b r i a n p e t e r s e n
How common cause and community connections can reduce global climate emissions.
We have been thinking about climate change in all the wrong ways. This statement may seem curious given the societal exposure climate change has garnered in the last two decades and the ubiquitous climate actions purportedly taken by people and governments the world over. But our collective thinking and our woefully inadequate responses to this existential crisis remain superficial, cursory, topical. We have misdiagnosed what climate change is, what it represents, and as a result have yet to mobilize a response at the scale required to drastically reduce global carbon emissions.
To begin, we have conceptualized climate change as a technical problem that resides outside society. If we can just tweak our technologies, keeping everything else in society in place, we can tackle this challenge. But climate change is not a technical issue, far from it. Carbon emissions emerge from the ways in which we have organized our society. Our carbon, energy, and materially intensive society has created runaway carbon emissions but also environmental and social degradation on an unimaginable scale. The biodiversity crisis, rampant environmental pillaging for palm oil or rare earth minerals, inadequate and unaffordable housing, oceans rapidly filling with plastic, traffic, sprawl…on and on – these all emanate from the same source: a blind pursuit of economic growth. Unfortunately, we have not been willing to acknowledge this reality, rendering climate action impotent and our present and future increasingly in jeopardy.
Too many climate activists, environmentalists, policy-makers, diplomats, and academics fail to recognize or acknowledge the root cause of climate change. Why? Sadly, we do not ask this question often enough. For if we did, discussions would emerge that could better diagnose the problems we face and focus our attention on actual solutions to overcome them. But we don’t focus on the root causes, instead we grasp for technological solutions and rely on scapegoating in a futile attempt to overcome a systemic, historical problem. Now, some skeptical readers of this argument will immediately lash out with labels of one form of -ism or another. This reaction speaks to the challenge: many people have their identities tied to their climate change beliefs and views. Hearing an argument that individual actions and recycling cannot work and actually reproduce the very mechanisms that created the climate change problem in the first place causes some to double down on their views, thwarting common cause and purpose. In order to adequately address the climate crisis we have to unearth the root causes and rationales that stymie effective responses.
Despite all the attention climate change has received, the conversation continues to ignore economic growth as the root cause. This is not particularly surprising given the priorities in society, namely wealth accumulation, profits, material luxuries, and status. But we cannot maintain an Earth system capable of supporting civilization as we know it under a growth paradigm. Climate change emerges from a society fixated on turning nature into commodities for profit. This process is carbon and energy intensive. This view, unpopular and threatening, is often dismissed as opinion, or worse, propaganda. But the evidence bears it out. My colleagues and I have written widely on this, as have others. Despite this evidence and the myriad books, articles, interviews, and documentaries that outline the evidence, many still refuse to acknowledge this reality.
We have been told, by people across the political spectrum, that growth leads to well-being. The evidence suggests otherwise. Economic growth, in our societal configuration, has led to ever expanding wealth inequality, which is correlated with less well-being across all income groups. We mostly focus on the United States and other developed countries, obscuring the dire consequences the quest for ever expanding profits has come at the expense of other countries and people across the global south. Arguments abound about the need for ‘developing countries,’ a derogatory euphemism that relegates the world’s majority to second class global citizenry, but those arguments do not include the realities that comes with development in virtually every situation – rising inequality, environmental deterioration, strife, and economic insecurity. Development, long a reactionary term with uncritical, positive connotations, has not delivered well-being or ecological flourishing. Far from it. To truly realize these goals a new paradigm is needed, one that prioritizes outcomes that benefit people and place and dispenses with the claims that development and profits are needed for a viable future.
Economic growth comes about through razing forests, mining, overfishing, plastic production, and so on. Some people, undoubtedly, have greatly benefitted from economic growth. Recent books proclaim the millions lifted out of poverty as a result of rising GDP globally. Again, many have benefitted but at what cost? In the last couple years, material production, transforming earth into commodities and sellable items, topped 100 billion tonnes for the first time. During the COVID lockdown, a global phenomenon that affected everyone and shut down travel, restaurants, and typical consumption patterns, greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high. Statistics related to global well-being, physical and mental health, longevity, and happiness, suggest the increase in wealth and affluence has not translated into flourishing. Quite the opposite. In the US, where anxiety, depression, suicide rates, and loneliness have sky-rocketed, even before COVID, millions remain economically precarious and unhealthy, despite record corporate profits and continued economic growth. What has all this wealth accumulation brought us? For millions, pain and suffering. Communities have fractured and people feel isolated, longing for a sense of belonging that profits for the few will never deliver.
