Opinion: Capitalism is killing the environment, not people
When scientists first warned the public about global warming we were reluctant to believe them and even slower to admit the issue was driven by human activity. It has become a polarizing topic and many lay the blame on “people,” or all of humanity, for encroaching on nature and destroying the planet. This is true to a point, as we have certainly taken advantage of natural processes and used up resources at a non-renewable rate. However, this was encouraged and made necessary by the U.S.’s adoption of capitalism, and there are several reasons why it is both incorrect and dangerous to use such a general term. Indigenous people have lived sustainably for thousands of years, and disastrous global change did not significantly increase until the Industrial Revolution. The world’s reaction to coronavirus is a unique example of nature’s ability to grow despite our hindrance and offers hope that humans need to modify economic systems, not disappear entirely, to protect the environment.
It is easy to point fingers at anyone who participates in practices that damage the earth, but it is important to remember how capitalistic societies force families to sustain themselves with these practices. The danger of blaming “people” takes accountability away from large corporations and places the cost of remediation on the working class. Solutions such as a carbon tax have not been found to significantly lower carbon dioxide emissions, but it does place a heavier financial burden on those already struggling from low wages. Multiple statistics have been published that agree roughly 50% of global carbon emissions are produced by the top 10%, and about 10% of emissions come from the poorest 50%. This causes an imbalance of power as those who influence or make legislation concerning environmental management manipulate the law and develop loopholes for billionaires and large corporations.
One group that has avoided such manipulation is indigenous communities, and the positive impacts can be seen clearly. Native people around the world, especially in tropical climates, live in areas of higher biodiversity than urban and colonized areas. Their way of life is based on the belief that that people depend on nature as much as nature depends on us, which has led to the respectful and intelligent management of resources. Even after colonization, the U.S. did not have a severe impact on the environment until the Industrial Revolution. The use of fossil fuels drastically increased the amount of carbon dioxide released in an extremely short amount of time and led to the use of natural commodities as both an inexhaustible resource and a dumping site for toxic wastes. The planet cannot exist in these conditions any longer, but all it takes is for people to step back and allow nature to grow into this space to see incredible transformations.
One dramatic example is the streets of Thailand, where gangs of monkeys have been fighting over territory in an empty plaza after a mandatory self-quarantine left it empty, and the effects can be seen elsewhere. Japan has deer wandering through streets and subways to find food now that tourists no longer feed them in nearby parks. Within a few weeks of quarantine in Italy, pictures of horses and feral pigs roaming the empty streets were posted on social media, as well as stunning pictures of the Venice canals. For the first time in decades the canals are clear enough to see through to the bottom, and are once again habitable for schools of fish.
Global self-quarantine and shelter-at-home practices have resulted in significantly less use of cars, planes, steel manufacturing plants and oil refineries, causing levels of carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution to plummet. This drop, specifically in nitrogen dioxide, recorded in China has saved an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 lives, mainly of young children and the elderly. While the air quality cannot be considered “clean,” this is the first time in recent years reduction rates have lasted without rebounding soon after. Similar trends in cities throughout Asia and Europe can be seen with satellite imagery released by the European Space Agency, including Seoul, North Korea and London, England.
These examples show how resilient nature is and what simple measures we can take to start reversing the damage we have done. People, especially white Europeans, have invaded and colonized other countries, depleted natural resources, urbanized diverse landscapes and dumped trash into the ground and oceans all for the sake of driving our economy forward. However, all it took was flying fewer planes, decreasing traffic and pollution in Venice and leaving space for monkeys to see how readily nature springs back. Seeing such a stark difference after people limit their occupation and use of nature lends hope for a future where humanity can put forth energy and resources to mitigate our ecological footprint and make space for the environment to recover.
Lindsay Mann is a junior wildlife ecology and conservation major and women studies minor, as well as the vice president of Students Acting for Gender Equity (SAGE). Her opinions are her own and do not represent the majority opinion of The Review’s editorial staff. Mann may be reached at email@example.com.