Our understanding of the relationship between humans and the non-human world is frustrated by exclusive focus on fossil fuels as the main form of pollution. Corporate media and government at the national and global level often implicitly or explicitly represent climate change as the only current dangerous environmental phenomenon, or at least the only one deserving attention. In reality, the isolation of society’s problematic relationship to the non-human world into a single issue or technology is reductive and prevents a systemic understanding of what a sustainable global society could look like.
The United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) defines climate as “the long-term pattern of weather in a particular area,” possibly as large as the entire globe. While all human labor technically will rearrange natural resources and therefore in some way change the climate, anthropomorphic climate change most often specifically refers to the warming trend visible in average global temperatures in the previous century, caused by increased atmospheric carbon emissions which amplify the greenhouse effect.
Climate change is indeed one of the greatest threats to human life, and its cause is rightly identified as fossil fuel consumption. However, framing climate change as an isolated issue, which isn’t necessarily related to other environmental problems, suggests it could be solved in isolation. Many ecological catastrophes which don’t depend on climate change or fossil fuels illustrate this idea’s flaws.
Environmentally consequential deforestation has been occurring millennia before major anthropomorphic climate change. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 10 million hectares of forest are lost each year globally. This amount may seem insignificant, as it is well below 1% annually. Yet much of the loss is of “primary forest,” which represent the most undisturbed, unpolluted and ecologically significant forest coverage on Earth. Further, much primary deforestation occurs among tropical rainforests, which produce and store much of the world’s organic carbon. The Amazon rainforest, which produces a significant amount of the world’s oxygen, is at great risk of becoming a desert for this reason.
Much of the world’s deforestation occurs with the primary cause of expanding access to arable land for agriculture. Because this is an example of unsustainable and destructive agriculture, it is strongly related to the phenomenon of topsoil erosion. Topsoil describes the layer of soil closest to the Earth’s surface, and it’s essential for agriculture, producing 95% of our global food supply. This layer is usually kept rich with great nutrients from thousands of years of carbon-based life cycles right above it distributing important vitamins and minerals, but deforestation ruptures this feedback.
Agriculture often changes the composition of soil. Sometimes when practices such as crop rotation, permaculture and agroecology are employed, the topsoil can be largely preserved, or sustained over very long time periods. These practices converge around applying an understanding of natural biodiversity to the goals of sustaining human caloric intake. But under modern industrial agriculture undertaken for the production of commodified food, the ecology of the land is not and often cannot be taken into consideration due to the imperative of profit.
Monocropping is an extremely common industrial agricultural practice by which a single crop is grown throughout an entire farm – depleting the soil – because this crop sells for more. Today, farmers decide which crops to grow, not through balancing the needs of local human populations with farmland ecology, but according to profit. For this reason, and the over-exploitation of agricultural resources in disproportion to human need, topsoil is being lost globally at rates 10 to 40 times faster than it is generated. In combination with other factors, Earth has lost upwards of 40% of arable land since the mid-20th century. At a time when one billion people experience regular hunger, this is a particularly great threat to human society.
In addition to deforestation and land agriculture, global animal populations are being decimated. Overfishing has been a concern since 1989, after which point global fishing yields have either declined or stagnated each year. While these populations are certainly also being hurt by pollution from fossil fuel products including plastics, oil spills and by instabilities caused by global warming, the overwhelming cause of declining fish biodiversity is overfishing; we’re killing fish at rates faster than their populations are capable of regenerating.
As a result of deforestation, animal agriculture, development, environmental pollution and overhunting, a World Wildlife report from 2020 claims that in the past 50 years, humans have killed over two-thirds of the world’s animal populations. Similarly, a 2021 United Nations report found that over one million species are at risk of extinction in the next few years, and the rate of species extinction is at a record high and accelerating each year.
Environmental scientists have repeatedly found that this rate of species extinction is beginning the Earth’s sixth mass-extinction. In previous mass-extinction events, all of which happened millions of years before humanity existed, around three-quarters of species went extinct as the global ecosystem was dramatically reconfigured. At current rates, the sixth mass extinction will probably kill many of our staple crops, almost all of our animal protein sources and decrease oxygen or increase carbon levels in our atmosphere to unbreathable levels. In other words, the overwhelming majority of humans will die.
Readers will note that climate change and pollution caused by fossil fuels also contribute to the issues I discuss above. Further, it is true that fossil fuels allow for a rate and degree of exploitation of the natural world far higher than humanity would be able to achieve without them. Fossil fuels have driven almost all technological innovation since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 16th century, and are thus deeply related to every modern environmental crisis.
But there is no reason for most harmful ecological practices to stop simply because Earth has transitioned away from fossil fuels, or because we have stabilized atmospheric temperature. In order for the above practices to be discontinued and the non-human earth allowed to replenish, we would need to change the entire basis of industrial practices. In reality, human industry is extracting greater amounts of materials from the earth every year, and this can’t be solved through the use of different fuels or the stabilization of our climate.
Our ecosystem is being destroyed because a global, industrial and imperial capitalism decides how Earth’s resources are utilized, and the goal of this system is the complete commodification of every being, plant and rock in sight. Globally, we already produce far above and beyond the necessary amount of food to feed earth’s population, and yet we continue depleting global topsoil reserves. In the United States, the richest country in human history, there are magnitudes more empty homes than unhoused people, and yet every city is oriented towards encouraging “development” and the construction of new housing.
Humanity’s existing technology and resources are enough to provide for everyone, yet we continue extracting more. This is because capitalism depends on the exchange of commodities which require raw materials to produce, sell and purchase. Even when it is unsustainable and unnecessary we pursue construction and destruction if it creates profits for capitalists. This system is designed for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, and the accumulation of wealth at the expense of species and planetary longevity.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Indigenous people around the world have cohabitated with Earth’s ecosystem for hundreds of thousands of years. Colonialism and capitalism continue to destroy the environment because they radically disrupt the premise that we are all equally entitled to, and responsible for, our planet. Saving the planet is a matter of dismantling these systems and forging new relationships of solidarity, equality and respect.
Climate change is a horrible threat, alongside the sixth mass extinction and others which may not fit within neat blueprints, or single policy solutions. Regarding every crisis in human-earth relations, the situation is the same: Earth has been reconfigured according to theft and anarchic market logic with no respect for indigenous stewardship or ecology. Creating sustainability requires creating justice in general, and this requires not viewing climate change or fossil fuels in isolation, but identifying and undermining the social relationships which produce them.