The Crisis of Our Times: Climate, Capitalism, or Western Civilization?

By Nuri Yi.

Young People and an Existential Crisis 

We live in uncertain times. Perhaps even more so in this particular moment, but maybe life always gives us much to wonder about:

What is the meaning and purpose of our shared existence on this planet?
What can we expect from life, and how are we meant to live?
What do we deserve?

Questions like these, I think, are ever-present in the background of people’s minds, especially for young people. We’re given a few shorthand answers, varying based on the society in which we’re raised. They may sometimes not be fully satisfying. But we do have to work towards finding answers to these questions throughout our lives, and to live in accordance with the principles we find, or else resign ourselves to an unconscious and amoral existence instead of living as full human beings.

I’ve been involved in student activism and politics for most of my time in college, not because I was exceptionally interested in politics in general or activism for its own sake, but because I had questions, needed answers, and I needed life to mean something beyond just myself. I wanted to exist in a fairer world, and I realized that if my wistful desires were sincere, I had to also do something about it. This was how I found the Black Radical Tradition — through reading Grace Lee Boggs, Huey P. Newton, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. — and how I’ve come to more deeply understand and value love and sacrifice for humanity, which has forced me to question the deeper objectives, motivations, and implications of the climate movement.

For young people in the West, climate change has been presented to us as the most obviously global, universal, and urgent problem — and thus the answer to our life questions — such that many even feel that it should become a simple existential fact rather than a political problem. No matter our many other differences, we all live on the planet, and depend on its geophysical conditions remaining livable — and so if there is any issue that could bring us all together in divisive times, perhaps it would be this one. Today, in response to this yearning by young people searching for something bigger than themselves, there are also plenty of avenues and models presented to us to pursue climate activism as the answer to these existential questions. Whether it be the Sunrise Movement, 350.org, or Extinction Rebellion, there are now hundreds of nonprofits, political groups, and community organizations across the country dedicated to stopping climate change and, in their own words, building a more equitable future. 

But regardless of the desire to ‘transcend’ politics or ideology, everything is ideological — simply because everything has implications and interpretations that fit into the framework with which a person views the world. Ideas matter immensely to us as human beings. The mere facts of existence move us only to the extent of subsistence or inertia, but the potential and the possibilities of an idea are more powerful: they move us to imagine beyond the status quo, and to create a new reality with intent and purpose. What makes us human is this ability to imagine and to create and to move history, instead of merely being moved by the uncontrollable tides of life.

The climate crisis can be defined as a crisis, in that many scientists agree that without urgent action immediately and in the coming years, global climatic conditions will shift to make this planet drastically less livable. This much is more or less reasonably accepted as scientific fact. However, the different ideas of what we ought to do about it and why are so diverse and contradictory that they don’t add up to a coherent movement; the proposed universality of the climate crisis belies the inherent conflicts between the different types of people pushing this crisis to the forefront. Different groups have different motivations for their involvement, which is the case in all broad movements, but the contradictions here are profound and irreconcilable. Green capitalism, eco-socialism, eco-fascism, and green anarchism all have vastly conflicting values and concepts of the human being and society — which get lost when the focus becomes merely on the “green” or eco-friendly nature of things. As such, addressing the climate crisis has become consumed by a question of the earth, and has lost touch with the people.

A Crisis of Western Civilization

The word crisis implies a time of intense trouble; it marks a turning point that requires a change.  In doing so, it quite easily conjures up feelings of fear and anxiety. Less than a year ago, I would still occasionally get paralyzed by terror — sometimes in the middle of the afternoon, sometimes late at night — thinking about the end of the world by climate change and then imagining the suffering, wars, and descent into apocalyptic scenarios that seemed inevitable. And, upon feeling overwhelmed and nearly hysterical thinking about the possibility of human extinction, I would of course set my work aside for the rest of the day, because what was the point of studying if the world was going to end? None of my training would prepare me for the apocalypse; our whole sense of reality would be forced to change entirely, I thought.

But if climate change is indeed a matter of life and death, for whom does it mean death, and what are the conditions of life for us and others, now?

The stress I felt about climate change came from my expectations of safety, which were white in nature. Life seemed stable and guaranteed for me, and the prospect of climate change was the first thing to really shake this assumption that my individual life would progress calmly, in predictable stages of schooling, employment, and prosperity. For many of us young people in the West who champion climate change as the issue of our times, even if it is on behalf of the poor or the people of color on the ‘front lines,’ the idea of the climate crisis is the first time we are faced with the prospect of serious discomfort or insecurity that might directly affect us.

