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Common Dreams - September 15, 2021

Too often climate change is reduced to quantification of greenhouse glasses or melting ice caps. These indicators of climate change are important to verify the existence of the problem, but they are less constructive in helping us understand where the problem of climate change comes from. Understanding the source of climate change means moving beyond the source of GHGs and looking into the power relations that drive capitalist growth.

We know climate change because we have a science to understand it. Many people are familiar with the standard natural science narratives, narratives that are divorced from society. Fewer people are familiar with the social science explanations of climate change, even fewer still incorporate notions of power into the explanation. The first step to understanding climate change is understanding how power operates in the history of capitalist civilization.

Most climate change scholarship treats society as a black box or explains the problem as one of homogenous humanity. Take for example the idea of the Anthropocene where humanity is treated as something of a plague, entirely disconnected from nature. In this line of thought, humanity itself is the problem. But this line of thinking ignores histories of power dynamics within humanity and between humanity and nature. It fails to acknowledge the contributions of the liberal arts to understanding power.

The Anthropocene line of thought suffers from a capitalist ideology that reduces relations of power and production to simplistic human activities. The construction of humanity as distinct from nature allows such an idea as the Anthropocene to proliferate. In this understanding of the world, people are not animals nor are they part of ecological systems. Instead, a small part of humanity represented by European colonizers transmogrifies into the quintessential representation of humanity (as the culmination of evolutionary processes), dominating over nature as God on earth while those who have been colonized are ejected from historical consideration along with their decidedly not Anthropocene knowledge and management of nature.

William Cronon documents the changing relationship of European colonizers to nature in the historical expansion of what is today the United States. Cronon illustrates the ideological transformations that situated white men as a stand-in for God, dominating over nature and able to control nature through science, itself a socially constructed norm for objectivity. The historical separation of a small segment of humanity from nature while simultaneously relegating that vast majority of humanity in an in-between state—neither sufficiently human nor sufficiently nature—means that today that more-or-less small segment of humanity controls the science and therefore how we conceptualize the problem of climate change. This conceptualization constructs humanity as the problem. 

But humanity is not an undifferentiated whole. Only a small part of humanity, associated with Euro-colonizers, managed to colonize the world and dominate over an abstract nature that included the vast majority of its peoples. The reduction of most of the world's populations into non-humanity or nature began with the debates at Valladolid in the 16th century. It was during these debates that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were first identified as "savage" and in need of civilizing through Christianization. Said Christianization was used as a justification of land dispossession and occupation. Taking control of the land and enslaving (or virtually enslaving) the working classes served the purpose of extracting untold amounts of wealth for the colonizers. Revisiting old sites of natural resource extraction as technological innovations capitalize on new resources such as lithium is a recurrent process that propels the capitalist world economy. The solution cannot lie exclusively in so-called sustainable technological innovation. ...
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