Climate, poverty, utopia

The inner crisis in environmental politics today is precisely the lack of bold concepts that address the challenges of poverty, energy, biodiversity and climate change within an integrated vision of human progress. At a micro-level, of course, there have been enormous strides in developing alternative technologies and passive-energy housing, but demonstration projects in wealthy communities and rich countries will not save the world. The more affluent, to be sure, can now choose from an abundance of designs for eco-living, but what is the ultimate goal: to allow well-meaning celebrities to brag about their zero-carbon lifestyles or to bring solar energy, toilets, pediatric clinics and mass transit to poor urban communities?

          Mike Davis, “Who Will Build the Ark?”[i]

The advent of the modern city deserves particular attention on the timeline of anthropogenic climate change. The forms which the city has taken during the last two hundred years of human existence have made it an increasingly noteworthy contributor to the building climate crisis. Today up to 45 percent of global carbon emissions can be attributed to heating and cooling the urban environment, and as much as a further 40 percent are the result of urban industries and transportation.[ii]

Along with the novel problem of climate change, the age-old issue of poverty also finds itself attached to the idea of the city. The manifestation of poverty in urban centres is quite unlike rural poverty in that it often appears alongside terrific amounts of wealth. While rural poverty, which is often deeper, can at least in part be attributed to scarcity and isolation, urban poverty is more starkly a product of injustice. Families nest inside hovels built in the shadows of skyscrapers. Children suffer from treatable diseases in close vicinity to hospitals. The homeless stand shivering in the cold while standing next to stores full of countless articles of warm clothing. Currently one billion people live in urban slums that dot the planet. This number is forecasted to triple by 2030.

Finding itself at the confluence of the climate crisis and intense inequality the city may yet realize redemption. Inherent within the idea of the city is a feature which makes it a solution, rather than a contributor, to climate change. The concentrated population density of the city seems essential to a societal low-carbon footprint recipe. As for the issue of inequality, bridging the gap between the rich and poor may not only be complementary to a solution to climate change, but it will likely also be essential to it.

The paradox of the accumulating climate crisis is that it will affect most harshly those who had the least part in creating it. Changing weather patterns will affect the South much more severely than the North. The latter, in fact, may gain in some ways as a result of warming temperatures: for example, while annual agricultural output for a number of Southern countries is expected to fall by 20 percent or more, it is anticipated to increase for the North by an average of 8 percent.[iii]

This incongruity puts an intractable obstacle in the path of the current means to address the problem. Negotiations on climate change hold as their hope for success a triumph of global solidarity in the face of a common challenge. Unfortunately, however, the challenge is not as universal as it is often portrayed. Even if the impact was not going to be as disproportionate as it will be, the North has considerably more resources to protect itself against it. And the history of global relations has shown that it would hardly feel inclined under any circumstance to appropriately compensate the victims of its crimes.

The trends, in fact, have already been set in this direction. Rich countries will continue to derail negotiations to come up with meaningful measures to counteract global warming. Individuals and communities that can afford it and have a “liberal” disposition will set about changing their lifestyles to be more environmentally friendly, patting themselves on the back as they do so. The poor and the marginalized – whether in New Orleans or in the villages of Sindh – will be left to face the brunt of the impact. More self-back-patting opportunities will routinely arise for the rich in the form of extreme weather events, such as the ongoing drought in East Africa, giving them reason to dole out some charity for some of those suffering most acutely.

The international, and the various national, political arrangements under which we live are obviously leading us in the wrong direction. A similar realization needs to be made about the reigning economic system. The reasons were many for believing such a thing before the onset of the climate crisis. Now it should seem all the more obvious. In The Enigma of Capital social theorist David Harvey explains that

The current consensus among economists and within the financial press is that a ‘healthy’ capitalist economy, in which most capitalists make a reasonable profit, expands [in terms of the total output of goods and services] at 3 per cent per annum. Grow less than that and the economy is deemed sluggish. Get below 1 per cent and the language of recession and crisis erupts (many capitalists make no profit).[iv]

Harvey goes on to write that following the recession if “normal” growth were to return to the world economy from 2011 onward “there will be over $100 trillion in the global economy by 2030. Profitable outlets would then have to be found for an extra $3 trillion investment. That is a very tall order.”[v] Indeed, especially when one considers the environmental consequences.

