How White Supremacy And Climate Change Are Inseparably Linked
Recent events underline the cataclysmic physical threats posed by the most dangerous mass ideology of our times.
Lately, we’ve all gotten a crash course in the dangers of white supremacy. The terrorist siege on the U.S. Capitol and the institutionalized enabling of insurrection to overturn a free and fair election reflects America’s long history with racism.
It feels like those dark forces are scarier than ever. It might feel like the collective craziness needed to storm the Capitol and fly the Confederate flag in the seat of our government is a new fad or confined to America.
White supremacy is a clear and present danger to America’s democracy. But it’s not new, and it’s not uniquely American.
Beyond the urgent need to safeguard our democracy, there remains another, even bigger reason to dismantle white supremacy: it is the biggest threat to the planet.
How White Supremacy And Climate Change Are Linked
I say this because white supremacy has fueled the ongoing destruction of nature that underlies humanity’s most existential threat: climate change. White supremacy is bad for many reasons, but it is dangerous because the notion of supremacy is what propels certain people to fight and dominate both nature and other human beings.
How exactly are climate change and white supremacy intertwined? The best synopsis I’ve seen comes from a piece published by the Sierra Club in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. This simple deduction summarizes what I’m about to detail in a couple of dozen eloquent words.
You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.
The same ideology that deludes certain kinds of people to believe they are inherently superior to other kinds of people deludes them to believe nature is merely disposable property to be tamed. The same ideology that deludes those people into believing life is a zero-sum, dog-eat-dog fight for eternal glory also deludes them into believing nature is merely another battleground of that fight and thus worthy of exploitation and extraction. The same ideology that instills inequality at the core of society convinces people that a noble endeavor in life is to accumulate more things than others. These possessions — and the reckless pursuit of them — cast spells that turn the possessors into the possessed. It convinces people the ultimate expression of their humanity depends on depriving other humans of their humanity.
These people are possessed by a misguided understanding of life and the world. They see their lives as groveling quests for extrinsic markers of their false superiority over others. They believe standing high entails pushing others down. They will leave no stone unturned and no fire unburnt in their quest to treat life like a cold game of Monopoly.
These people treat the world as their sacrifice zone and see everyone and everything in their way as disposable obstacles to overcome. Racism depends on a belief in both sides of that ugly coin.
Capitalism Turned Sacrifice And Disposability Into The Instruments Of Eternal Growth
Racists have made life worse for many for millennia. But for much of human history, they lacked the tools — mental and physical — to leverage their beliefs into an instrument of planetary destruction.
A few hundred years ago, they gained the intellectual kindling for that destruction from the Scientific Revolution. So-called Enlightenment thinkers like Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon argued humans were separate from (i.e. above) nature. They and others borrowed the language of religion to justify the rights and obligations of some humans to conquer and dominate other humans and nature itself. Colonialism was the first mass manifestation of an ideology borne from the belief in humans as divine beings.
The word ‘dominate’ comes from the Latin word dominus, which means ‘lord’ or ‘master.’ Dominus shares its first letter with the Latin word deus, which means ‘god.’ So when anyone invokes the language of domination, it’s not a stretch to deduce they want to rule like a lord and wield the power of a supernatural god.
As Bacon himself said, “Let the human race recover the right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest.” A belief in your god-given right to dominate will corrupt your soul absolutely.
Intertwined with the idea of domination is the concept of sacrifice, which is quite old in the context of human civilization. So is the concept of disposability. But the ability to leverage those ideas into cudgels of destruction lies largely in a hypnotic desire to grow at all costs and push others down to keep a few standing. As thinkers like Descartes and Bacon furthered the idea of human supremacy, a new economic doctrine called capitalism venerated economic growth as the chief end of a good society. Capitalism gave racism the fuel it needed to soak the planet in pollution and quite possibly render it uninhabitable for all of us.
Capitalism also armed racists who believed some humans had supremacy over others with the physical tools to dehumanize those others and create larger and larger sacrifice zones. Weapons of destruction — some ‘mass’-ive, some less so — encoded racism and enabled its chief adherents (white supremacists) to magnify the means by which they have robbed the planet: extraction, exploitation, colonization, oppression, sacrifice, and disposability, among others.
In the pursuit of endless growth, it is capitalism that has turned white supremacy into an instrument of planetary destruction. It is capitalism that has turned the most dangerous ideology of our times into an analogue of the only biological entity whose chief goal is relentless expansion and growth:
Many of these dark desires lurk deep within all of us. We evolved in a harsh environment where our goal was to survive and reproduce. That impulse provides the embers for ideologies like white supremacy to burn far and wide.
But that impulse does not define us as a species. As Yuval Noah Harari detailed in his book Sapiens, what defines Homo sapiens is primarily two things: our ability to believe in fiction and our ability to cooperate. It’s that latter superpower that took us from the African savanna to global ubiquity. Cooperation is how we became one of the most biologically successful species in the billions-year-old history of life itself.
If we want to beat the odds and continue to thrive, we will need to cooperate with each other and with the planet. We must live in harmony with ourselves, each other, and the planet. We must see ourselves as tenants and servants of the Earth, not as landlords and owners of it.
We must repudiate the disease of more, the war against nature, and the war against each other, all of which repeatedly tear us apart. These afflictions chain us to a lifestyle fixated on conspicuous consumption, status-seeking, wealth accumulation, divisive fear-mongering, and moral emptiness. These afflictions are the manifestations of white supremacy and its ugly twin, capitalism.
Just as we have the capacity to be “the destroyer of worlds” in the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, we also have the capacity to be stewards and guardians of it. Only we can pillage and decimate the Earth but also save and protect it. We must seize the opportunity to reject the mantra of competition and adopt a mantra of coexistence. Competition breeds war, not coexistence. Our war against nature reflects our insidious belief that as exalted beings, some of us have free rein to pillage and plunder the planet. We feel entitled to compete with nature, to poke and prod it, to experiment with it.
When we center our society on coexistence and harmony rather than competition and growth, we will repudiate the afflictions of our disharmonious world. We will embody the raison d’etre of human existence: cooperation. By seeing each other as equal and seeing ourselves as a part of nature rather than apart from it, we will vanquish the dark forces that imperil our future.
As Carl Sagan once said, we must remember our “responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve, and cherish, the pale blue dot; the only home we’ve ever known.”