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Climate justice is injustice, if partial


Ratheesh Pisharody writes: While we pretend to have weaved in a “justice angle” into the climate emergency narrative, we conveniently veto-ed ourselves back in. Thus we ensure we represent the perpetrators and also the victims. By taking away a large part of that victim-hood-bank we seem to want an unfair share of “climate justice” too.

Ratheesh Pisharody

Something is amiss

A phrase that has come to be accepted and understood and also shares space, stage and sometimes even the podium with “climate change” is that of “climate justice”. While it has taken aeons to message and articulate this phrase and bring about understanding and even consensus around it by inserting it into scholarly and mainstream articles, most have either failed to understand it in its entirety or claimed to have grasped it, having done so only partially.

Most who use “climate justice”, do so to explain the impact of climate-change on the principles of justice. To link climate-change and justice would mean to view climate change in relation to socioeconomic-systems, disparities caused by colonization and slavery, classism, casteism, wars and the entire history between the oppressors and oppressed. Thus we usually end up associating climate-change and concepts such as human-rights, equality, equity in the process.

This automatic deduction of an “anthropocentric worldview” of rights, equality and equity is what makes the quest for climate-justice futile. The partial (and often convenient) understanding of “climate justice” is the reason why most scholars, writers and thinkers will never be able to fully assess, articulate or even suggest solutions. If anyone intends to be honest about climate-justice then one needs to go beyond climate-justice for human beings.

Call it by any name, but …

“Climate emergency”, which went by the names such as “climate change”, “global-warming” even “environmentalism” was for a long time considered an elitist cause. But after a lot of churning, conflict, misunderstanding and debate there is some consensus today that it isn’t so. This consensus was arrived based on the understanding that the victims of climate-emergency will be found at the “bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid”. We could ask “where is this bottom?”.

For farmer community based activists, the farmers are at the bottom. For people who work with indigenous communities, they are at the bottom. For activists who work with women, women represent the bottom and for those dedicated to working with local artisans, the local craftsman is at the bottom. Hence what we find is sort of sectarian-victim-hood. But what makes this worse is all the players are still human beings. Even if we were to find a few who take up non-human causes, they will usually be bundled back into the problem-statement (i.e climate-change) and are not usually part of the climate-justice narrative; and hence not part of the concerns related to justice, equality or equity.

In summary, while we pretend to have weaved in a “justice angle” into the climate emergency narrative, we conveniently veto-ed ourselves back in. Thus we ensure we (human beings) are the species representing the perpetrators and also the victims. By taking away a large part of that victim-hood-bank we seem to want an unfair share of this “climate justice” too. Thus our blindness towards overall justice is apparent due to our unashamed and selfish love for our own species at the cost of others.

Our understanding of justice and ethics

All injustice that we can think of — western-world colonizing developing-countries, the abject poverty that many countries are reduced to, the living conditions and wherewithal of humans at the bottom, historical injustice of the owners towards the working class and the treatment of women — are necessary to be understood, included in the solutioning and corrected; but this isn’t sufficient; we need more than that to be “climate just”. Justice needs to be done to the horses and mules we have used and abused. We owe justice to the animals that we have caged for food, milk and entertainment.

Also creatures that have perished due to our negligence, wars, oil-spills etc. deserve justice. The planet has seen loss of living beings purely in terms of numbers as well as loss of well established species. Both of these cases should not be seen as separate issues. The life function and biodiversity they provide is too important for us to be categorizing these losses; let alone further classifying loss into brackets and degrees. The “Dodo” for e.g will always come to represent the big-loss. But what about otters and gulls that we lost due to large oil spills. The balance they provided is lost forever. What about the number of elephants we have lost in the African continent due to our continued negligence and apathy towards the issue?

While we owe justice to the otters, gulls and elephants due to our obvious crimes against nature, we should remember that we also owe justice to many creatures due to our lesser-understood crimes. Meat eaters do not see the connection between what is on their table and the burning Amazon forests. Vegetarians do not see the connection between their diet and land-use and encroachment by agriculture. Milk, honey and leather consumers do not see the connection between their lifestyle and say the dwindling Blackbuck population. And many who even today underestimate our numbers on this planet do not see the dotted line between our overpopulated beaches and dwindling turtle numbers.

While we may still have doubts about “why life exists” or “why we exist” on this planet, the scientifically inclined have firmer control on the “how” part. We get to observe the function that life provides for the planet. In fact the planet is a sum of its living parts whose dynamism and cycles make it up. We need to look at rights and equity from the perspective of life itself with disregard to the “kind of life”; the right for cells-to-reproduce and things-to-grow. The planet depends only on this larger function and the fact that most of this “life” today happens to have two-legs and a large-brain is merely a technicality from its viewpoint.

When the above is the case, a poor understanding (and denial) of this ethic becomes apparent in our current dealings with “climate justice” and “climate emergency”. It has to be duly noted here that this poor ethic has almost always been apparent (both from the perpetrators as well as the saviours) throughout living memory and the arguments made here only intend to point out that we will continue to do so even after pretending to embrace larger ethics via usage of phrases such as “climate justice”.

Take for example the case of forests. We know that on one end forests are dwindling and on the other we fail at reforestation more often than not. Hence we know that as a species we are constantly reducing a resource which is already in lesser volume than is needed for our species to survive. But say there is a need to create an absolute-refuge for forests with zero consumption, we will never take up a case for it because we would then hurt our own. We will first hurt the indigenous communities whose per-capita consumption is way lesser than the regenerating capacity of a forest, by taking away their rights. Secondly we will hurt the village-folk whose minimal-usage of adjoining land for grazing (for our milk-meat-demand too) is seen by us as a “just cause”.

The above is our reaction (and probably should be) when there were plans to evict thousands of forest-dwellers and forest-dependents in India. We cannot fathom our own lack of rationality when it comes to such matters. Our idea of being “just” and “humane” will always take precedence, and it should. But there is a problem.

Most recently, take the case of the road that connects Kerala and Karnataka through the forests in North Kerala (Wayanad). The road was closed for night-travel to provide for the “rights” of creatures of that land to survive (barely) within the concrete-jungles and metropolises on either sides. A combination of poor understanding and politics is now going to result in the opening up the road very soon; the classic “jallikattu effect” where human camaraderie, ingenuity and pure selfishness will triumph over larger ethics. The fact that the Chief Minister of Kerala shook hands with the young MP of the district involved (from another party) is visual proof of this human-only version of justice.

Even in the above case, the reasons for us to buckle for our own will be plentiful; economics, poverty, need-for-trade, farmer-produce needing markets etc, all in the name of “climate justice”; after all Kerala like other coastal areas is awaiting its large climate accidents and any positive action that we take towards this will be seen by us as the right thing to do. This event did have one agonising detail though; there were school-children brought to the street to “protest the closure of the road”. It was a sight to see children being abused for a cause to disrupt nature and animals when they are usually used by teachers with “save the tiger” banner in their hands.

This tendency of ours is not local. No one really has the numbers on the amount of homeless jaguars or fatally wounded armadillos who ran away from the burning amazon forests. In Brazil and Bolivia, only a handful few are concerned about the loss of ecosystems and life in general. The voice and intent of the mainstream is evident even in these countries by the people who are voted into power and the debates around this topic. Also, in both these countries and adjoining Peru and Ecuador there are indigenous movements which are strong but yet linked to the human version of rights and justice. This would mean in such cases too we would side the humans. If push comes to shove, the amazon would be lost further so that human beings can continue to survive (however counter-intuitive that seems).

All of the above cases are good enough to warrant a humane decision. But our version of being humane is to be “just to other human beings”. But being humane isn’t just about being “just” to other human beings. If the case at hand was, say the per-capita consumption of forest-fruit by a species of monkeys vs the case of consumption of the same fruit by forest-dwelling community (many a time, for the market), our convoluted ethics always will uphold the rights of our own. The monkey, which should be justly considered having equal (and equitable) rights on that forest will always end up a second class citizen. This has been the case with our species always and fear is that it will continue even under this incomplete “climate justice” banner.

