So You’re an Environmentalist, Then?
The Interdisciplinary Nature of the Climate Crisis
About a year ago, I was talking to someone I had just met and mentioned my interest in mitigating climate change.
"Oh!" they replied, "So you're like an environmentalist, then?"
I smiled back and tried to be polite, but found myself annoyed by what is an all too common misconception surrounding people passionate about keeping the earth's average global temperature in check.
I love the environment. I believe we should protect wildlife habitats, clean up rivers, abandon single-use plastic, and put our best foot forward in achieving a whole host of other objectives to help the natural world. However, climate change is not an environmental issue.
Climate change is an interdisciplinary issue, and perhaps the most multifaceted one we've dealt with in all of human history. It is a social issue, an economic issue, a political issue, a public health issue, a food security issue, a migration issue, an urban planning issue, an energy issue, and yes, also an environmental issue. It is an anthropogenic process that can be blamed on many things - laissez faire capitalism, political gridlock, poor urban design - and it is a crisis that not only threatens the plants and animals of Earth's wild habitats, but the farms, homes, and livelihoods occupied by countless humans across the globe. It is something that came from our unsustainable forms of agriculture, transportation, and construction. It is something that threatens the products of these very systems. And it is something that will not cease until we transform them. It is something that will have uneven effects based on race, gender, geography, and income-level. And it is something that will not stop through the will of environmentalists alone.
Framing climate change as something purely environmental is not only incorrect: it's dangerous. A part of this is due to the conventional interpretation or understanding of what the environment is, particularly in the West. Many people believe the environment to be synonymous with nature, a much stricter term that describes the wild landscape outside human settlement, or as Dictionary.com describes it, "the material world, especially as surrounding humankind and existing independently of human activities." This idea of nature being a separate entity partitioned from man, however, is in fact a well-documented social construction. As Frédéric Ducarme & Denis Couvet state in their paper "What does ‘nature’ mean?":
"One of the main present occidental meanings of 'nature', designating what is opposed to humans, currently used in public policies, conservation science, or environmental ethics, hence appears rare and recent, and contradictory with most other visions of nature, including former European representations and contemporary foreign ones."
When a fellow American calls you an environmentalist then, they're most likely painting you as someone who protests deforestation, sports Patagonia puff jackets, and laments the fate of marine life choking on plastic waste. Oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, the clearing of the Amazon rainforest, and the construction of warehouses on endangered species habitats are all disturbing consequences of human intervention in the natural world. What makes them environmental, however, in the eyes of most individuals at least, is the fact that the subject of concern is not human in nature. Overwhelmingly, these aggressions are framed as crises for wild ecosystems - the fish, the trees, the salamanders, etc. The things threatened live in nature, a place neatly apart from human settlement. For example, when people learn about an oil spill off the coast of their city, most are upset about the damage such a disaster has on the unique organisms occupying its marine ecosystems, and perhaps the quality of the water for recreation, but very few fear that such oil spills will affect their personal livelihoods. Based on the typical perception of what the environment is then, environmental disasters can be defined as disasters that literally take place outside of humanity - despite humans almost always being the sole perpetrators of the ecological balance in question. It is odd that we simultaneously recognize natural disasters as events that directly affect human settlements — such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes — while still defining nature as something uniquely separate from the civilized landscape. The semantics are perplexing, but the point still stands. Most people think of environmental issues as issues affecting a world outside their own: a world that should be preserved out of sentiment, but that we do not depend upon for existence. To call climate change an environmental issue, or to equate climate change activists to environmentalists then, is misleading.
In reality, climate change touches almost all aspects of human life in some way or another, and concerns virtually all academic disciplines. Its emergence is tied to the history of industrialization, Western imperialism, and innovations in energy production. Its continuation is bound by conservative opposition to progressive policies, digital disinformation, poorly zoned cities, industrial agriculture, weak international regulations, and the power of corporate hegemons. Its solutions are just as diverse, ranging from upgrades to our electricity grids and ending the sale of gas-powered vehicles, to prioritizing walkability in cities and seaweed. At its smallest scale, addressing climate change demands that we as individuals rethink our relationship with the environment, ponder the ethics of consumption, and incorporate sustainable habits into our daily life. At its largest scale, dealing with climate change is about dismantling failing systems, reimagining how society interacts with the natural world, and pushing for far-sweeping national legislation to invest in a sustainable future for generations to come.
If we do not take these steps, the consequences of climate change will continue to be just as prolific and far-reaching. Droughts, floods, and wildfires will continue to become more extreme, resulting in property destruction, food shortages, and mass migrations; entire neighborhoods of coastal cities will become uninhabitable; and infectious diseases will spread from their tropical homes in equatorial regions to threaten hundreds of millions of people. Most of these repercussions are already in their emergent phases, plainly visible to those who cast their attention to places such as the U.S.-Mexico border, where Central American farmers arrive out of desperation, the first in their ancestral line unable to cultivate their fields due to years of unpredictable precipitation patterns; or the sprawling forests of Northern California, decimated each year in blazes that spread farther, spark more frequently, and last longer than the years before. The chemical composition of the atmosphere that blankets our entire planet - all 196,900,000 square miles of it - is changing. It is absurd to think that the causes, consequences, and solutions for such a monumental development are singular in nature.
People must realize that their specializations, passions, and/or livelihoods are all likely related to climate change in some way. This may seem unfortunate considering the destructive implications of a warming Earth. However, this reality also means that every individual on this planet can be a part of addressing climate change in some form or another, whether or not that be through advancing new forms of renewable energy, using their marketing skills to spread information about forward-looking activism, or simply eating less red meat. Although distinctly different from one another in their size and scope, all of these solutions are valuable in the fight to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
This is why it is so important to start framing climate change as an interdisciplinary issue, and it is one of the main reasons why one year ago I created The Climate Change Review: to encourage people to see this challenge as something beyond solar panels and sea-level rise. The environment, as most of us understand it today, is undeniably threatened by climate change. But so are we, in every sense of the word.
So am I an environmentalist? Yes — I'd like to think so.
But please, don't pigeonhole me!