The climate crisis seems existential — and it is a matter of existence — but really it is a fear for the slipping of the West and the American ways of life; not a fear for broader humanity in the concrete, but a fear for oneself. Life is uncertain; it has been uncertain for the vast majority of people living on this earth for the vast majority of time, and to lose sight of that is to lose perspective of our responsibility and the stakes. To think that the climate crisis is the most urgent problem — because it is the problem that affects you most directly, and will impact everyone eventually — is arrogant in the face of present poverty and war, and is only made possible by obscuring the truth and ignoring history. People have been working for environmental justice for decades in the United States, and for centuries looking at different civilizations which have prioritized or understood the relation of people to the earth as intertwined, in which the idea of ‘environmentalism’ was actually simply a civilizational attitude or way of being. Environmentalism decades ago was seen as a mostly white and privileged issue: has anything truly changed?

The climate movement has only picked up in the mainstream as a ‘crisis’ recently — and why? We should understand the contemporary framing of the climate ‘crisis,’ rather than the scientific phenomenon of climate change which has been recognized scientifically since the 1970s — as a panicked response to the relative decline of Western civilization in the present and its resulting crisis of identity. I am not willing to “save the climate at all cost” if that cost is in additional human suffering, which is what is being proposed by the Green New Deal or other plans to reboot capitalism and save the West. If we want to save the climate, we should want to save it because we care about humanity and existence — not because we care about protecting our privileged way of life — and we must fight for peace and reject the status quo of this decadent, selfish civilization, instead turning to darker humanity and the masses of people of the world.

The Green New Deal: Welfare, Whiteness, and the Color Line

W.E.B. Du Bois writes in The World and Africa that the West, through colonialism and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, built civilizational values fundamentally based on material luxury at the cost of spiritual and moral poverty. The split created between the material and the human resulted in the deep degradation of labor, and a further division between the white and black working class through the racial science and the ideology of white supremacy. Through these values built up throughout the centuries, Western man’s worldview was adjusted and socialized to see not humanity, primarily, but a means to profit as the most precious objective and guiding ideal. The white working class were thus tempted into conforming to the system in the hopes of attaining luxury and moving up the ladder of oppression, but although they got occasional tastes of the wages of whiteness, society continued to be based on war, exploitation, inequality, and incredible individualism — which hurt and trapped all people, regardless of geography or skin color. The Green New Deal, despite its progressive framing, continues and exemplifies these civilizational ideals.

The proposed resolution for the Green New Deal, submitted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the House of Representatives, is clear in its inspiration, citing that “the Federal Government-led mobilizations during World War II and the New Deal created the greatest middle class that the United States has ever seen.” The resolution goes on to state that “a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era is a historic opportunity” to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, create millions of good, high-wage jobs, and invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States. 

Yet the original New Deal was anything but a program of universal social uplift or justice, but rather an attempt to redeem and stabilize the American system of capitalism and racial segregation after the Great Depression by dividing the working class along racial lines and strategically appeasing the white working class. The Social Security Act and Fair Labor Standards Act excluded agricultural and domestic workers, Federal Housing Administration policies redlined neighborhoods and segregated housing access, and the Wagner Act made labor white in failing to outlaw racial discrimination in unions. 

Even if today’s Green New Deal acknowledges this history and promises that it won’t be racist in the same ways as the original New Deal, an undeniably racial and imperialist dynamic remains. The GND and wave of ‘democratic socialism’ in the United States looks to Norway, Sweden, and Denmark’s white social democracies as the ‘Nordic model’ to emulate, while hastily denouncing countries like Cuba and China as authoritarian and undemocratic. These lauded, model, European ‘social democracies’ have benefited immensely off their historical position as beneficiaries and extractors of colonial wealth and resources — Norway, Sweden, and Denmark benefited immensely from “hitch-hiking imperialism” through mercantilism and trade as opposed to the outright administration of territory, which was outsourced to the bigger European powers. This Nordic Model is based on the same unremorseful exploitation as the rest of Europe, merely transitioning to a lighter carbon footprint without ever interrogating the very foundations that its prosperity was built on; it continues to flaunt exceptionalism because it cannot be a model for all nations — and if we really think about it, its utter lack of moral authority throughout history should make us question whether it should be a model in the first place for any nation or people that value integrity. 

