Climate change is just one of many environmental issues
Our understanding of the relationship between humans and the non-human world is frustrated by an exclusive focus on fossil fuels as the primary form of pollution. Corporate media and governments at national and global levels often implicitly or explicitly present climate change as the only dangerous environmental phenomenon today, or at least the only one deserving of attention. In fact, isolating society’s problematic relationship to the non-human world into a single issue or technology is reductive and prevents a systemic understanding of what a sustainable global society might look like.
The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) defines climate as “the long-term pattern of weather patterns in a particular area”, perhaps as large as the entire globe. While all human labor will technically rearrange natural resources and therefore somehow alter the climate, anthropomorphic climate change most often specifically refers to the warming trend visible in average global temperatures over the past of the previous century, caused by the increase in atmospheric carbon emissions which amplify the greenhouse effect. .
Climate change is indeed one of the greatest threats to human life, and its cause is rightly identified as the consumption of fossil fuels. However, seeing climate change as an isolated problem, not necessarily linked to other environmental problems, suggests that it could be solved in isolation. Many ecological disasters that do not depend on climate change or fossil fuels illustrate the flaws in this idea.
Deforestation that has environmental consequences occurred millennia before major anthropomorphic climate change. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 10 million hectares of forests are lost worldwide each year. This amount may seem insignificant, since it is well below 1% per year. Yet much of the loss is in “primary forest,” which represents the least disturbed, least polluted, and most ecologically important forest cover on Earth. Additionally, much of the primary deforestation occurs in tropical rainforests, which produce and store much of the world’s organic carbon. The Amazon rainforest, which produces a significant amount of the world’s oxygen, is at high risk of becoming a desert for this reason.
Much of the world’s deforestation is primarily driven by increased access to arable land for agriculture. Because it is an example of unsustainable and destructive agriculture, it is strongly linked to the phenomenon of topsoil erosion. Topsoil describes the layer of soil closest to the Earth’s surface, and it is essential for agriculture, producing 95% of our global food supply. This layer is usually rich in nutrients from thousands of years of carbon-based life cycles just above it, distributing important vitamins and minerals, but deforestation breaks this feedback.
Agriculture often changes the composition of the soil. Sometimes, when practices such as crop rotation, permaculture and agroecology are employed, topsoil can be largely preserved or maintained over very long periods of time. These practices converge around applying an understanding of natural biodiversity to the goals of maintaining human caloric intake. But in modern industrial agriculture undertaken for the production of commodified food, the ecology of the land is not and often cannot be considered due to the profit imperative.
Monoculture is an extremely common industrial farming practice whereby a single crop is grown on an entire farm – depleting the soil – because that crop commands a higher price. Today, farmers decide which crops to grow, not by balancing the needs of local human populations with the ecology of farmland, but on the basis of profit. Because of this, and the overexploitation of agricultural resources disproportionate to human needs, topsoil is being lost around the world at a rate 10 to 40 times faster than it is generated. Combined with other factors, the Earth has lost more than 40% of its arable land since the mid-20th century. At a time when one billion people regularly suffer from hunger, this is a particularly great threat to human society.
In addition to deforestation and terrestrial agriculture, the world’s animal populations are being decimated. Overfishing has been a concern since 1989, after which global fishing yields have declined or stagnated each year. Although these populations are certainly also affected by pollution from fossil products, including plastics, oil spills and by the instabilities caused by global warming, the main cause of the decline in fish biodiversity is overfishing; we are killing fish at a rate faster than their populations are capable of regenerating.
Due to deforestation, animal agriculture, development, environmental pollution and overhunting, a 2020 World Wildlife Report claims that over the past 50 years humans have killed more than two-thirds of the world’s animal populations. Similarly, a 2021 United Nations report found that more than one million species are at risk of extinction in the next few years, and the rate of species extinction is hitting an all-time high and accelerating every year. .
Environmental scientists have repeatedly found that this rate of species extinction marks the start of Earth’s sixth mass extinction. In previous mass extinction events, all of which occurred millions of years before mankind existed, about three-quarters of species disappeared as the global ecosystem was radically reconfigured. At the current rate, the sixth mass extinction will likely kill many of our staple crops, almost all of our sources of animal protein, and decrease oxygen or increase carbon levels in our atmosphere to unbreathable levels. In other words, the overwhelming majority of humans will die.
Readers will note that climate change and pollution caused by fossil fuels also contribute to the problems I have discussed above. Moreover, it is true that fossil fuels allow a rate and degree of exploitation of the natural world far beyond what humanity could achieve without them. Fossil fuels have been the source of almost every technological innovation since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 16th century and are therefore deeply linked to all modern environmental crises.
But there’s no reason for most harmful ecological practices to stop just because the Earth has moved away from fossil fuels or because we’ve stabilized atmospheric temperature. For the above practices to be interrupted and non-human earth to be allowed to replenish, we would need to change the entire basis of industrial practices. In reality, human industry is extracting greater amounts of material from the earth every year, and this cannot be solved by using different fuels or stabilizing our climate.
Our ecosystem is destroyed because a global, industrial, imperial capitalism decides the use of the Earth’s resources, and the goal of this system is the complete commodification of every being, plant and rock in sight. Globally, we already produce far more than the amount of food needed to feed the earth’s population, yet we continue to deplete the world’s supply of topsoil. In the United States, the wealthiest country in human history, there are vastly more empty homes than homeless people, yet every city is geared towards encouraging “development” and building new accommodations.
Humanity’s existing technology and resources are sufficient to support all, but we continue to extract more. Indeed, capitalism depends on the exchange of commodities which require raw materials to produce, sell and buy. Even when it is not sustainable and unnecessary, we continue building and destroying if it creates profits for the capitalists. This system is designed for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, and the accumulation of wealth at the expense of species and planetary longevity.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Indigenous peoples around the world have cohabited with the Earth’s ecosystem for hundreds of thousands of years. Colonialism and capitalism continue to destroy the environment because they radically disrupt the principle that we all have the same right and the same responsibility towards our planet. Saving the planet means dismantling these systems and forging new relationships of solidarity, equality and respect.
Climate change is a horrifying threat, alongside the sixth mass extinction and others that may not fit into clear plans or single policy solutions. With every crisis in human-earth relations, the situation is the same: the Earth has been reconfigured according to a logic of theft and anarchic market without any respect for stewardship or indigenous ecology. Creating sustainability requires creating justice in general, and it requires not looking at climate change or fossil fuels in isolation, but identifying and undermining the social relations that produce them.