The following post, by writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit, is an essay that appears in her new anthology The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, out this year from Trinity University Press.
If you’re poor, the only way you’re likely to injure someone is the old traditional way: artisanal violence, we could call it— by hands, by knife, by club, or maybe modern hands-on violence, by gun or by car.
But if you’re tremendously wealthy, you can practice industrial-scale violence without any manual labor on your own part. You can, say, build a sweatshop factory that will collapse in Bangladesh and kill more people than any hands-on mass murderer ever did, or you can calculate risk and benefit about putting poisons or unsafe machines into the world, as manufacturers do every day. If you’re the leader of a country, you can declare war and kill by the hundreds of thousands or millions. And the nuclear superpowers—the United States and Russia—still hold the option of destroying quite a lot of life on Earth.
“Climate change is global-scale violence against places and species, as well as against human beings.”
So do the carbon barons. But when we talk about violence, we almost always talk about violence from below, not above.
Or so I thought when I received a press release from a climate group announcing that “scientists say there is a direct link between changing climate and an increase in violence.” What the scientists actually said, in a not-so-newsworthy article in Nature a few years ago, is that there is higher conflict in the tropics in El Nino years and that perhaps this will scale up to make our age of climate change also an era of civil and international conflict.
The message is that ordinary people will behave badly in an era of intensified climate change. All this makes sense, unless you go back to the premise and note that climate change is itself violence. Extreme, horrific, long-term, widespread violence.
Climate change is anthropogenic—caused by human beings, some much more than others. We know the consequences of that change: the acidification of oceans and decline of many species in them, the slow disappearance of island nations such as the Maldives, increased flooding, drought, crop failure leading to food-price increases and famine, increasingly turbulent weather. (Think Hurricane Sandy and the recent typhoon in the Philippines and heat waves that kill elderly people by the tens of thousands.)
Climate change is violence.
So if we want to talk about violence and climate change, then let’s talk about climate change as violence. Rather than worrying about whether ordinary human beings will react turbulently to the destruction of the very means of their survival, let’s worry about that destruction—and their survival.
Of course, water failure, crop failure, flooding, and more will lead to mass migration and climate refugees—they already have—and this will lead to conflict. Those conflicts are being set in motion now.
You can regard the Arab Spring, in part, as a climate conflict: the increase in wheat prices was one of the triggers for that series of revolts that changed the face of northernmost Africa and the Middle East. On the one hand, you can say, how nice if those people had not been hungry in the first place. On the other, how can you not say, how great is it that those people stood up against being deprived of sustenance and hope? And then you have to look at the systems that created that hunger— the enormous economic inequalities in places such as Egypt and the brutality used to keep down the people at the lower levels of the social system, as well as the weather.
People revolt when their lives are unbearable. Sometimes material reality creates that unbearableness: droughts, plagues, storms, floods. But food and medical care, health and well-being, access to housing and education— these things are also governed by economic means and government policy. That’s what the revolt called Occupy Wall Street was against.
Climate change will increase hunger as food prices rise and food production falters, but we already have widespread hunger on Earth, and much of it is due not to the failures of nature and farmers, but to systems of distribution. Almost 16 million children in the United States now live with hunger, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and that is not because the vast, agriculturally rich United States cannot produce enough to feed all of us. We are a country whose distribution system is itself a kind of violence.