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A woman holds a poster at the COP21 World Climate Change Conference 2015. (Photo: EPA)

Together and Equal: Confronting Conflict and Climate Change Through Common Purpose

Are we finally to grasp that deep-seated inequalities are a hallmark of unsustainable systems?

Randall Amster

More often than not, the news cycle conspires to be routinely depressing and largely disempowering, highlighting the myriad escalating crises that are by now well-known while offering few significant options for confronting and altering them. From guns and terrorism to floods and fires, the news queue relentlessly depicts a world in turmoil, with the details of the spectacle shifting so rapidly from one piece of confirmatory evidence to the next that even those inclined to pay attention may be tempted to tune out. Yet sometimes the coincidence of timing and aggregation can yield more constructive results.

Last week presented one of those encouraging moments -- not because the news was better or the pathways to action were more pronounced, but due instead to the correlation of issues drawing our attention toward incipient root causes. Part of this synergy was geographical, namely the conjunction of Paris as the site of horrific terrorist acts followed by the gathering forces drawn together for the latest global climate summit. The juxtaposition was at least implicitly revealing, and corresponded with a convergence of thinking that had already been suggested even in mainstream contexts, such as with the notablearticle in National Geographic from March 2015, “Climate Change Helped Spark Syrian War, Study Says.” 

The premise is relatively straightforward and intuitively understandable: environmental degradation and destabilization yields stresses on peoples’ essential resource bases, which can contribute to internecine conflicts and/or patterns of large-scale displacement that cause people to migrate and potentially exacerbate tensions with others. Once set in motion, and with environmental upheaval widening and deepening, these processes continue to expand as their impacts begin to register on a global scale. Such large-scale disruptions render vulnerable populations even more so, further fueling conflicts and degradations, and perpetuating the cycle.

 "The conflict-climate-inequality triad represents a potent mechanism for deconstructing current crises and constructing alternative futures."

These patterns are more about correlation than causation, and represent one way of understanding the inherent connections between environmental issues and sociopolitical ones. Other confirmatory lines of reasoning include deconstructing the resource motivations behind many conflicts, especially those centered on fossil fuels, the pursuit of which obviously brings the vicious cycle of conflict and climate change directly into focus. The petropolitics of empire and terror alike, the contest over resources as Arctic ice melts, the massive carbon footprint of modern militaries, and similar sobering realizations all serve to bring the connection into focus.

But there remains another level of engagement, beyond correlative patterns, and it was strongly suggested by the coincidental appearance of two items in last week’s queue. The first was the Washington Post piece from November 30, analyzing a report by French economist Thomas Piketty asserting that “inequality is a major driver of Middle Eastern terrorism, including the Islamic State attacks on Paris earlier this month -- and Western nations have themselves largely to blame for that inequality.” Piketty’s thesis was based on macroscopic assessments of the impact that profound inequality, largely due to the concentration of oil wealth in the region, has on any prospects for social and political stability in the Middle East and how the confluence of oil, war, and inequality yields a “powder keg” for terrorism in the region. (Note that this macrocosmic point was obscured in a subsequent CNN Money report that criticized Piketty’s position by observing that rich people can be terrorists too, crediting ideology over economics and personal motivations over the impacts of widespread instability on social systems.)

The second item appeared on December 3 in a report by Ricochet, titled “Extreme Inequality Fueling Climate Change.” The article analyzed a recent Oxfam briefing on “Extreme Carbon Inequality,” which concluded that “climate change is inextricably linked to economic inequality” and that “the poorest half of the global population -- around 3.5 billion people -- are responsible for only around 10% of total global emissions attributed to individual consumption, yet live overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change.” (Interestingly, Piketty had likewise co-authored a previous report observing that “top 10% emitters contribute to about 45% of global emissions, while bottom 50% emitters contribute to 13% of global emissions” and that these top 10% emitters “live on all continents, with one third of them from emerging countries,” yielding an analysis of various options for a global carbon tax that are “targeted at top emitters.”)

