The Real Emergency in “Climate Emergency”: Consumption, Social Anomie, and Loss of Meaning

Concluding part of “The Politics of ‘Climate Emergency'” 

Viewed in totality, and over a long-term historical perspective, the one and only inescapable conclusion is that the United States remains, by far, the worst polluter in the world.  Some 400 billion tons of CO2 had been released into the atmosphere between 1751 and 2017, and the United States accounted for 25% of these emissions.  It is no longer the manufacturing Goliath of the world, just as its share of the world’s CO2 emissions has decreased to the point where another colossus, China, has now overtaken it to claim this dubious honor.  Nevertheless, it is unimpeachably true that the 340 million residents of the United States, constituting some 5% of the world’s population, consume a quarter of the world’s energy.  The average American consumes as much energy as 13 Chinese, or 31 Indians, or 128 Bangladeshis.  The levels of consumption in the United States are, in a word, obscene; and to the extent that the ‘American Dream’ has become everyone’s dream, the obscenity of consumption is the regnant pornography of our times.  The rest of the world has for decades watched America consume.  There is a voyeurism of consumption, too; and Indians, Chinese, Nigerians, Egyptians, Indonesians and others want nothing more than to consume much like the Americans—and their country cousins, the allegedly benign Canadians and the allegedly easy-going Australians who have their own sordid, or rather I should say, malignant history of exterminating and cordoning off ‘undesirables’. Those who have been left out of this grand narrative want not only cars, refrigerators, and flat-screen TVs, but meat on the table, the chimera of choice, the luxury of luxury goods.

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The predominant account of climate change still treats it as a subject that is properly the domain of scientists and environmentalists.  However, as Christine Shearer puts it, in her short book on Kivalina, a small village of 400 people in Alaska at the outskirts of ‘civilization’ that is now on the brink of extinction, “although climate change is often discussed as an environmental problem, its root causes are social.”  Shearer’s account is far-reaching in its understanding of some of the problems that underlie the catastrophe of global warming, extending beyond the more familiar accounts that we have of the unmitigated greed of fossil fuel companies and the complicity of many politicians with vested business interests.  She describes the arrogance of contractors and experts who claim to know more about the “cold and remote Arctic than longtime residents”, and the supposition that local and traditional knowledges are inferior to modern “scientific research”.  Moreover, as I have already argued, it is rather more difficult to put a “human face” on the story of global warming since, unlike the catastrophes induced (say) by bombing from the air, the effects of global warming are generally experienced over a period of time.  The point is made rather more forcefully by Robert Jay Lifton, who has spent a lifetime devoted to the study of nuclear annihilation and forms of genocide such as the Holocaust.  “A problem for climate researchers”, he writes in his 2017 book The Climate SwerveReflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival (2017), “that makes their mental struggle different from that of their nuclear counterparts is that images representing global warming catastrophe can never match those of nuclear threat.”  The very fact that his study is essentially informed by a comparison of the “nuclear and climate threats” suggests the extent to which he recognizes that the problem of climate change is to our age what the threat of nuclear annihilation was to those who lived during the heyday of the Cold War.


The village of Kivalina, Alaska.  Photo source:

To return, however, to the question of consumption, it is worth asking whether it is merely a coincidence that the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Western world, have awoken to what is now being described as a “climate emergency” at precisely the time that countries of the Global South, and in particular China, have lifted many of their people into the middle class? China and India alone account for 34% of the global emissions, also proportionate (taken together) to their share of the world population.  The per capita CO2 emissions of an Indian, at 1.84 tons, is still a fraction of the per capita CO2 emissions of an American which stands at 16.24 tons.  We may anticipate that the per capita emissions in both China and India, as well as in all the countries of the Global South, will in the ordinary course of affairs continue to grow—and perhaps exponentially, if the ambitious plans in nearly every country to diminish poverty and bring people into the middle class, which is nothing but a consuming class, whatever its historical role in the countries of Western Europe in effecting a fundamental social transformation in the 19th century, come to fruition.