Between 1854 and 2010 nearly two-thirds of all carbon emissions came from just 90 companies. Climate change has emerged from an economic system not from individual actions. And yet, most responses to climate change focus on individual actions. This misguided approach reflects broader society. Thorstein Veblen, a sociologist, diagnosed what he called ‘conspicuous consumption’ in 1899. Our individualized society, he noted, caused people to compare themselves to others and base their social status and well-being upon comparisons with people in a higher class. The Frankfurt School, writing in the mid-Twentieth Century, coined the term ‘culture industry’ to denote the ways in which mass culture produces desires and dreams that create an insatiable appetite for consumer products. Most climate change ‘solutions’ demonize individuals for causing the problem and ask them to take personal actions to solve this global problem. That misguided approach glosses over climate change’s root causes and precludes society from taking effective action.
Consider this example: By now everyone has heard the virtues of buying electric cars. But are they a solution? In short, no. Buying expensive, luxury cars does not address climate change’s root cause: economic growth. Instead, buying new cars increases economic growth. Perhaps more importantly, electric cars require unimaginable environmental and social harm in order to mine the materials, often done through modern day slavery, which is needed to build the cars in energy intensive processes, so that affluent people who already own cars that work just fine can buy a new status symbol. Not to mention that those cars will likely be parked in a three car garage, in a 4,500 square foot home full of carbon and energy intensive products. Why not just walk or bike instead? Now, let me be clear, I am not judging and am mostly indifferent to the personal choices made by individuals. I am merely pointing out the contradictions embedded in an argument about the virtues of personal action made by mostly wealthy people who live incredibly consumptive lifestyles. I am much more interested in the broader processes of economic expansion which create the problems that are too often unaddressed due to all the attention paid to individual actions. One comes at the expense of the other.
Rather than focusing on individual actions or technological solutions that also serve economic growth, society needs to reimagine what we collectively want. Real solutions to climate change have to restructure the carbon and energy intensive processes that also undermine well-being. This requires moving away from economic growth as the sole metric for whether society is succeeding. Again, this is not a political position but an analytical one, based on evidence. Shifting this foundational view will not just happen on its own. It requires people envisioning the world in a new way, reprioritizing our goals to privilege well-being for society and ecological systems, and, ultimately, coming together to create dialogue. Only through shared visioning and connection can common cause materialize, laying the foundation for sustained, focused actions capable of demanding, and ultimately realizing, a livable future.
What might that require? Sadly, no blueprint exists leading us to some utopia. But that does not mean that we do not have agency or options. Individual actions, we are told, are not only our responsibility but represent solutions to our global problems. Sadly, they do not. We have arrived at the precipice not by taking the wrong actions but by ceding our power to elites whose sole focus revolves around economic growth. Reshaping an entire global economic system based on greed will not happen overnight but it will not happen at all with people lamenting this reality from the margins of society. Individuals cannot solve the problem alone, it requires acting in common cause with others, creating social movements demanding something different. This starts at the local level, where communities can demand affordable dense housing, with viable public transportation that both meets people’s needs but also reduces emissions.
These actions, which bring visibility and positive consequences, can then coalesce with regional groups working to shift energy production to municipally, community owned and controlled energy systems. As these efforts flourish, groups from across the country can work together to shift federal policies, specifically around ending fossil fuel subsidies and development, that have the potential to greatly reduce carbon emissions and set the stage for international agreements and policies to do the same. Individuals cannot accomplish all this by taking actions in isolation. Instead, the only viable path forward requires shifting our attention away from individual actions, prioritizing well-being over profits, linking together as neighbors and friends, and putting in time and energy together to ameliorate the pain and suffering caused by a society focused on profits over all else. Doing so will not only avert a climate catastrophe but will also create community, connection, and common cause. Let’s work towards building stronger communities that also have fewer emissions, rather than grasping for technological solutions and individual actions that do neither.
is an associate professor in Geography, Planning and Recreation at Northern Arizona University. He serves on the Sustainable Communities graduate program steering committee and has served as the interim director for the program. He received his PhD in Environmental Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz. His research focuses broadly on the social dimensions of climate change. He recently co-authored a book with Diana Stuart and Ryan Gunderson called Climate Change Solutions: Overcoming the Capital-Climate Contradiction. His work also focuses on wilderness, public lands, biodiversity conservation, sustainability, and city planning. He recently served as the Chair of the City of Flagstaff Sustainability Commission for three years.