On Sunday, June 25, I awoke to the smell of a smoldering campfire, a scent most people associate with our earliest, often happiest, experiences out in the natural world. Upon going outside, I found the entire city of Montreal was blanketed by a smoky haze and realized that the wildfires raging throughout the northeast, producing public health warnings across borders, had come home to roost.
Summer wildfires had already become a fact of life in the west in recent years, even reducing the town of Paradise, California to rubble in late 2018, its population losing everything. While some coverage has begun to improve, most major news outlets have given this new summer reality the usual breathless disaster treatment, often avoiding the root cause of these catastrophes as they have so many others from massive floods to dangerous heat waves, treating them as acts of God rather than a human-produced climate emergency.
In the wake of these unnatural disasters we are often told it’s “too soon” to discuss how industrialized, carbon-fueled society is fracturing the natural world.
It’s time to treat this desperate problem with serious corrective measures.
One of the most striking things about this emergency is the ability of those most responsible for it to deflect attention away from themselves. This usually comes in the form of friendly corporate news outlets and rightwing think tanks using their platforms to deny the problem exists at all. They often insist that “once a century” disasters occurring at an accelerating pace are the result of natural processes.
Fossil fuel companies like Exxon were aware of the coming problem in the 1970s but have spent the decades since funding climate denialism while at the same time engaging in greenwashing campaigns portraying themselves as stewards of the natural world rather than destroyers of it. Most of them reported record profits last year.
The more paranoid on the far right insist, just as they did during the crisis provoked by Covid 19, that climate change is a cynical ‘hoax’ to take away the freedoms enjoyed by citizens of richer countries. Even anodyne ideas that would at the very least make the lives of poorer people living in food deserts better, like ‘15 minute’ cities, are presented by these voices as an attack on… liberty.
Taking selfishness to an extreme and calling it individualism allows those on the political right to ignore issues that require collective action, at least until they are impacted by them and arrive hat in hand to demand bailouts from everyone else.
For the clear majority of people who still believe in science, individual actions like eating less (or no) meat, avoiding air travel and using public transit or electric vehicles are good in and of themselves but simply not enough to confront a problem of global scale. The idea that altering our consumer behavior without widespread political activism will be enough to address the problem is clearly (and intentionally) delusional. Beginning in the 1980s, Big Oil began to support rightwing politicians who were overtly anti-science, starting with Ronald Reagan.
There is also the widely held belief that some kind of technological fix is just around the corner, that an individual genius will come along to save us all. What is not asked for or expected is for all of us, especially the wealthy and the corporations that are still driving future generations into an abyss, to make the sacrifices needed to address this existential issue. Barring this, as we might expect, those least responsible for this crisis, especially in the global south, are likely to pay the highest price in the years ahead.
Ironically, each of us, as individuals, can make a difference, but in the end only enough to matter if we do so in concert with massive numbers of other individuals.
Derek Royden is a Canadian journalist.