So here we have two lines of inquiry, temporally associated, drawing us closer to a radical (i.e., root cause) perspective on the predominant global issues of terrorism and climate change, and identifying foundational patterns of inequality as undergirding both realms. Tracing these contours, a Democracy Now! story (also from last week) wove the threads together in a slightly different configuration: “Climate Change and Inequality Are Driving War and Catastrophic Conflicts from Syria to Africa.” Taken together, we can thus observe the convergence of three spheres that constitute the ineluctable basis of escalating global crises: endemic conflict, rapid climate change, and gross inequality. These three spheres are mutually reinforcing and cyclically connected, presenting multiple pathways for confronting the core existential threats of this era.

This realization may not qualify as revelatory for those who have been paying attention, but the sharpening of the interconnection through the coincidence of timing and geography is important. The conflict-climate-inequality triad represents a potent mechanism for deconstructing current crises and constructing alternative futures. In particular, whereas the challenges of war/terrorism and climate can sometimes seem beyond the capacity of individuals or even movements to remediate, there may be more perceived leverage around issues of inequality as a politically cognizable rallying point. What a convergent perspective on these issues suggests, and which may be harder to grasp, is that inequality is as much a threat to sustained existence as war or climate. One can be antiwar and pro-environment while still adhering to the myth of meritocracy.

If we can break out of this prevailing mindset, however, the potential for robust engagement with intractable issues can become palpable. Increasingly, we are presented with stark evidence of unaddressed inequities around race, gender, orientation, ethnicity, and more, coupled with pointed demands for redress and the equalization of rights and opportunities. At the same time, the data on widening economic inequality are staggering in their full dimensions, with notable depictions of a few scores of individuals holding as much wealth as a few billion (a basic pattern that is replicated domestically and globally), and the implications thereof in a multitude of arenas from campaign financing and workplace equity to criminal justice and educational opportunities.

As the (inter)national dialogue evolves, we may be coming to grasp that deep-seated inequalities are a hallmark of unsustainable systems. While structures of perfect equality would require their own impracticable tyrannies to achieve, we can nonetheless emphasize the need for far more equitable distributions of benefits and burdens, far less egregious disparities of treatment, far fewer experiences of dehumanization, and far greater empathy across all extant divides. We can steadily recognize not only the moral imperative in pursuing greater equality in every sphere, but also the societal and political necessity of doing so. If we are to have any chance of redressing and reversing the calamitous impacts of militarism and climate change, it is going to require the contributions of people everywhere, and is only thinkable in a world where the opportunity to realize one’s full potential (individually and societally speaking) is radically redistributed.

As we ruminate on these lessons, sharpened by recent media juxtapositions, it is also important to recall the larger frame in which we are operating, constituting an essentially closed and thoroughly interdependent global ecosystem. In this light, also arising from last week’s queue, Vandana Shiva issued this pointed reminder: “There is a deep and intimate connection between the events of November 13 [in Paris] and the ecological devastation unleashed by the fossil fuel era of human history. The same processes that contribute to climate change also contribute towards growing violence amongst people. Both are results of a war against the Earth.” If we are inclined to take the opportunity to address rampant inequalities through action in concert, the ones that pit us against each other and that separate us collectively from the habitat are central.

A generation ago, it was pronounced that separate but equal facilities were inherently unequal. Today, we are learning how deeply rooted inequality brings together our most profound global challenges and offers potential mechanisms for positive change. As we engage these issues, we may realize that confronting inequalities together can be inherently equalizing, and thus effective at forestalling the militarization of conflict and climate change alike. Indeed, with the coming weeks’ news cycles likely to be dominated by the impetus toward militaristic methods for dealing with crises—as telegraphed by President Obama’s address to the nation, in which he called for the continued and expanded use of military force against terrorism—the short-lived window of reflection on root causes may be obfuscated by the habituated vicious cycle. We will allow this to happen only at our peril, with our best means of resistance found in making common purpose and addressing the underlying causes of crises rather than feeding into them.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is co-director and teaching professor of environmental studies at Georgetown University. His books include "Peace Ecology" (2015), "Anarchism Today" ( 2012), and "Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness" (2008).

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