At the same time, China is vilified as an authoritarian state using up precious and limited natural resources; the same resources that for centuries were unproblematically the domain and jurisdiction of the West. There is a disproportionate emphasis on China’s total CO2 emissions surpassing the United States’ since 2006, when China as a country has almost five times the population and the average American CO2 emissions per person today is more than twice that of China’s, whose push towards an ecological civilization and environmentally harmonious development for over a billion human beings is far more significant as a representative example for humanity than the gluttony of the American lifestyle or the small “net-zero” contributions of the Nordic countries, whose populations total less than thirty million. 

Moreover, in January 2018, China announced that it would stop accepting trash from the United States and the European Union. The West, which had been completely dependent on exporting its trash problem for China to deal with indefinitely, did not have the infrastructure, political energy or will to respond to this change; many local governments in the United States have resorted either to halting their recycling programs entirely or burning their recyclables at a waste-to-energy plants, furthering air pollution. What right do we have to condemn China, when we cannot even recycle our own refuse? Is it China’s assigned role in life to provide cheap labor and resources and process the West’s garbage for all eternity? Why do we so look up to the lifestyle and societies of 30,000,000 Europeans who have profited by colonialism for hundreds of years rather than those of 1,400,000,000 Chinese who have overcome the degradation brought by Western domination within the last century? 

Why Sweden and not China? We know that the answer is because Sweden is white and China is not, and because we believe we are white and are deathly terrified of China’s rise. We are unwilling to quit our exploitation of the darker peoples. To look to Northern Europe and the Green New Deal, or to exceptionalist technological and economic solutions alone as the hope for humanity, is to turn our back on the rest of the world and its deeply human concerns.

War, Poverty, Development, and Democracy 

“A belief in democracy is a belief in colored men.”

W.E.B. Du Bois

However, even with all of the New Deal Acts and their limited benefits, it is generally understood that the economic mobilization around World War II was what really pulled the United States fully out of the Depression into the world’s nearly uncontested superpower. Bernie Sanders’ campaign page on the Green New Deal states, “The scope of the challenge ahead of us shares similarities with the crisis faced by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940s. Battling a world war on two fronts—both in the East and the West—the United States came together, and within three short years restructured the entire economy in order to win the war and defeat fascism.” The Green New Deal takes its name from Roosevelt’s New Deal, but what of the critical role that World War II played to build American prosperity and power in the world? 

The West is built on war: the American economy is built on imperialist and neocolonialist wars of exploitation. W.E.B Du Bois described in Color and Democracy the underlying purpose of the welfare state established after World War II: 

When, for instance, during and after this war the working people of Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Belgium, in particular, are going to demand certain costly social improvements from their governments — the prevention of unemployment, a rising standard of living, health insurance, increased education of children — the large cost of these improvements must be met by increased public taxation, falling with greater weight than ever heretofore upon the rich. This means that the temptation to recoup and balance the financial burden of increased taxation by investment in colonies, where social services are at their lowest and standards of living below the requirements of civilization, is going to increase decidedly; and the disposition of parties on the left, liberal parties, and philanthropy to press for colonial improvements will tend to be silenced by the bribe of vastly increased help by government to better conditions. The working people of the civilized world may thus be largely induced to put their political power behind imperialism, and democracy in Europe and America will continue to impede and nullify democracy in Asia and Africa.

This welfare state bought the cooperation and complacency of would-be progressives and radicals through strategic concessions. Imperialism in this case, according to Du Bois, was a solution or a “loophole” to prolong the “subjection of the white working classes.” Kwame Nkrumah wrote in Neocolonialism, the Last Stage of Capitalism that imperialism was at least partially an attempt to “export the social conflicts of the capitalist countries” with the colonies “regarded as a source of wealth which could be used to mitigate the class conflicts in the capitalist states.” In the last seventy-five years, dozens of wars and coups have been carried out by the United States to ensure continued neocolonialist domination, from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for oil to the coups and interventionism in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Chile for natural resources and more favorable markets.

The Green New Deal has a goal of creating twenty million jobs: in “steel and auto manufacturing, construction, energy efficiency retrofitting, coding and server farms, and renewable power plants” along with sustainable agriculture, engineering, Civilian Conservation Corps, and preserving public lands. Establishing these twenty million new “good, high-wage jobs” in the United States through the Green New Deal may indeed be possible, but infinite capitalist growth and improvement does not come out of nowhere: it must be paid for by increased neocolonialism and plunder abroad. Where will the materials for this new economic basis and increased production come from? Renewable energy and green technology currently relies heavily on lithium, cobalt, copper, and other metals and rare minerals — which will obviously have to be sourced cheaply from more developing countries exploited by American imperialism and neocolonialism, as they are today, but on an even more vociferous level. War, in this way, will continue and even expand, for the sake of “greening” the United States and allowing us Americans to feel less guilt. 

