All or nothing: The problem with “just get on with it” environmentalism
Many eco-conscious people love repeating the same phrase; “We just need to do something, now.” Whilst it is correct to identify inaction, it misses the mark in other ways. Often this demand is uttered in response to other activists requesting focus on issues of climate justice and intersectionality. Sadly, it is often used for the steamrolling of social justice concerns to demand we “get on with it.”
It begs the questions, what is the “something” we need to do now? What is the “it” we need to be “getting on with”?
Keeping it too simple
A number of environmentalists see the solution to the climate crisis as monolithic; simply a rapid reduction in emissions. It is correct to recognise the need to reduce emissions. However, the pathways to achieving this are many and varied.
The assumption that there is a clear route, or a single magic wand to tackle climate change, presents problems. It misrepresents the many issues and challenges which will have to be tackled to decarbonise society. More worryingly, the assumption is often weaponised to suggest that those demanding concern for climate justice are taking energy away from mitigation efforts.
This overwriting of intersectionality concerns is one way in which ecological activity begins to develop an unjust edge. This is not a new feature of environmentalism; it has been a tendency, for example, that those like Murray Bookchin were fighting at the end of the 20th Century. In fact, environmentalism has a longstanding history of being racist which Julian Brave NoiseCat has excellently catalogued.
Eco-fascism, and other variants of reactionary environmentalism, seem to often come into previously ‘progressive’ organisations suddenly. Activists who often talk about attempting to change systems and end injustices, fail to regularly “walk the walk.” This is usually in public, where a white middle class internal structure reveals itself in some bumbling decision. A great example of this has been the failure of XR to appropriately engage with police and racial injustices. An excellent summary and critique of this has been written by Out of the Woods.
Troubled shades of green
In writing my last few articles I have attempted to highlight a number of areas where environmentalism becomes welded to problematic narratives or movements. The intensification of oppressive attitudes, empowered by Brexit and Trumpism, is present within the environmental movement as well.
Eco-nationalism rears its head often, both within political parties and as the ideology of white nationalist domestic terrorism. One reaction to this is to argue there is nothing eco or green with borders and nationalism. But this is to reify green politics unnecessarily. Green issues can, have, and will in a warming world, be used to justify the hardening of border politics and the protection of the “homeland”.
By accepting that this can still be ecological, it allows members of the green movement to begin criticising themselves and others who develop nationalistic overtones within their activism. It also allows the environmental movement to properly acknowledge and attempt to rectify their past involvement in the reinforcement of borders and racial nationalism.
Narratives that essentialise having children often exclude those unable or unwilling to become parents. This means it often slips into an ableist territory. Furthermore, the narrative of future generation and our kids reflects a refusal to understand that the effects of climate change are here. That there are communities in the Global South who have had to contend with the effects of climate change, all while wealthy nations have profited. The continued evasion of this reality by suggesting that climate change is coming for future generations reinforces unjust understandings of how climate change happens.
Finally, the wholesale rejection of society and other forms of earth mysticism tend to operate on an exclusionary logic. By rejecting values and benefits that have been accepted from both science and society, they exclude the communities which need these technologies to thrive. There are undertones (sometimes overtones) of both ableism and racist xenophobia to many forms of nature worship environmentalism.
Often the expression of these distinct tendencies never presents as an outright attack on marginalised groups in the name of the planet. But it leaves the space open for such eco-fascistic thinking to begin to creep in, especially as the climate crisis worsens. Environmentalists have to self-criticise and change both their behaviours and institutions to tackle these elements. Those who remain unwilling to do so should be side-lined and discredited.
Untangling the impossible
Repeatedly it is suggested that green politics has transcended the traditional divide between right- and left-wing politics. This is a problematic starting point, one which usually comes with the “get on with it” mentality. Such thinking ignores the reality that environmental issues, and their solutions, are stuck deep in the mud of existing economic and social oppression.
Irrespective of whether you believe in a simple right-left dichotomy, there cannot be ignorance of these other systemic concerns. Climate change, and its solutions, are entangled with issues of race, gender, class and colonialism. To attempt to extract the climate from these issues is as fanciful as continuing to extract fossil fuels from the ground.
There is a world that weathers the coming storm. But that world may be ableist, it may be sexist, and it may be classist. We could end up stabilising the climate, and also stabilising systems of racism and colonialism along the way. It all depends on who this “we” consists of, and the systems that this “we” operates within and against.
The rallying cry of many ecosocialists, “ecosocialism or barbarism”, doesn’t do justice to the many ways in which barbarism can express itself. A barbaric planet can be an exclusionary but environmentally stable. Or it may be the apocalyptic vision many catastrophists are happy accepting. Barbarism does not mean the absence of ecological stability, for oppressors have shown many ways to be barbaric in history.
Many activists from marginalised groups have attempted to point this out, but they have been ignored by traditional environmentalism. Furthermore, there is a long legacy of those in the Global South fighting to see climate change and social issues as a totality to be challenged. They have often been ignored, or side-lined. It is possible to help rectify this injustice, but it requires focus.
The green movement has a problem if it insists on simply reducing environmental issues to a lack of will. It allows the simplification of “getting on with it”, which quickly becomes “by any means necessary.” Without an existing framework seeing environmental collapse as a symptom of an already oppressive system we see “any means necessary” become oppressive environmentalism itself.
The “it” we must be getting on with is the dismantling of oppressive systems and their blocking of climate action. This is neither easy, nor straightforward. But thus is life.
There are a number of excellent resources and writers related to climate justice who will always put it better than me so here are five recent inspirations:
Murray Bookchin’s writings discuss environmental racism and other climate justice issue.
Julian Brave NoiseCat has written an excellent piece on the history of environmental racism.
Kathryn Yusoff – A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. This is an excellent work on racism and anthropocene thinking.
Mary Robinson – Climate Justice. A very accessible introduction to climate justice and its applications.
This article is part of a series on contemporary environmentalism and the dangers of ecofascism. The series has new articles published weekly, all of which can be found here.
Header image credit: Creative Commons: LQD-Denver