Thanks to Mr. Godoy and Mr. Jaffe for this strong, clear and compelling statement:
Eric S. Godoy and
This year is on track to become the hottest ever recorded, and a growing number of environmentalists are using a particular type of language in response. Some are calling for a huge “mobilization” to “combat” climate change. In an article in the New Republic in August, Bill McKibben, the unofficial spokesperson of the climate movement in the United States, insisted in very literal terms that, we are at war with climate change.
In the United States, we are familiar with war metaphors; and they are often politically useful. We have been through wars on poverty, drugs, cancer and even Christmas. In these cases, metaphors are understood as metaphors, but when McKibben points to territory ceded, space invaded, cultural loss and human suffering, he intends to be taken at face value: “It’s not that global warming is like a world war,” he writes. “It is a world war.”
War rhetoric serves a valuable function. It stresses the seriousness of the harm, its structural nature and the need to struggle against it. Wars require people to sacrifice and to share responsibility for a joint effort larger than individual preferences and comforts. They can also motivate solidarity: The goal of defeating the enemy orients all activity, and whatever may divide or distract us from achieving that goal must be put aside. In the rhetoric-bag of political discourse, “war” is a forceful weapon.
McKibben is one of the most visible and motivating climate activists in North America. He has written an astounding number of influential articles and books, co-founded an organization leading an international fossil fuel divestment campaign, spoken across the country to full auditoriums and participated in high-profile protests, some leading to his arrest. Most recently, he called on all of us to unite with the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access pipeline. Our goal here is not to attack McKibben so much as the rhetorical strategy that he, along with others, have made increasingly popular.
The idea that climate change is a war is inaccurate, and a potentially counterproductive frame for organizing the resistance needed to secure a habitable planet. By stressing existential threat, war tends to divide the world into allies and enemies, against whom we need to risk all. McKibben insists that climate change is “a world war aimed at us all.” But aimed by whom? It is variably polluting industries, tepid or two-faced politicians, our own political passivity, and even the laws of physics. McKibben often writes as if nature itself was a bellicose agent.
This approach ignores the environmental movement’s earlier rhetorical and organizational strengths. As a political force, the movement grew from roots in the nonviolent soil of civil rights struggles, and was radicalized in antiwar protests and resistance against nuclear weapons. This legacy is not merely historical: it is alive and well in the language and action of ongoing resistance at Standing Rock.
Another problem with deploying such war metaphors is that doing so assumes a distinction between allies and enemies that disguises the unequal effects felt by “us all.” McKibben, to his credit, does recognize this.
For instance, he admits that the “first victims, ironically, are those who have done the least to cause the crisis.” Here he refers to the world’s poor, who have contributed only a small amount of the total greenhouse gases while richer countries produce higher carbon emissions. And some even benefit from doing so. The affluent enjoy “cheap” fuel and other products of industry, and shareholders profit from such sales.
Meanwhile, the most recent International Panel on Climate Change report notes that the poor and marginalized face greater food scarcity and price insecurity, and the threat of violent conflict connected to this instability. In actual war, too, the poorest and marginalized often find themselves on the front lines while the richer are insulated or even benefit; McKibben himself explains how this was true of United States industrialists during World War II.
In other words, the first victims are not suffering from the relentless assault of the physical environment alone, but of other humans who leverage their social position to displace wider costs and extract private benefits. Given McKibben’s dedication to protests like the one at Standing Rock reservation, he is well aware of these forces…
Read the whole article here.