It is wrong to accept the sudden hyper-focus on climate as an existential threat to the world and wildlife species, and to value the many people who will soon suffer, lose their livelihoods, or become refugees as a result of irreversible climate change, over the millions of people suffering and dying right now because of what Europe and the United States have been doing for the last many centuries through war. War and poverty have much more to do with humanity, which ought to be cherished before the environment.

In 1979, at the World Climate Conference, Soviet scientist E.K. Federov wrote,

To adopt the world economy to new climatic conditions, or to modify the climate on a global scale, so that adjustment of the economy is unnecessary, are each possible, given certain conditions… [which] are:

  1. To prevent world conflict and establish a lasting peace, since only through the peaceful coexistence of countries with different social systems are close co-operation and concerted action possible;
  2. To stop the arms race and promote disarmament, for only by such action will it be possible to afford the great material resources required by such concerted activities.

It is clear that only under such conditions can we hope to solve the global problems of modern civilization… I doubt whether, at this conference, we shall all agree on how the climate will change during the coming decades, but I hope that we can agree unanimously that mankind should develop an appropriate strategy so that it is prepared for such inevitable changes, and that peace, disarmament and international co-operation provide the foundations for such a strategy.

The problems of climate can only be meaningfully solved through addressing war and poverty, which are the main concerns of the darker nations. Climate must be solved through the eradication of war, not just because the American military is the world’s single largest consumer of oil in the world or one of the greatest polluters in history, not just because the US has spent $6.4 trillion on wars since 2001 that could have been spent on education, housing, and the development of human potential, and not just because all people have the right to access electricity, water, food, and opportunity for development — but because if climate change is legitimately a problem on the global, universal, and existential scale that scientists are warning of, it will require the development of human potential and will to solve these problems through a deep and sincere global and international cooperation on a field of equals and planning on a scale yet unachieved, and this is not possible under the present status quo of domination by the West, which fundamentally relies on endless war and subjugation of people to poverty. It is simply unimaginable in this current framework of international relations, which is structured by an increasingly unstable American hegemony and a lack of peace. 

If we are serious about the climate, we must end racism and neocolonialism to establish true democracy, which is not a matter of elections but a question of the absolute flowering of human potential. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in “The African Roots of War” and elsewhere, the European peace movement of the late 19th and early 20th century became a farce because it meant peace only for the West and failed to even seriously consider the impacts of racism and colonialism on the stability of the world order. Similarly, the climate movement in the West will also become a sad excuse for a movement unless it humbles itself and reckons seriously with imperialism.

Du Bois in Color and Democracy also discusses the need for a planned economy for the benefit of man. It is not a matter of capitalism or socialism as economic systems in and of themselves, but the human and world effects of the economic system, with the economics merely the chosen means to the non-negotiable end being human uplift. The question must be, what system will benefit humanity? If climate change is truly the problem that it is, as urgent and significant as it is being presented, then it will require the untapped potential of people all over the world; potential that cannot be tapped when millions still live in poverty and do not have their fundamental needs met. Nations and people have the right to develop — and can only do so without American interventionism and imperialism.

It’s also horrifyingly obscene for us in the West to say that perhaps the rest of the world’s underdevelopment is better, overall, when really it is just convenient for us to be able to continue our own decadent and parasitic lifestyles. One cannot say that life in a village without electricity has a lower carbon footprint, and that we should all simplify and reduce our own — and then show no respect or love for the homeless person on our street who has a smaller carbon footprint in a year than we have in a month. What about humanity in the concrete, right in front of us, not merely the abstract concept of the millions of climate refugees-to-become that horrify the conscience? 

It will not be the actions of a relative minority of privileged, educated people in the West separated from reality and history advocating for the rest of humanity in the abstract that will save the world. The United States on its own will not save the planet — or even take the lead in doing so — and neither will Sweden. It will be the people of the world and the darker nations, who can save this world and build a better one, and not through a revolution of technology, but through a human revolution of values, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote.

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumental rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.”

Conclusion: New Values for A New World

“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” 

Martin Luther King Jr.,“Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”

Before it truly is too late, we should look to India, China, Ghana, Cuba, and other nations in Asia and Africa, and tear our eyes away from the mirror of the West. The climate movement as is — as it has developed and gained traction in the mainstream Western media — conceals and makes excuses for whiteness, because its underlying goals are not to uplift the masses of humanity, but rather to reboot capitalism and prolong the slow inevitable crumble of Western civilization with its subjugation of human beings. We are too reliant on science, technology, and economics to solve our problems for us, and too hesitant to face the intense and intentional social transformation that will be required of our values and ways of life.