It is an absurd form of “equality or equity” when (in the worst case) the Coca Cola company (or in the best case) a village co-operative production will get water from the last few remaining water sources. We seem to struggle today with the understanding of “commons”. While some have at best understood commons to be protected collectively for the good-of-all, our talks and actions about collectivism seem to extend only to our species. On the pretext of protecting commons what we actually end up doing is desiring to share our commons among ourselves (equitably even) but leaving nothing at all for other species.

Symptoms indicate that we aren’t telling the entire truth

It is never apparent that thinkers, writers and activists are constantly engaging in speciesism. After all for the layman, these are fellow-humans who have the knowledge, talent and time to talk about the environment and persuade many; they seem like folks who understand and empathise with the planet.

But anyone carefully observing this perpetual discourse, from basic-environmentalism to today’s climate-emergency can see the gaping holes in the arguments made by most experts; over the years. Everyone knows (by “everyone” I mean all kinds of experts) that our population increased exponentially post the industrial revolution. Most agree that capitalism is one of the main culprits for concentrations of population in cities. It is apparent-data that we have far too many people than resources on this planet right now (keep aside the fair distribution). But the IPCC report to the most dumbed-down article written on the topic of climate-change do not touch upon the topic of population. Population, if ever mentioned will be as an inevitable and non-negotiable parameter; thrown into the mix like we have no control over it.

What are the experts and scholars afraid of? No one is asking them to “solve” the population problem overnight. In fact, is there a solution? Culling a lot of us? We all know that our version of ethics protects “us” first. It is another matter that from scientists to laymen do not apply the same ethics when nurturing or culling other creatures. There have been innumerable cases of us introducing species into ecosystems, later to realise the mistake and then culling them (sometimes this sequence is the other way around).

Before we get to the solutions, we need to learn to come out of denial. It is amusing that the same people who pontificate about climate-change today were the frustrated lot when there were many naysayers who “denied” it outright. Now that we have gotten past that phase, it would show immense maturity to lead from the front. The thinkers, experts and activists know very well that there isn’t any justice in one species using up most of the land on this planet for itself (and for creatures it domesticated) while denying space and time for the others.

Besides the human population, the second issue that never gets attention is about the one form of human consumption that is primeval, that of eating. While a few experts once in a while do hint about this, there is hardly any serious discourse about changing our eating habits and course correction. It is assumed that we will continue on the path of destruction by either consuming animals outright (hunting, fishing) or severely distorting land-use (deforestation due to grazing) by consuming animal products such as milk.

The same set of thinkers and activists who were earlier the victims of the “elitist” jibe now consider veganism an elitist model. The average environmentalist can be elitist; the average climate-change-activist can be elitist; the average vegan-consumer can be elitist but the intent and foundations of veganism are not. It will be tragic if the same thinkers and activists take another half a century to realise that veganism is nothing but the next phase in the growth and development phases we have gone through.

While the inevitable climate-catastrophe is round the corner, if we are still shy and afraid to talk about our eating habits, let alone write about it, then we are going to miss quite a few chances to mitigate the problem. It is common for arguments on both sides to appear. There will be some who cite freedom-of-choice, local resource constraints, culture, conditioning etc. And quite possibly most or all of those arguments will be valid. But our denial of the very fact that feeding us exactly how we have been doing during the years to come and at the same time being “climate just” is going to be an issue.

Hence, the combination of how many we are on this planet and what our food choices are missing from the discourse is symptomatic of our inability to transcend beyond our selfish human genes and our convoluted idea of ethics, equality and justice. This makes our claims of having “progressed” from environmentalism to climate-justice absolute bogus.

