmental martyrs have received media attention, particularly through documentary series, they have hardly become household names. Their invisibility in the public eye seems discordant with the startling number of murders each year. According to Global Witness, between 2008 and 2018 some 1,427 environmental activists were killed. Over this period, the rate of killings has increased with over three every week in 2018 alone. Statistically, the rate of killings is twice that of war correspondents.
So why the continued invisibility? The reason becomes apparent when we take a closer look at the profiles of most of these environmental martyrs. The majority of the assassinations take place in the tropics and sub-tropics, where those resisting illegal logging, or the violation of land rights, are often members of indigenous communities, who fade into the background of international press priorities. As an Ashaninka survivor said of four fellow indigenous people murdered by an illegal logging gang, “these people were dead to the eye before they were killed”. In other words, the global North would rather turn a blind eye to these environmental martyrdoms for the sake of convenience; we place more value on the resources we extract to satisfy our consumption practices, than on the human lives those practices destroy in the process. There seems to be a disjunction, then, between the temporally and spatially widespread fame of the martyrdom of the lone figure of Jesus, and the silent anonymity which muffles the deaths of so many indigenous environmental activists.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus and his suffering become a singular point of reflection. This focus on, and even glorification of suffering in the context of a movement such as climate activism might be regarded as detrimental. There is a danger that sensationalising the plight of an individual gives greater attention to their suffering than to the cause they defended. To this extent we might question the value of labelling these activists martyrs.
Another reason to question any comparison between these fallen activists and martyrs concerns the striking religious connotations of the term, when scientists are effectively unanimous in declaring human activity to be the cause of climate change. The traditional opposition between science and religion might make us wary of making “martyrs” out of activists who have died defending the environment in light of scientific facts, rather than beliefs.
While on the one hand, it might admittedly seem odd to make a comparison between Jesus, a religious figure, and an environmental activist, this hesitance overlooks the political dimension of Jesus’s martyrdom as well as the religious dimensions of environmental activism--particularly where indigenous communities are concerned. Although resisting illegal logging has broader implications for global warming in the prevention of the deforestation of the ‘lungs of the planet’, there are also spiritual motivations linked to their belief in the sanctity of the environment they inhabit.
The link between religion and activism is even stronger in the case of the ecology monks in Cambodia. In order to deter against deforestation, their strategy involves the ordination of trees. Once felled, these trees are effectively martyred through this humanisation. According to Rob Nixon there is deep identification between the fallen martyr and the felled tree in environmental activism. This identification is concretely demonstrated in the case of the ordained trees but can also be observed in the anthropomorphic language associated with trees, such as “limbs”.
This identification between the activists and the environment they defend goes both ways: in the discourse of environmental activists, the martyrs to the cause are considered to live on in the natural environment they tried to protect. For example, in a tribute to Berta Cáceres (another murdered environmental activist) it was said that, “she is present in the soul of our rivers and the spirit of our birds”. As with the humanisation of the trees, the suffering of the martyr becomes intrinsically linked to the cause they defend. This seems to counter the objection that martyrdom might allow suffering to overshadow the movement: in the case of environmental activists, their deaths become synonymous with the destruction of the environment they protect through this two-way identification between environment and martyr.
On a less metaphorical level, this identification of trees and human lives is strengthened by the material consequences of environmental activism. Given that deforestation is one of the leading causes of climate change, the defence of the forest from illegal logging not only saves trees, but humanity itself. Deforestation is ultimately self-destructive for humanity. In this sense, the metaphor equating the fallen tree with a fallen humanity moves from the merely symbolic to the literal. Chico Mendes reflected that, “at first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
Didn’t Jesus die to save humanity from its sins? Perhaps he had more in common with environmental ‘martyrs’ than first meets the eye.
By Emily Passmore
At the beginning of the year, it was easy to believe that 2020 would only see the zero-waste movement get stronger. After all, in the UK, 2019 saw commitments from ever more high street retailers, including major supermarkets such as Tesco and Morrisons, to cut down on their plastic usage. Furthermore, polling suggested half of Brits would be happy to pay more for a product if its packaging was eco-friendly. A similar pattern emerged globally, with Canada aiming to ban single-use plastics by 2021, and Peru banning single-use plastic at heritage sites.