Ecosocialism and green capitalism only describe an economic system, not the human aspect or the global historical perspective. The science of rising temperatures, sea levels, and the increasing acidification of our oceans can also tell us something about our behavior — but not everything. Renewable energy, decarbonization, and green technology may also be a means to an end. Yet none of these perspectives can show us the human path forward, because our problems cannot be solved through clever material tricks or innovations in economics, science, or technology, as desperately as we may want this to be the case. Our problems must be faced and addressed by human beings as a moral and social priority: in short, we have to face ourselves and reckon with history.

Human beings are not the greatest threat to the earth; we are a part of it. On the other hand, looking at slavery, the record of resource exploitation written in the land, and the threat of nuclear annihilation alone, Western civilization cannot claim any moral authority over the rest of the world — instead, we should finally accept what we see, which is a legacy of profoundly anti-human values that makes us the greatest possible threat to one another. The West has no moral right to judge Asia — it needs to relinquish its illusion of authority, really listen, and give up its privileged place, because we are holding back the progress of the rest of the world.

Authority lies not with the West alone, in the United States and Europe, but with the vast majority of billions of people, of Africa and Asia, and the civilizations and traditions that come from them and nourish them. We need a movement with the transformation of human spirit, one that ceases to cling to a degrading human order, but instead begins to come together to build the future! How can we hope to live in harmony with nature when we cannot even be at peace with one another as human beings? To truly love anything, we must first be able to love one another. 

What we ought to strive for instead is to work for peace and justice, and to build a civilization that loves humanity and nature, in that order. I’ve been so deeply moved by the beauty of nature — to see the vast expanse of the ocean, waving to us on the land; the sun through a canopy of leaves providing shade and shelter; the intricacy of a world where the lichen and aphid and whale all relate to one another; in all of this we can’t help but feel the sublime. And I know that we need the earth — but all of this only with people

This process will require us to let go of our assumptions about safety and the seemingly guaranteed, relatively stable, and sterile nature of life and death for us in the developed West. We will have to let go of the things that have sheltered us physically from the realities of the world, and let go of some of the answers we have taken for granted about what we deserve and what we can expect. But in letting go of the civilizational values and myth of superiority that we’ve incorrectly clung to for so long, we can also let go of our long-held guilt that comes with whiteness, begin to find new and more human answers, grow, and sincerely transform our lives and the future.

We can gain humility in realizing that we young people, raised in the West and listening eagerly to everything our elite professors and media outlets tell us in our desire to learn — do not know, merely by dint of our technical or scientific skills, what is best for humanity better than the masses of people who actually make up humanity. 

We can gain freedom from the arrogance that allows us to think that without deeply studying history, we simply know better than the adults, who have all failed us — even those like Martin Luther King Jr., Huey P. Newton, James Baldwin, and W.E.B. Du Bois, who dedicated the whole arc of their lives to give us a better future — and can simply demand that others change according to our wishes, without us having to also sacrifice, give, and change just as much in return. We can gain freedom from the selfish values that this civilization has handed us, and gain clarity about the kind of life that is not only possible, but necessary for a better world.

We can gain a more whole identity by seeing ourselves not as exceptional or as standing alone in defiance, but as a part of the world, a part of history, and a part of a long tradition that truly sees humanity as part of a single garment of destiny. We can gain peace, brotherhood, and true global community. We can gain deeper purpose through our responsibility to create a better world, not just so that we can continue to exist more or less as we have been — because what kind of existence is that, really? — but to grow and evolve. We can embrace the process of learning about the truth, being moved by ideas, and then beginning to move the world.

I believe in that world that all people deserve, and I know that we can build it together.

Further Readings

  • The World and Africa, W.E.B. Du Bois
  • Color and Democracy, W.E.B. Du Bois
  • The African Roots of War”, W.E.B. Du Bois
  • Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
  • Neo-colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism, Kwame Nkrumah
  • Man and Environment,” Stockholm Conference on Human Environment, 1972, Indira Gandhi
  • “Climate Change and Human Strategy,” World Climate Conference, 1979, E.K. Federov
  • “The Man Who Was a Fool,” Sermon Delivered at the Detroit Council of Churches’ Noon Lenten Services, 1961, Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” Speech Delivered at Riverside Church, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr.
  • “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” 1968, Martin Luther King Jr.
  • The Manufacturing of Greta Thunberg: for Consent
  • China and Ecological Civilization, Andre Vltchek and John Cobb

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