Neoliberal policies celebrate competitiveness and hyper-individualism, persuading us that prosperity is only possible through a free market. Neoliberalism blames the individual consumer for the production of carbon emissions, choosing to ignore the socioeconomic factors that propagate climate inequality in minority groups. This has resulted in environmental degradation and wealth inequality, preventing any possibility of collective action.
Scrolling through Instagram, past acquaintances whose pictures I feel obliged to double tap on, I pause on a specific post. It’s from Greenpeace, a picture of protestors in New York proudly holding a banner that reads, “Less Meat = Less Heat”. Swiping through Instagram stories, I see a barrage of posts from climate change advocacy accounts, all mimicking each other: save electricity, use less water, become vegetarian, drive less, install solar panels. A study by Paul A. Murtaugh and Michael G. Schlax states that, “Under current conditions in the United States… each child adds about 9441 metric tons of carbon dioxide”. The solution? Just don’t have children. The message is clear: climate catastrophe lies within our grasp and it is the duty of the individual to make a difference.
These pervasive appeals for the individual to take accountability are perpetuated by sponsored advertisements, classroom textbooks, and environmental campaigns. But these efforts have been tainted by a culture steeped in excessive individualism and consumerism.
Neoliberalism is frequently applied to economic policies with laissez-faire attitudes towards regulation, such as Reaganomics. But this term is often haphazardly thrown around in conversations as a buzzword, an anonymous ideology so pervasive in our society that it has become synonymous with our economy. Michele J. Eliason defines neoliberalism in his discourse as a form of capitalism with political and economic policies associated with an open economy. Neoliberalism reduces people to consumers, stripping us down to nothing but empty bodies that exercise democratic choices by purchasing and selling.
According to neoliberals, a free market is the foundation for human flourishing, and government interference leads to nothing but wasted productivity and economic stagnation. They propose shrinking the government to protect private property through deregulation, law enforcement, facilitated global commerce, and the maintenance of a strong military. In addition, the adherents of neoliberalism call for tax cuts on the wealthy and argue that the individual is responsible for their own socioeconomic status. Those that succeed are generators of wealth, which will then trickle down to the bottom of society. Ultimately, the neoliberal theory claims that everyone gets what they deserve while decisively ignoring socioeconomic factors that propagate systemic poverty and climate inequality.
At its core, this insidious ideology depends on inequality. Neoliberal policies exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities rather than mitigate them. The idea that an individual is solely responsible for their life inadvertently blames marginalized communities for their own problems, rather than acknowledging structural forms of oppression. This has led to the slow collapse of social services, devastated ecosystems, enabled the rise of Donald Trump, and manufactured the Age of Loneliness. Unregulated capitalism and the reduction of government social support networks leave disadvantaged populations vulnerable to suffer the most at the hands of global warming. In a society addicted to corporate-sponsored competition, those that cannot keep up are left to fend for themselves, chastised for not working hard enough, and convinced that this systemic inequality is the result of personal deficiencies.
In America, black communities are disproportionately located in areas most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. After Hurricane Katrina violently struck New Orleans, it became clear that the racially-biased distribution of government funding led to unequal levee protection for black neighborhoods. In addition, black people made up more than half of total fatalities and over 80% of black homes owned were lost as a result of climate inequality.
However, it isn’t only in America that neoliberalism perpetuates climate inequality. Marginalized and vulnerable populations benefit the least from economic boosts and suffer the most at the hands of corporate-sponsored climate change. The World Economic Forum (WEF) reports that high-income countries have a material footprint consumption thirteen times that of low-income countries, indicating that developing countries disproportionately bear the consequences of corporations exploiting natural resources. This can be seen in Latin America, which is considered the world’s most unequal region, where issues regarding indigenous land, the rights of rural landowners, and the invasion of corporations have culminated in struggles for racial and environmental justice.
Yet we respond to these crises as though they are isolated consequences of our own making, refusing to critique the very ideology that exacerbates these calamities. Since 1988, one-hundred companies alone are solely responsible for 71% of total global emissions. We are instructed by corporations to internalize and blame ourselves for global warming, as they force idyllic neoliberal promises down our throats. Meanwhile, massive corporations like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron continue to push the Earth to the brink of a climate catastrophe in their pursuit of fossil fuels. Reducing government regulation over corporations allows industries to rapidly devour natural resources until they’re gone and then move on, draining resources elsewhere — an ugly cycle of constant consumption.
The right time to confront climate change was decades ago, but neoliberalism has continued to block political and legislative action, turning science into a political debate. Climate change demands unprecedented public cooperation and coordination. To lower emissions, we must return privatized utilities to public control, regulate companies to phase out fossil fuels, implement a carbon tax, allocate more money to increase community resistance to climate change, and emphasize renewable energy. This will allow everyone to participate in reducing emissions— not only the wealthy. It is still important for individuals to take action to reduce their carbon footprint, but individual choices will be the most impactful when the economic system can enable environmental options for everyone. As Patrisse Cullors and Nyeusi Nguvu state, “As long as black and poor people are seen as disposable bodies, not worthy of the care afforded to other citizens, then we will be there... loud and clear: climate change is a racist crisis.”