Climate change and Ecology

I don’t believe I’m an Ecologist.

And that’s coming from someone who is very much concerned with climate change. In fact, I think being an ecologist and wanting to fight climate change are very different perspectives, and that the beginning of an education of what climate change means starts with making this distinction very clear.

First, consider what’s exactly Ecology, and what makes an Ecologist. An ecological conscience (as I understand it) is the concern for the relationship between humans and the wider life and habitats we occupy. Nothing to complain there, that’s a very noble goal, but you’ll quickly notice how vague that is. The problem is, ecology by itself conflates together many issues, some of them threatening and other just injustices without consequences for a regular life as a urbanite. You might care vaguely about oil spillage in Perú, for example, without being from Perú - you simply don’t agree with the system and the harm it does to ecosystems. A hardcore ecologist maybe would extend this concern towards their lives, and consider a life away from the city and its systemic traps.

That’d still be the wrong way to move people towards change, if you ask me. Let me explain.

In my humble experience, actually what most people understand by Ecology is most likely a mix of ideas: wildfire prevention, reduction of plastics, deterioration of wildlife or animal mistreatment, health concerns about the way modern agriculture is managed under globalized capitalism, indigenous rights. These are all extremely important topics. But the truth is, unless you are an agricultor, an indigenous person threatened by capitalist practices and neo-colonialism, or someone who happends to live near the next ecological disaster… most people will agree, but not do much. For example, imagine you stop someone in a street in any mid-sized city in France (or Paris, for what is worth) and ask them about their opinion on the deforestation of the Amazonia. They’d probably agree that it’s concerning, very important and that something should be done. Except that that person living in Occident can’t make a connection between their way of life and deforestation, and who can blame them. They probably have their job, family, problems and joys thousands of killometers away from the problem, and we know for a fact proximity plays a big role on the psychological impact of empathy. Even when ecological disaster happens at the doorstep of a European city where more than a half million souls live [1], like in my hometown in Spain, people are hardpressed to react. So ¿what’s happening there?

Ecology and Climate Change have very different natures

Ecology happens in the now, and is localized. An ecological disaster is the product of a historical, systemic process, but it isn’t a systemic failure. It’s confined in space, and thus subject to physical and psychological distance. The moral responsability of ecological disasters, or even ecological degradation, is usually also confined. One might point at an oil company after a spillage, or at the politicians that implemented a misguided policy in a forest fire. Sometimes, whatever brought the disaster isn’t human-directed: it could be that a natural phenomenon that couldn’t be helped was crucial in precipitating an ecological disaster.

In conclusion: you can be an Ecologist of many things. You can be concerned with a particular problem for any particular reason, but the problems, solutions and guilt are all relatively confined - and, unless in the more extreme cases, the problem won’t interrupt you life.

The problem is, climate change doesn’t work like that. In fact, I’d argue climate change doesn’t work like any other problem you might know, simply because it’s not confined.

Climate change is caused by an aggrandating auto-perpetuating economical system. The fossil economy demands growth and increasingly augmenting amounts of energy. Since it’s an auto-perpetuating system, it creates dependencies: we can’t leave fossil fuels because that’d mean a catastrophe: too many things, starting by fertilizers, depend on energetic input that has been there as part of input so far. Contained, highly portable, dense energy has created a system where things are optimized to the availability of those materials: oil, gas, carbon. Plus, this system has replaced any other means of living almost everywhere.

That means anything you do nowadays, no matter what it is, is bound to be tied by fossil dependencies, starting by eating and your job.

This is, like in ecological problems, a consequence of historical processes. But it differs clearly with most ecological struggles in that it’s localized in the economical order [2] - and there is no scape from the global economy.

[1] I’m speaking of the anoxia in Mar menor where tons of fish turned out dead in a formerly turistic salty lagoon [2] As clearly shown in Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital book.

A confusion

I believe there is still a big confusion between ecology and climate change. Most people I have spoken to about the topic end up speaking about recycling, the local struggles of broken ecosystems or other irrelevant topics. They don’t recognize that climate change emcompasses all their lives, and will condition deeply the lives of everyone fter them - this is, simply, a lack of education on the topic. As a matter of fact, ony this summer has the Spanish television started (timidly) to link climate change and extreme climate events - and they still send mixed messages sometimes.

That’s why I don’t consider myself an ecologist. I care about ecological struggles, of course, but once you notice how entrenched climate change is in our current way of life you can’t really be “just” an ecologist.