Carbon emissions are drastically lower due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Why? Because sheltering in place has limited some people’s ability to consume and travel, proving that human consumption has the greatest impact on climate change. Americans have been brainwashed by the belief that consumption is necessary, which has blinded them to the injustices climate change has imposed upon marginalized groups. This collage, Nightmare in Paradise, shows three pieces of the puzzle: the behavior that promotes climate change; who is unjustly impacted by this behavior; and how this behavior can be corrected.
The Bounty of More
The left panel in my piece shows beautiful landscapes of some of the most picturesque places on Earth. Offsetting those images are people working and not looking too pleased about it. These pictures show how wilderness came to be viewed as an escape, and the implications that viewpoint would create. The Wilderness Act of 1964 was meant to protect the wilderness for its aesthetic importance, closely tied to the creation of National Parks and other protected areas. Wilderness quickly became a “romantic sublime” valued for its frontier nostalgia and ability to create an escape for those burdened by the troubles of society. The solution to escaping work, peers, reality? Going places! Carbon emissions (the prime climate change culprit) skyrocket as people travel and seek to escape their current conditions. This is shown through the manipulated text that reads: “Three billion years carbon footprint in the making,” which highlights the historical roots of nature as an escape and how that consequently harms the Earth through emissions created to achieve getaways.
Though often framed as an appreciation for “natural” beauty, people are ignorant of how they ruin the beauty of Earth through their travel consumption. Viewing “natural” landscapes as an escape was only the first pattern of consumption that would plague humanity. The phrase, “I’d rather have a passport full of stamps than a house full of stuff,” is particularly ironic to me. Travel is presented as the lesser evil in comparison to the accumulation of goods, but language such as “full of” implies overconsumption that is detrimental and furthers climate change. Author and environmentalist Aldo Leopold explores the ways in which humans exploit their environment, such as overconsumption, and how energy circuits are affected. “The process of altering the pyramid for human occupation releases stored energy. . . . These releases of biotic capital tend to becloud or postpone the penalties of violence.” Leopold is describing human-induced violence that is produced by human misuse of land—misuse as in poor land manipulation, excess fossil fuels emitted, and the list continues. But those who face this violence are not those who can afford the romantic sublime; the violence of climate change acts on marginalized groups.
Nightmare in Paradise
The paradise some create for themselves consequently constructs a nightmare for others. The main focus in the middle panel of the collage is the Black community, which is a main target for environmental racism. As environmental sociologist Robert Bullard has argued, “There is a racial divide in the way the U.S. government cleans up toxic waste sites. . . . White communities see faster action, better results, and stiffer penalties than communities where blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities live.” The collage homes in on “the innocents,” a Black mother and her child, a woman next to garbage, eyes that look as though they have a story to tell. The actions of those in the first panel have created an uninhabitable world for those in the second. The accumulation of stuff in the left panel has become the unjust, unequally distributed garbage that plagues those in the middle panel. The color shift from primarily blues and greens in the left panel to predominantly red in the middle panel communicates the dangers those in the first panel have imposed on those in the middle, while remaining ignorant that their way of life is in no way “green.”
My manipulation of the middle-panel text that reads: “The study concluded that warming climate had made events like death nearly five times more probable for a black woman” is not statistically accurate (but probably not far off), yet is meant to dramatize how marginalized people are met with harsh impacts of climate change, whether that be unequal distribution of dump sites, geographic inequity, or unequal protection from land-use decisions. Production creates waste, and those who are consuming at record-breaking amounts are ignorant of where this waste goes and the lives it changes.
Trauma does not end. Another group highly affected by the ignorance of consumers: Those in the disabled community. Shown in the bottom right is someone who faces physical disabilities that make him differently abled. Next to the image are the words: Quit Plastic? Patterns of consumption are not only dangerous in their production, but also in consumer behavior. The widespread social movement to ban plastic straws in an attempt to “save the turtles” and therefore the planet largely misses its mark. While straw bans are well intended in order to limit plastic use, the ban would have detrimental consequences for the differently abled community who might require plastic instruments to survive. Alice Wong, a differently abled woman, argues the ban on plastic trend is a demonstration of power and control over a group of people who have little voice in the matter. As she writes, “The entire conversation about plastic straws is about power: who knows best, who decides what change is made, who is centered in all these activities.” The differently abled community is not centered in decision-making processes regarding the use of plastic.
While not directly linked to climate change, the public view of the issues that promote climate change (like the use of plastic straws) is flawed in establishing the solution to harm. This segues into the last panel, which addresses the real changes that need to occur to end climate injustice.
What Can We Do?
The impact of climate change is going to require more than a few groups of people speaking up against the injustices they face. Real change will come from a shift in power dynamics and a voice given to those who have been silenced. Society asks, what can we do? Change your view. Wong details the exclusion of disabled people in decision making. The disabled community historically has not been given the representation they need to be heard. To assist other marginalized groups, Bullard proposes five ways in which protection from injustices can become “a right rather than a privilege.” The last panel shows a Black man exercising his right to a cleaner, healthier world as he marches with others. The word “Dreams” is vague, but it is meant to capture the right to opportunity, which can only be met if power and voice are given to the groups who have been denied of it. The consumption culture that so many of us have adopted has to recognize and acknowledge the impact of our behaviors on the globe and the people who live on it.
The belief that the consumption of resources and travel are necessary for human happiness creates the biggest disconnect and threat to addressing climate change. Millions of marginalized groups are affected by the implications of this belief, and until they are given the power and recognition to enact change, they will continue to be harmed. It’s easy to look at the images on the far right and want to be swept away in the glamour they portray. It’s easy to acquire more stuff when we’re so removed from the production chain. It’s so easy. It’s hard to accept accountability that our actions extend beyond our immediate pleasures, but in order to address the real horrors of climate change, it’s necessary.
The left panel demonstrates one of the driving forces behind overconsumption: the belief that travel escapes mundane reality. This flawed reliance on expenditure to achieve happiness creates a different reality for marginalized groups seen in the middle panel. Both are put at high risk due to toxic exposure and are unable to fight the repercussions of the left panel’s actions. The right panel looks to rectify the power imbalance caused by environmental racism, preaching that increased recognition and voice to marginalized groups will bridge the disconnect between escapism and the realities created by excessive consumerism.