Methods will define the contours of the outcome

A new consciousness seem to be emerging. Revitalized by young blood, we hear of “new action” everyday. Going by names such as “Extinction Rebellion” or “Fridays for Future”, these movements have captured our imagination. What we worry about is whether these movements are self-motivated or influenced by external factors; there are doubts seeded about the young activists into mainstream so that we can be distracted. Instead, what we actually need to worry about is whether this injection of fresh-blood into the beaten-and-dead-environmentalism-horse is itself inherited from the previous generation.

If these new movements confine themselves to easy problem-spaces (and hence solutions) then we cannot expect them to either last or spread. Beyond a point, the larger masses (whom we seek to influence) will move away and look for other avenues of leadership. This is especially true if victories of the movements will be defined by simple and tangible actions or policies such as “rejection of fossil fuels” and “banning of plastic bags”.

The narrative these days — especially from the youth — is that they do not see a future. But the introspection needed here from their end is whether they do not see a future for themselves (personally), their counterparts from other regions of the planet, other humans of the world, humanity as a whole or as all life on this planet. Without the previously discussed holistic understanding of “climate justice” being applied by the youth to these movements, they can expect to tread the same self-serving and conformist paths that their seniors took to get here.

The methods chosen by the climate-change activists of today should include a clarion call for not-reproducing and overpopulating. It should include substantial changes to diet from the younger generation, thereby defining new markets that are better than what we have today. If the youth of today are up for a challenge as revolutionaries, then climate-change is the one-big-cause they have to display their valour. But it will take more than calling out to adults to “reverse” or “correct” their situation because the adults concerned will only seek half-measures that will keep this world ticking just as it has done for years.

To hope is cruel but to hope is human

It would be incorrect to assume that with a flawless and bulletproof definition of what climate-justice is, with a better understanding of rights, equality, commons, with a new form of revolution or major transformations both personally and as a society, we can do anything about reversing the damage we have caused. The state of affairs are so bad that we have lost the battle and the war. We were deaf too long and are dumb even today. So it is with hesitation that we have to introduce any kind of “hope” into this scenario.

But to be human is to imagine oneself waking up the next morning and going through “a normal day”. To be the human species is to imagine existing every day for generations, caring, loving, laughing, eating, reproducing and doing our bit towards the life functions of this planet. Hopelessness tends to depression and suicide. So, if only to keep ourselves alive today, we have to hope that we embrace better values; that we embrace “sacrifice”.

We have to learn to sacrifice “a little more than yesterday”. Everyday. Giving up on fossil fuels and plastic bags are what mainstream teaches us. We have to give up on things we love the most, little by little, training our selfish and greedy human mind to do this with happiness. Giving up on the amount of food we consume; to eat-just-enough for the energy required for basic functions. Giving up on products that further the damage to the environment such as meat and milk. Giving up reproducing to avoid creating additional resource-hungry-b. Giving up on consumption in various scopes and degrees.

If we were to get past the personal phase/challenge, we have to encourage others to do the same, by our explicit persuasion and/or by being role models. We will have to look for a “larger justice” while continuing to practice the form of “justice” we know. We will have to fight for the rights of indigenous communities over forests (and ensure that we kick out corporate interests) but have to work with the same communities to persuade them to make sacrifices that we made.

We might eventually get there, or not. Actually no! We should safely assume that we will fail in this quest for solutions to climate-change but we should consider it our duty to do the right thing and take the right path. After all, for the youth and children of today, their entire life might be a war against climate-change and we need to see the tragedy of that. By working together, we would atleast still wake up to see the sun rise, even if it is further tragedy to wake up; because the ones who did not were victims of our actions today.


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One Response “Climate justice is injustice, if partial”

  1. Sagar Dhara
    27th October 2019 at 6:52 am

    Population is not the problem, consumption is. How much of nature is used is what affects the biogeochemical cycles, not how many do it. For data and further argument, see Manali Chakraborty’s “Is Overpopulation the Planet’s Gravest Crisis.” The historic Carbon emissions of developed and developing nations are 1,200 and 85 T/pc, respectively.

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