The constant, disastrous news of global environmental catastrophe — wildfires, mass extinctions, sea level rise, droughts, famines, unprecedented refugee migrations and more — can work diligently against our hope for the future. Given the scientific consensus of these disasters as only the beginning of a 21st century environmental apocalypse, it can be difficult for us to conceive any relief or way out.
I’m not referring to a “way out” in which we can switch to reusable bags, metal straws and democratic presidents and otherwise maintain our current way of life. Our fossil fuel-dependent industrial capitalism is simply too incongruent with the limits of Earth’s ecosystem to be salvaged or made “sustainable” for any extended time. This growth-based economy is simultaneously destroying the means of reproducing significant amounts of human life and depleting the finite natural resources which allow the consumerist lifestyle some westerners enjoy — at the expense of workers in the global south.
What I mean by this elusive “way out” is what we desperately cling to during conversations of ecological collapse: survival. At the core of many human lives is the hope that ourselves and loved ones will have some opportunity to survive in spite of the worst circumstances. Although not impossible, it’s difficult for us to salvage meaning from a fight for climate justice if we believe that the vast majority of humans on Earth, including ourselves, will not survive the coming century. While watching our ecosystem fall to pieces around us, even this basic hope for the future can be radically challenged.
It can be tempting, particularly among the most privileged of us, to conceive climate survival as a matter of hoarding resources from others. At least, this strategy is evident when countries use militarized borders and armies to stop climate migrants from escaping famine and drought in many parts of the world.
As sea water levels rise and millions — if not billions — of refugees are displaced from innumerable population centers, we will need to develop ways of providing for and resettling them in new areas. When famines threaten the food supply of most of the world’s population, we’ll need to devise ways of redistributing the massive amount of currently wasted foods. When the worst conflicts break out over dwindling essential resources, we will need to redirect geopolitics towards cooperation rather than warfare.
These tasks will require massive amounts of human ingenuity and resources. Particularly given the significance our culture tends to place on material possessions and selfishness, it may at first seem like these gestures of solidarity could prevent us from protecting “ourselves” against the same resource and land concerns. In other words, the most privileged of us might today believe that helping others could come at a personal expense during times of crisis.
But the only way we could use this logic is if we were the beneficiary of some hierarchy in the world, making us better off than those who will suffer the fastest and the most during the climate apocalypse — some system of domination which gave us more access to resources and more power than someone on the other side of that relationship. If everyone in society was equally empowered then we would be equally at risk and equally eager to combat global threats such as climate change.
Hierarchies which may benefit some of us materially including imperialism, capitalism, settler-colonialism, racism, sexism and many other forms of xenophobia, are highly unstable. They are essentially systems by which small groups of people consciously or unconsciously try to preserve the power they hold over others — but these groups are extremely amorphous and historically have included or rejected as many people as fit the interest of self-preservation of the most powerful group members.
As Earth becomes more and more tested by resource scarcity, more and more people will become excluded from the most powerful nation states, private properties and ethnic groups in order to strengthen an ever destabilizing control over dwindling amounts of goods and services. Opposing these, solidarity constitutes the redistribution of power to all people, the destruction of hierarchies of domination and unity within shared struggle.
It is at this height of scarcity when we will need to be the most generous, compassionate and critical about the power we may hold over others. Through solidarity and only solidarity, we can create an equal society capable of the cooperation we’ll need to overcome the 21st century climate apocalypse.