There is no forthcoming technological quick-fix for climate change. The solution will require addressing the causes at the root level. Measures relating to technology will be ultimately unsuccessful unless they are adopted within an arrangement that is itself compliant with the idea of sustainability. A system under which production is controlled privately for the basis of maximizing profit does not have room within it to reform to the degree necessary to offset the climate crisis that it has created.

“The bold thought first,” observed the twentieth century anarchist-philosopher Peter Kropotkin, “and the bold deed will not fail to follow.”[vi] The solution to the climate crisis will, first of all, require a bold reimagining of our current social arrangement. The city can serve as a centrepiece and starting point of such a reimagining. Mike Davis contends that “the egalitarian aspects of city life consistently provide the best sociological and physical supports for resource conservation and carbon mitigation.”[vii] With equitable distribution of wealth and political power, and minimal amounts of coercion, individual liberty can reign. Moreover, with democratic (worker) control of production we can organize society in a way that does not require infinitely-increasing levels of consumption and investment to sustain. Having removed the basis under which human beings seek to exploit and compete against one another, we can reconstitute power relations within, and in between, our societies in a way that allows solidarity to triumph over narrow self-interest.

All this likely sounds impractical, perhaps even utopian. Be that as it may, that which is deemed practical is not getting us anywhere good. It’s high time we stopped sticking to it.


[i] Mike Davis, “Who Will Build the Ark?”, New Left Review, 61:1, p. 44

[ii] Ibid., p. 41

[iii] Ibid., p. 40

[iv] David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital : and the Crises of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 26

[v] Ibid., p. 27

[vi] Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread

[vii] Ibid. 1, p. 45

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7 responses to “Climate, poverty, utopia

  • Arthur

    How do we “stop sticking to [the old kind of thinking]” in the real world? How do we get from where we are now to something closer to what you describe?

    • Umair

      The real world, eh? I didn’t realize what I wrote in the post was about wonderland.

      I give a good number of reasons to support my claim that the current system does not “have room within it to reform to the degree necessary to offset the climate crisis that it has created.” You “stop sticking to [the old kind of thinking]” by realizing that it won’t get us anywhere; realizing that a new kind of thinking is needed to get us somewhere good. I laid that out pretty clearly in the post.

      Beginning with restructuring the way we think we can get to doing things differently as well. I don’t have a point-by-point list of things to do.

  • Arthur

    You admit sounding utopian, which is close to wonderland?

    I don’t expect a definite point-by-point list of things to do, but I’m interested in what actions you think should come after restructuring your own thinking. We understand your bold reimagining, contentions, and arguments – then what?

    I would think encouraging others to learn and restructure their thinking would be next (like you are doing in these blog posts). But let’s look at the details. Do we convince people who are already agreeable or convince people who don’t believe in your bold reimagining? Convince lots of people generally or a few people deeply? Which are necessary for society to make bold changes? Both? Do we need everyone to agree? What about all the people who don’t agree with your ideas even after you explain it?

    Is thinking differently enough or should people go deeper and philosophize? Get to a point where we can write about the topic?

    Start a think-tank?

    Are existing politicians included in your reimagining? Should we try to convince them? Write to them? Lobby them? Challenge them? Protest? Peacefully? Violently? Revolutionize?

    Become a politician (in the existing system)? Or build a new community? Start a new country?

    And who should do these (if any)? And are people in the way if they don’t do one or more of these actions?

    • Umair

      Remind me again where I discussed disappearing Cheshire cats in the post.

      I seriously don’t know what your problem is. It’s not that complicated. No matter what issue we’re dealing with, when it comes to deciding what to do about things, we need to look around to see what resources and opportunities we have available to us, and then we exploit those resources and opportunities.

