Four months ago I watched in alarm as fires devastated large sections of Australia. Speaking to my mum and my friends back home, I listened in dismay about the ash in the air and the fires that raged on, eluding human control. Firefighters bravely fought the wrath of multiple blazes, but the fires refused to be curbed.
Today, speaking to my family in California, I am, once again, devastated. Fires are blazing across the state, destroying homes and habitats and claiming human lives. Similar to Australia, the severity and intensity of the fires keeps on escalating with each round. This time, the ferocity of the fires is being noted as being the “worst on record.”
While one section of the country burns, another is drowning. Hurricane Sally is causing floods and downpours in Florida and Alabama. Meanwhile, migratory birds are perishing mid-flight, descending from the skies in silent death across Colorado, Texas, Arizona and Nebraska.
At this stage, climate change is more than a reality; it is a catastrophe that is actively permeating our lives, although not equally. Studies and statistics have consistently shown that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the impacts of climate change. It is perhaps unsurprising, given that prejudice informed the very inception of civilization.
Australia and America are both nations with violent, colonial beginnings. Prior to colonization, Indigenous Australians and Native Americans practiced a way of life premised on a connection to the land that was based on care and a sustainable way of life.
Indigenous Australians led nomadic lifestyles, moving with the seasons, taking from but also giving back to the land. Colonizers used the notion of “Terra Nullius” to establish conquest, based on the fact that Indigenous Australians lived a nomadic lifestyle and did not have concrete, westernized indicators of civilization. In the United States, the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” which purported a blind belief in the relentless propagation of American settlement and expansion, was used to carry out a similar process.
With Western civilization came industrialization and the ruthless attitude of treating the earth like a commodity as well as active suppression and extinguishment of native inhabitants and their way of life.
This colonial history is relevant to discussions of climate change not only because it demonstrated that the very foundation of our civilization is an exploitative one, but because it also highlights that climate justice is linked to racial justice.
In Australia, after years of reparations, paternalistic “interventions,” apologies and granting of land rights, there is still a basic lack of understanding and respect towards the Indigenous way of life. Furthermore, it is apparent that the granting of these rights is disposable, that corporate and monetary interests take precedence.
The proposed Adani coal mine was the subject of intense scrutiny and debate across Australia. Adani’s Carmichael coal mine has been approved as a project in Queensland. In order to enable the mine, the Queensland government has extinguished native title for “1,385 hectares of W&J country, granting the controversial miner freehold title.”
The Native Title system in Australia does grant rights to Indigenous groups, but often, their capacity to block proposed developments is limited. For the Carmichael mine, seven native title applicants supported land-use agreements with Adani Australia, while five contested any agreement with the corporation in the courts without legal success. Today, sections of the Wangan and Jagalingou groups are actively resisting the construction of the mine, while Adani remains dedicated to moving forward.
In the United States, fracking remains a booming industry. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, hydraulically fractured wells in the United States grew exponentially in 2015. In 2013, regulators granted “17 oil and gas leases on Pawnee lands,” without informing the Pawnee tribe. Fortunately, after an administrative appeal, the leases were invalidated.
However, fracking remains a pervasive issue with no end in sight. Fracking , which is a technique used to extract gas and oil from rock, is controversial because of pollution and its inherently unsustainable nature. In 2017, the Trump administration abolished a law that required fracking companies to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process. Even progressive politicians like Gavin Newsom, who have been verbal about their commitment to climate change, have supported the industry, with Newsom granting 12 new fracking permits in June 2020 alone.
Governments in both Australia and the United States have demonstrated that their commitment to indigenous rights and sustainability are often performative at best, that economic interests and large corporations take precedence over all else.
Corporations are the big polluters, and in today’s economy, they act like largely autonomous entities, with unprecedented privileges and power, exonerated from many regulations because of the wealth they bring to the country.
Most western economies are based on the ideas of philosophers such as Adam Smith. In his book “The Worldly Philosophers,” Robert L. Heilbroner explores the fundamental notions that underlie Adam Smith’s philosophy, which propagate market competition as an integral factor of a well-functioning economy that “self-regulates,” in that external entities or governments should not constrain the economy. While advocating for the free market, Smith was also concerned with morality and the and skeptical of the “motives of businessmen.”
The power and wealth that corporations and the owners of big businesses wield are enormous, meaning that they are often in cahoots with politicians, allowing them to evade regulation. The sheer economic clout that they bring to the economy is not just a bargaining chip, it is their supreme upper hand and the tip of a pyramid which symbolizes the concentration of power and economic health as the uppermost benchmark and primary interest.
Milton Friedman’s body of work encourages a profit-based approach, a mindset which has influenced many business owners and corporations. A recent New York Times article asked prominent business owners and CEOs to weigh in on Friedman’s principles. Many of them rightly criticized Fiedman’s prioritization of profit as the pivotal principle that has led to the rampant ecological destruction and racism that we now witness. Most argued for “stakeholder capitalism,” a business model which argues that corporations and companies act in the best interests of all involved, including customers and wider social interests.
The idea sounds wonderfully holistic and ethical. Yet, the danger with businesses, as we have seen especially recently, is that phrases like Black Lives Matter and Sustainability become guises which allow big businesses to package pollution and discrimination in glittering rhetoric.
Certainly, economic turbulence and recessions cause hardship for many within society and should be avoided. Corporations and businesses are integral aspects of this. That being said, there is no reason why the economic wealth of a nation cannot go hand in hand with sustainability and ethics. As technologies improve and costs go down, the renewable energy sector is poised for growth and holds great potential for the climate.
We have leeched much from this planet and each day brings more devastation and loss. As we witness the vehemence of nature unleashed, we are also reminded that the very roots of our civilization are tainted with subjugation and bloodshed. It is no wonder that we pollute the way we do, we are barely taught to care for each other, let alone this planet.
The degradation of this planet is intertwined with racial injustice. Corporations have often enabled both. This year has brought upheaval, unrest and pain. There has been talk of the pandemic acting as a catalyst, figures such as Arundhati Roy have proclaimed that this year and Covid-19 are “portals” towards change.
Do we have the ability to emerge from our charred landscape? And, if we have the ability, will we outrun the ruthless hands of the clock dial?
The only thing that I am sure of is that when it comes to this planet, there needs to be a crucial recalibration of our mindset. Not only should the relationship we have with this planet be a symbiotic one, but we also need to enshrine that idea that damaging this planet is ultimately our own detriment.
A poem by Firedog of the Cheyenne Nation beautifully expresses this sentiment:
We are part fire, and part dream.
We are the physical mirroring
of Miaheyyun, the Total Universe,
upon this earth, our Mother.
We are here to experience.
We are a movement of a hand within millions of seasons,
a wink of touching within
millions and millions of
And we speak with the mirroring of the sun.
Part of being human is a process of disavowal, illusion and remembrance. As long as we are unconscious, we will wreak havoc and hurt. When we awaken, we will remember. If we are the embers of this land, then we are also the perpetrators of its fire. We are expressions of an indescribable natural force. This is where we began and this must be our way forward.