Human beings are not a virus


June 4th, 2020

Fintan O’Toole likened human beings to a ‘toxic virus’, and a
‘relentless foulness’ from ‘the Earth’s point of view’, in his article about the Sign of the Times
survey on public perceptions of climate change. This has become a recurring
theme expressed throughout the pandemic, even as we bear witness to one of
humanity’s greatest outpourings of compassion, kindness and solidarity. The
relentless foulness is not humanity at large, but merely one method of human
economic organising – endless consumption, powered by fossil fuels.

I understand why O’Toole and so many others feel caught in a cycle
of hopeless guilt and misanthropy. It feels correct, easy, right to blame
oneself and blame a common and natural human selfishness. Yet that ashamed
response feels like a well-worn slip road precisely because it fits another
dominant overarching narrative: ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’. Or, more
relevant to the Irish context: ‘we
all partied’

This phrase was used during the last economic crash to obscure the
responsibility of its powerful perpetrators — dissipating blame to all Irish
people, who received austerity as punishment for perceived personal failings.
Yet numerous experts have shown since that the root causes of that banking
crisis were caused by structural cyclical faults in capitalism itself as well
as what O’Toole described in his book Ship of Foolsas widespread
incompetence and corruption in the banking and property sectors.

It is widely assumed that fossil fuels are fundamental to the
development of a modern economy. Naturally, in the modern era, human
flourishing and the reduction of poverty have been based on oil, gas and coal.
Yet environmental historians such as Andreas Malm, Stefanie Barca and Simon Pirani have shown that our reliance on
fossil fuels is not normal, nor inevitable.

It was, and is, a political choice that served the needs of but
one of a myriad of forms of human economic organising – consumptive capitalism.
From the choice of coal-fired steam power over
cheap water and wind at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to undermine
co-operation and burgeoning trade unionism. And the prevalence of motorways and
the personal car in Europe post WWII, driven by the US Marshall
Plan, which sought to secure regional reliance on US-owned fossil fuel reserves
and prevent dependency on the USSR.

O’Toole points out how baffling it is that climate change was
widely known to be happening from the 1980s, yet nothing was done. What is not
pointed out is that — as revealed by Pulitzer prize finalist series #ExxonKnew by Inside Climate News in 2015 and Dutch
journalist Jelmer Mommers of De Correspondent on Royal Dutch Shell in
2018 — during the 1980s, the world’s most powerful
fossil fuel corporations had planned to switch their business model to
renewables on the advice of their own scientists.

Profit margins won out, however, and these companies instead threw
their considerable resources behind a public and political misinformation
campaign about the scale of the climate crisis. Academics were bribed,
think-tanks were established and political representatives funded in a
concerted effort to undermine the authority of the world’s finest climate

When cracks began to show in this strategy in the early 2000s due to a more educated public, fossil fuel companies began to focus on an another strategy – the dissipation of responsibility. As tracked by journalist Meehan Crist, British Petroleum – one of 100 companies responsible for 71 per cent of climate change — sponsored the first carbon footprint calculators in a $100 million US campaign in 2005.

Public-private partnerships with industry, governments and NGOs
proliferated to promote the need for individual responsibility and austerity –
precisely because it was proven to have little or no impact in reducing fossil
fuel use. Today, renewable energy amounts to a mere 3% of BP’s total capital expenditure,
while it initiated 13 new fossil fuel projects in 2017 and 2018.

The absurdity and futile nature of such individualised ‘footprint’
campaigns came into sharp focus in Ireland during the Ros Dumhach (Rossport),
Co Mayo, conflict against Shell – another of the 100 climate-responsible companies. As local
fishermen and farmers who opposed its gas pipeline were intimidated by Shell and falsely imprisoned in 2005, a year later the
Government started the Power of One advertising campaign that called on
households reduce their consumption of fossil gas by switching off lights.

According to the ESRI, the campaign left no lasting
impact on consumer behaviour, despite a cost of €10 million. Indeed, in 2013, the
Government spent almost twice as much conducting a
seismic survey of Ireland’s sea-floor for the private oil and gas
industry,  causing major damage to marine life including dolphins, whales and plankton. Today, child climate strikers and climate-vulnerable
countries such as the Philippines are fast undermining
fossil fuel dependency by taking Exxon and Shell to court for damages under
tort and human rights law.

The fact that individualising blame for pollution and climate
action obscures true responsibility is not the only reason why it should be
avoided. There is a fine line between presenting humans as a ‘virus’ on the
earth, and presenting humans as a species in need of a ‘cull’. Both arguments
stoke racist, colonial, eugenic and simply misanthropic arguments that historically have
diverted attention from the actions of those that benefit most from a vastly
unequal socio-economic system.