      Now imagine if you wrote a blog post about how great fair trade certification is. And I came along and said, “Oh that’s all really great, Arthur, but what do we do with all this great information? Should I run for prime minister? Start a think-tank about fairtrade? Should we convince people? Does everyone need to agree? Should we start a new country that only deals with fairtrade certified goods?” If I did something like that, it would be easy to tell what my intent is: obstructionism. While questions about what to do are important, too often the issue of what can be done gets brought up to derail discussion and create distractions. Just this morning I was reading a blog post about racism (http://abagond.wordpress.com/2010/06/12/some-facts-about-racism/), and I scrolled down to the comments section and saw this here comment:

      Ok. I get it. White people are ethnocentric in a way that is somehow unique. So what is the solution? What is the “end game” of all the critique?

      That guy is just being a dick.

      You’re also just being a dick, Arthur. Stop being a dick.

      What you’re doing is not what looking “at the details” looks like. You’re avoiding looking at the details by throwing garbage around to create distractions. It seems like I can’t write a blog post about any topic without you coming along and doing the same goddamn thing. So what you have us do? Should we not talk about the effectiveness of current methods to address climate change until we’ve figured out the “details” of how to go about doing things a different way? Should we not put ideas forth about whether perhaps promoting lifestyle changes is worth it in the overall scheme of things?

  • Arthur

    hey umair, calm down? I apologize for seeming obstructionist but I actually enjoy and agree with your views.

    I don’t preface my comments with “Great post” or “I agree” but I do actually agree with your views, especially the last two posts. I agree that 1) the current methods we have for dealing with climate change are broken and 2) promoting lifestyle changes is quite useless and I can see it being harmful (personally, I stayed away from EWB for the first few years because fair trade makes no sense to me).

    And I agree that re-structuring the way we think and our systems is necessary and I certaintly don’t think that you shouldn’t talk, discuss, or put ideas forth … nobody is telling you to shut up

    Now to explain why I have these sorts of comments – it’s because your posts often frustrate me (and other people, I’m sure) when you provide a great argument but make it seem like the only thing individuals can do about it after understanding is to shoot themselves because it’s too big to change (or to have to start their own country or some action of sizable proportions).

    So when I started typing out random “what to do”‘s, I wasn’t trying to stump you or trap you into saying something you don’t want to say. I thought you might agree that protesting government might be a plausible action. Or that trying to convince them won’t work and that we need to do something more drastic. Or maybe you think that blog posting and education is what is needed and it’s too early to think about next steps?…

    and to your question about if I wrote an argument supporting fair trade certification (I don’t, by the way), and you asked me what to do, I would say go buy fair trade, volunteer your time to lobby politicians, talk to vendors, start by making communities and universities fair trade. I would say No, you wouldn’t need to run for office or start a new country. This would be because fair trade certification is relatively simple compared to the ideas you propose. And this would be what I am interested

    So Umair, can you see my comments in a different light now?

  • Arthur

    I actually put effort into structuring my questions in my comment from last night so I would appreciate it if you answered. It’s not a distraction from your argument. I want to know what you think re-structuring would look like. Say in 100 years, we reach “equitable distribution of wealth and political power, and minimal amounts of coercion, individual liberty can reign. “. What would these 100 years look like? How do we get started, beyond blog posting and since nominal notions such as fair trade are useless and could actually be harmful?

  • Umair

    I really don’t know what to make of this. If you’re trying to suggest that asking a question like “How do we ‘stop sticking to [the old kind of thinking]’ in the real world?” in response to this post doesn’t sound antagonistic, then you’re a prick who doesn’t see his own prickishness. What kind of a response were you expecting me to give to something like that?

    First you ask a question like that, now all of sudden you agree that we need to start thinking differently.

    Like I said in response to another comment of yours, stop this hyper-“Let’s go out and do something”-ness. I’m not going to go through your ridiculous list of questions and answer them. You should answer for yourself whether we should start a new country. I don’t need to waste my time with garbage. I’m sad that you put effort into writing them out. You could have been learning about beluga whales or something fun like that. In fact, I could be doing that right now. Yeah, I’m out.

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