Progress may have been slow, perhaps even dangerously slow, but progress was being made. In the time of coronavirus, that is no longer necessarily true.
The zero-waste movement strives towards a circular economy, where (almost) everything is reused rather than disposed. This means refillable packaging, repaired clothing and--for dedicated proponents of the lifestyle--a year’s worth of rubbish fitting into a single mason jar. But coronavirus can be spread through tiny droplets released from coughs and sneezes, and if a surface is contaminated by these droplets, anyone touching that surface is at risk. Reusable goods and containers might be handled by members of different households, and so are a clear example of potentially infected surfaces which could help spread the virus further.
Is it justifiable to continue promoting reusable goods during this pandemic? For the high street, the answer appears to be no. Schemes allowing customers to bring their own cups at stores such as Pret A Manger and Starbucks have been suspended since the early stages of the pandemic. This week, the US state of New Hampshire even banned the use of reusable shopping bags, a reversal of the usual trend towards banning single use plastic bags.
However, it is not clear just how necessary these steps are, given that an alcohol-based disinfectant will inactivate coronavirus within a minute, eliminating the risk posed by reusable goods. On the other hand, this process is itself likely to create waste, considering the environmental harm that can be caused by chemical production, as well as the fact that disinfectant tends to be packaged in disposable plastic containers. Moreover, this process requires a level of personal responsibility--it’s far from guaranteed that everyone would remember to disinfect, or more importantly, that everyone has access to the correct equipment to disinfect with. Single use plastic does not pose the same challenge.
It also does not guarantee sterility though. Plastic is handled throughout the production process, by an undetermined number of unknown people. Thus, it would be best practise to disinfect single use bags as well--especially as recent studies suggest Covid-19 can remain stable on plastic for up to three days. No similar research has been conducted on reusable bags, so it is impossible to truly know if the bans are warranted.
Nevertheless, single use plastic projects the illusion of sterility – and in a crisis where so much is uncertain, this should not be dismissed out of hand. Although regulations banning reusables may not be fully supported by scientific evidence, decisive regulation could help to quell public panic.
But is this a fair trade-off? The pandemic will end, and when it does, decisions such as the bans on reusable bags could have a lasting impact, stalling progress towards a circular economy. Some right-wing think tanks certainly seem to have this possibility in mind. Bans in the US were preceded by a lobbying campaign by organisations including the Manhattan Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Both groups accept money from fossil fuel companies, and both groups misrepresented the scientific research in their lobbying efforts. It doesn’t seem outlandish to suggest they may be more concerned with turning the tide on environmental policy than with public health.
This highlights the main issue the pandemic raises for the zero-waste movement: environmental concerns must take a back seat to urgent public health issues to some degree, but it is unclear exactly how much they should be discounted. Take clinical waste. Hospitals in Wuhan, the site of the first outbreak, generated six times as much waste at the peak of the virus compared to normal operations. The daily output was about 240 metric tons, about the weight of a blue whale, and a whole new waste plant had to be built to process it. But reusing medical equipment is impossible, and saving lives is clearly far more important in the short term than reducing waste production.
Single use bags do not carry the same importance--but should we not accept some uncomfortable policy decisions in the face of this public health emergency? To some degree, yes. But there is evidence that opponents of the environmental movement are using this moment to further their aims. A complete abandonment of the principles of the zero-waste movement seems an overreaction, and tactically unwise. Containing coronavirus must be the principal concern at the moment, but eventually, a vaccine will be developed and it will cease to be a concern at all. There seems to be no reason to renounce a zero-waste, circular economy as a goal to be strived towards, and no scientific backing to the suggestion that reusables are categorically less sterile than single use items. Thus, while coronavirus is undoubtedly a challenge to the zero-waste movement, as long as proponents take a compassionate but evidence-based standpoint throughout the crisis, it need not be the end of it.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.