The history of climate action at an international level follows a
similar tune of the powerful bullying the poor and obfuscating the truth. The
United Nations agreements to tackle climate change have been one long battle by
developing countries and sinking small island states against the same dominant narrative that ‘we all partied’. The hard-won ‘climate justice’ Article 3 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
states that all parties to the treaty have ‘common but
differentiated responsibilities’ in tackling climate change. This is a
recognition that, while all countries and peoples contribute to pollution, they
do so to completely different degrees.

Wealthy people and wealthy countries overwhelming contribute most
emissions to the atmosphere. A 2015 study by Oxfam revealed the world’s
richest 10% produce half of all carbon emissions while the poorest 3.5 billion
account for just a tenth. Carbon space is limited and, in economies still
largely based on fossil fuels, developing countries – many of them former
colonies — needed that space to rise out of poverty.
These countries argued from the 1970s that the moral duty to tackle climate change, as
explicitly stated within Article 3 of the UNFCCC, is primarily on the wealthy to cut their emissions
and bear the financial burden of action.

In response to this moral claim, ‘moral panic’ campaigns about
world over-population gained popularity in wealthy countries such as the United
under the Clinton administration. Think-tanks such as
the UK’s Population Matters argued that developing countries were
causing climate change and their own poverty because they had simply too many
citizens. There would be plenty of wealth and carbon space for everyone if poor people simply stopped procreating. Rich
countries were encouraged to do all they could to fund population
control programmes
in, and increase restrictions on migrants from, poorer countries as the
prospect of a better life for their children encouraged larger families.

It is worth noting that these well-worn racist, colonial — and
indeed Malthusian — arguments were also used during the Irish famine to support
the laissez-faire and utilitarian economics of the
colonial British administration. It was au fait at the time for hobbyist
environmentalists amongst the gentry to pontificate on whether the exotic
Irish landscape was being damaged by an overpopulating ‘Papist
poor’. Others, such as William Morris and Oscar Wilde, offered more sophisticated
arguments, pointing to reliance on inequality and relentless market consumption
as driving desperation.

Extinction Rebellion poster

So, in our dire climatic moment, with people expressing disillusion and powerlessness in the Sign of the Times survey on climate, where is the hope? O’Toole calls for ‘effective collective action’. Buoyed by our present solidarity, let us look to Ireland’s own historical fights to protect the environment and each other.

In the 1970s, Ireland was the home of one of the first and most
successful anti-nuclear campaigns in the world. To defeat the building of a nuclear plant at Carnsore point, Co. Wexford,
whole swathes of Irish society bonded together for a common cause.

Trade unions within the ESB took
a leading role
in educating their members, passing motions at ICTU
conferences opposing nuclear energy in Ireland due its public health risks,
connection to militarisation and low-quality jobs. Local, nationwide and international public
support was built with doctors, nurses, farmers, faith groups, the anti-war
movement and environmentalists. Artists, musicians and youth culture rallied around a profound joyous
cultural moment in Irish history: organising Ireland’s first ‘Woodstock’ and
outdoor musical festival – the Anti-Nuclear Power Show at Carnsore Point.
The gigs ran for three years between 1978 to 1980 and featured Christy Moore,
Chris De Burgh, the Hothouse Flowers, Clannad and The Dubliners. It evoked such
a powerful and positive reaction, it helped inspire No Nukes concerts
across the world.

Anti Nuclear Power Show poster, 1978

The anti-nuclear campaign thrived because it was based on a joyful
re-envisioning of a peaceful, pollution and exploitation-free future — and
there is no doubt that the fossil fuel industry learnt from the mistakes of its
pro-nuclear cousins. In a leaked Shell memo from 1998 called ‘Group
Scenarios 1998-2020’, the company predicted that public outrage against fossil
fuel companies would soon build to the point that young people would protest in
the streets, that court cases would be taken across the globe and direct action
campaigns would escalate. The fossil fuel industry predicted the school strikers, the growing wave of climate litigation and Extinction Rebellion.

Humans are not a virus. Fossil fuel companies have been preparing
for our present moment for decades. Make no mistake: the shame and guilt we
feel through the individualisation of climate action is a deliberate ploy to
obscure the root causes of climate change in company investment strategies and
the state policies to facilitate them. That unfettered power and profit-seeking
is our virus and rightly our focus for O’Toole’s ‘effective collective action’.

Let us build on the anti-nuclear movement’s positivity and
collective re-envisioning of the future as we rebuild our world post-Covid19.
Let us build a just transition to get there, for publicly-owned renewables, for
an end to energy poverty, for an end to energy produced through exploitation at
home or abroad. 

Author: Sinéad Mercier

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