When an emergency is declared, some constituency is asked to bear the price.  There is every reason to suspect that, in keeping with the traditions of the last 500 years when the age of European expansion and the plundering of the world commenced, it is the countries of the Global South that will be burdened with the task of alleviating the “climate emergency”. Every sane person is bound to admit that climate change is an issue of planetary proportions and this is as decisive a time as ever to repudiate a nationalist outlook. Unfortunately, the history of racism, privilege, greed, and self-aggrandizement in the West, to which we may now add the art of killing by kindness, overwhelming the world with philanthropy, and the chicanery which has led to new forms of intervention dressed up as “responsibility to protect” and “the international community”, all suggest that colonialism will be given a new shelf life. We cannot doubt that there is a science to climate change, but a resort to scientific explanations and solutions without a due consideration of social, cultural, and political histories is another form of moral jaundice and blackmail.

Deep ecologists have called for the end of industrial civilization and some have made common cause with ecofeminists, advocates of chaos theory, anarchic tribalists, and neotribalists.  Some of that terrain is usefully covered in Michael E. Zimmerman’s Contesting Earth’s FutureRadical Ecology and Postmodernity, though in the twenty-five years that have elapsed since the publication of the book we have arrived at a richer understanding of climate change and the precipitous descent of humankind into oblivion if the problem of climate change is not addressed forcefully and expeditiously.  But these discussions should not obscure, I have tried to suggest, the politics of emergency behind “climate emergency”.   Climate change cannot be tackled until the affluent nations of the Global North renounce, or are compelled to disown, their privileges and their own lifestyles.  That much is clear; what are less evident, however, are all the signs of loneliness and social anomie that in turn inform the cultures of consumption and acquisition.  Those who are in the Global South at least should be mindful of the fact that the West has a noxious history of rendering science into the handmaiden of a self-serving politics.  There is more than one kind of emergency behind “climate emergency”.

See also Part II, “Global Warming and co2 emissions–in the Here and Now, and in the past”, here.

Part I, “‘Climate Emergency’:  OED’s Word of the Year, 2019”, here.


3 thoughts on “The Real Emergency in “Climate Emergency”: Consumption, Social Anomie, and Loss of Meaning

  1. This three part series is full of truths about climate change, consumption, and the politics of the term “climate emergency” that many people in the Global North are reluctant to acknowledge. Even self described socialists in the Global North haven’t recognized the historical role of Western imperialism in generating this issue and, with plans such as the Green New Deal, would continue to plunder the Global South as wars for oil turn into wars for lithium, as seen by the recent coup in Bolivia against Evo Morales. They might benefit from reading Lenin on imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism and the development of the labor aristocracy but I doubt their conception of “socialism” is in line with the long history of the concept. When confronted with such an unfavorable situation, I wonder if there is really any hope of averting ecological catastrophe at this point. One approach for Americans and others living in settler colonial states could be, as you suggest, listening to the indigenous inhabitants of this land and learning from their knowledge but unfortunately centuries of genocide and cultural erasure have made the prospects for that type of interaction remote.


  2. The impacts the Western World has had on climate change reminds me of the argument you have made in lecture before that at who’s expense is victory bought? Well this time that “who” is the Earth and the Global South. Though I know how true the destruction caused during climate change is, it is always hard for me to fathom to what extent the destruction is because the current condition of Earth and society is all I have known. However, when you mentioned Lifton’s comparison between ‘nuclear and climate threats’, that really put into perspective how destructive and threatening climate change truly is. Yet, your last comment about the Global North having to give up their comfortable and privileged lifestyles worries me that we will never be able to recover. If we saw how selfish some people’s morals proved to be during a global pandemic when people’s lives were directly at stake, it’s now even harder to believe that people’s morals could improve quickly enough to help our planet.


  3. It is very interesting that you discussed climate change as a social issue rather than an environmental one. This is the aspect of climate change and global warming that makes it so difficult to control. People want the environment to be healthy, they want to visit amazing forests, beautiful oceans, clean National parks and most are willing to walk around and collect trash because they believe they are doing a good deed. However, in order to reverse climate change there needs to be social changes that would involve: limiting what foods people can eat, limiting travel, limiting access to resources and living off of what is absolutely necessary, etc. Most Americans are not willing to give up what they work hard for and what they see as their right which is why the would fight back against these social changes. No one wants to make their life more difficult by having to bike to work rather than drive. There is also the aspect of believing that everyone needs to do it before I do. This can be seen on a smaller level like reducing the amount of beef that one consumes is unlikely because they understand that this is a sacrifice they are making while everyone else will continue to enjoy beef. It can also be observed on a larger scale like the Paris Agreement which is an international treaty that restrains the emission of greenhouses gases. Many countries were unsure about their choice in this treaty because they were worried that they would be putting themselves at an economic disadvantage, the United States was one of these countries.


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