Thursday, 15 August 2019

Does being a consumer make you inherently violent?

 Alice Macaskie explores the violence of climate change in this week's guest blog:

Does being a consumer make you inherently violent?

Before his death in March this year, Professor Steven Hawking said that humans have just 100 years to populate a new planet if they are to survive. He explains that if we continue to “confine” ourselves to Earth, then we risk annihilation. Nuclear war, artificial intelligence gone rogue, and climate change are cited as some of the major culprits for this bold statement. What each has in common is that they are linked to the actions of human beings. Despite the latter being harder to quantify or prove, does being a consumer – with an insatiable addiction to fossil fuels – by default make you the perpetrator of violence against those living in countries affected by increasing levels of drought, famine and turbulent weather patterns?

Violence can take many forms: psychological, structural, sexual, cultural, symbolic and negative. It is inherently hard to define and measure. Looking at the Continuum of Violence, is it possible to say that one form – such as self-harming, suicide, civil war or genocide – is any better, worse or more evil than another? Arguably the definition and force of violence depends at least in part on how it is understood. David Riches’ view of violence as a triangular relationship between a perpetrator, victim, and witness begins to break down the idea of a concrete and localised violent interaction. Tied in with Neil Whitehead’s view of violence as a cultural performance globalised through the world’s media, it becomes apparent how we in the Global North may take on the part of witness or observer. This post takes the idea a step further, arguing that as a consumer in a capitalist society, knowingly adding fuel to the climate change furnace, you embody each role of witness, victim, and importantly, perpetrator.

Structural violence is a term coined in 1969 by Johan Galtung, meaning the non-negotiated loss of choice, or “anything avoidable that impedes human self-realisation”. This matters because it is important to understand whether we can talk about violence when nobody is committing it directly, from one person to another. Galtung’s definition shows us that violence is “built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances.” It is a form of social injustice. A recent report by the UN News clearly puts this into context. UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, highlights that in order to achieve peace and sustainable development in the Sahel region in Africa, it is necessary to tackle the root causes of “discrimination, human rights violations, weak governance, conflict, and the impact of climate change”.

Spanning northern sub-Saharan Africa, the Sahel region is one of the most vulnerable areas to climate change in the world. Consisting of 10 countries, this ecoclimatic zone has seen a massive 4.9 million people displaced this year, with a further 24 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Rapid growth population is “estimated at 2.8% per year” in an environment of shrinking natural resources, reports the UN News. The impact of climate change has been highlighted by the President of the UN’s Economic and Social Council, Inga Rhonda King, as a significant and compounding factor to the issues in the Sahel region. A key question for political theorists is, should anthropogenic climate change – and those knowingly fuelling it – be redefined as a violation of human rights? A crime against all of humanity and our biodiverse planet?

Climate change has become highly politicised. Despite President Trump’s initial forthright views on global warming as a hoax, he has since regressed his position slightly: “I think there’s probably a difference, but I don’t know that it’s man-made.” Since being in office, he has dropped climate change from his National Security Strategy’s list of global threats, made numerous anti-environmental policy changes, and withdrawn the United States from the 2015 Paris Agreement. Conversely, scientists argue that there is “no convincing alternative explanation” that anything other than human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels and destruction of forests, is to blame.

Call it what it is, argues Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian, “Climate change is violence”. We can see its impacts around the globe: desertification, droughts, floods, crop failure and consequent famine, acidification of our oceans, the decline of many species and increasingly extreme weather patterns. We are now seeing the emergence of disaster relief charities like Team Rubicon – an organisation that uses the skills and knowledge of ex-military veterans – to “create order in the wake of destruction”. Devastating local- and global-scale natural weather events like hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis are having to be responded to and planned for in the same way as civil or nuclear warfare.

“Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings”, continues Solnit. As a result of globalisation, we are the first generation to fully comprehend the negative impact that our action (or in-action) is having on the planet. If humans are knowingly using fossil fuels – for transportation, electricity, plastics, and even computers – is it too far fetched to call our avoidable use of natural resources a form of violence? As Galtung highlights, “The objective consequences, not the subjective intentions are the primary concern” of structural violence. In October, The UN’s Climate Change Panel (IPCC) published a report warning that the human race has just over a decade to curb our climate emissions, otherwise just under half a billion more people will suffer. But, despite all the stark warnings, there are glimmers of hope. The BBC News notes how “miniature suns” or nuclear fusion reactors could bring a commercial solution to the fore in the next five years. Will Steven Hawking’s prediction prove right, or can the human race pull itself and the planet back from the brink of destruction?

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