Ifyou're poor, the only way you're likely to injure someone is the oldtraditional way: artisanal violence, we could call it – by hands, by knife, byclub, or maybe modern hands-on violence, by gun or by car.
But if you'retremendously wealthy, you can practice industrial-scale violence without anymanual labor on your own part. You can, say, build a sweatshop factory thatwill collapse in Bangladesh and kill more people than any hands-on massmurderer ever did, or you can calculate risk and benefit about putting poisonsor unsafe machines into the world, as manufacturers do every day. Ifyou're the leader of a country, you can declare war and kill by the hundreds ofthousands or millions. And the nuclear superpowers – the US and Russia – still holdthe option of destroying quite a lot of life on Earth.
So dothe carbon barons. But when we talk about violence, we almost always talk aboutviolence from below, not above.
Or so I thought when I received a press releaselast week from a climate group announcing that "scientists say there is a direct link between changing climate and anincrease in violence". What the scientists actually said, in anot-so-newsworthy article in Nature two and a half years ago, is that there is higher conflictin the tropics in El Nino years, and that perhaps this will scale up to makeour age of climate change also an era of civil and international conflict.
Themessage is that ordinary people will behave badly in an era of intensifiedclimate change.
All this makes sense, unless you go back to thepremise and note that climate change is itself violence. Extreme, horrific,longterm, widespread violence.
Climate change is anthropogenic – caused by humanbeings, some much more than others. We know the consequences of that change:the acidification of oceans and decline of many species in them, the slow disappearanceof island nations such as the Maldives, increased flooding, drought, cropfailure leading to food-price increases and famine, increasingly turbulentweather. (Think Hurricane Sandy and the recent typhoon in the Philippines, andheat waves that kill elderly people by the tens of thousands.)
Climate change isviolence.
So if we want to talk about violence and climatechange – and we are talking about it, after last week's horrifying report from the world's top climate scientists – then let's talk about climate change as violence. Rather than worrying aboutwhether ordinary human beings will react turbulently to the destruction of thevery means of their survival, let's worry about that destruction – and theirsurvival. Of course water failure, crop failure, flooding and more will lead to mass migration and climate refugees – they already have – andthis will lead to conflict. Those conflicts are being set in motion now.
You can regard the Arab Spring, in part, as a climateconflict: the increase in wheat prices was one of the triggers for that series ofrevolts that changed the face of northernmost Africa and the Middle East. On the one hand, you can say, how nice if those people had not been hungry in thefirst place. On the other, how can you not say, how great is it that those people stood upagainst being deprived of sustenance and hope? And then you have to look at thesystems that created that hunger - the enormous economic inequalities inplaces such as Egypt and the brutality used to keep down the people at thelower levels of the social system, as well as the weather.
People revolt when their lives are unbearable.Sometimes material reality creates that unbearableness: droughts, plagues, storms, floods. But food and medical care, health and well-being, access to housing andeducation – these things are also governed by economic means and government policy. That's what the revolt called Occupy Wall Street was against.
Climate changewill increase hunger as food prices rise and food production falters, but wealready have widespread hunger on Earth, and much of it is due not to thefailures of nature and farmers, but to systems of distribution. Almost 16m children in the United States now live with hunger, according to the USDepartment of Agriculture, and that is not because the vast, agriculturallyrich United States cannot produce enough to feed all of us. We are a countrywhose distribution system is itself a kind of violence.
Climate change is not suddenly bringing about anera of equitable distribution. I suspect people will be revolting in the comingfuture against what they revolted against in the past: the injustices of thesystem. They should revolt, and we should be glad they do, if not so glad that they need to. (Though one can hope they'll recognize that violence is not necessarily where their power lies.) One of the events prompting the FrenchRevolution was the failure of the 1788 wheat crop, which made bread prices skyrocketand the poor go hungry. The insurance against such events is often thought tobe more authoritarianism and more threats against the poor, but that's only anattempt to keep a lid on what's boiling over; the other way to go is to turndown the heat.
The same week during which I received that ill-thought-out press release about climate and violence, Exxon Mobil Corporation issued a policy report. It makes for boring reading, unless you canmake the dry language of business into pictures of the consequences of thoseacts undertaken for profit. Exxon says:
We are confidentthat none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become 'stranded'. Webelieve producing these assets is essential to meeting growing energy demandworldwide.
Stranded assets that mean carbon assets – coal, oil, gas stillunderground – would become worthless if we decided they could not be extractedand burned in the near future. Because scientists say that we need to leavemost of the world's known carbon reserves in the ground if we are to go for themilder rather than the more extreme versions of climate change. Under themilder version, countless more people – species, places – will survive. In the best-case scenario, we damage the Earth less. We are currently wrangling about how much todevastate the Earth.
In every arena, we need to look at industrial-scale andsystemic violence, not just the hands-on violence of the less powerful. Whenit comes to climate change, this is particularly true. Exxon has decided to betthat we can't make the corporation keep its reserves in the ground, and the company isreassuring its investors that it will continue to profit off the rapid,violent and intentional destruction of the Earth.
That's a tired phrase, the destruction of the Earth, buttranslate it into the face of a starving child and a barren field – and thenmultiply that a few million times. Or just picture the tiny bivalves: scallops,oysters, Arctic sea snails that can't form shells in acidifying oceans rightnow. Or another superstorm tearing apart another city. Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species aswell as against human beings. Once we call it by name, we can start having a realconversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality.