One of the most striking conversations I ever had was with a master’s student in the geosciences. His family had left Brazil to escape criminality, filth and low career prospects. He was a very passionate defendant of hydrocarbons. I told him that sooner or later we will have to phase out hydrocarbons in order to prevent a cataclysmic change in the Earth that could lead to human ruin. He retorted, “you see why this city is so clean and green? It’s because of the oil economy! You know what’s dirty, a third world city!”
Everyone knows what he means. The litter in the streets of Bumbai. The polluted rivers of the Niger Delta. The dense smog in Mexico City. The industrial smoke stacks that emit lead particles, poisoning the air in the shanty towns around the third world city I was born and raised in. In a typical city in Alberta, Canada, the industrial smoke stacks are far away from the cities. From the view of my apartment, I can see a thick foliage of trees, parks, and flowers, enveloping residential towers and office buildings. Colorful, recycle bins stack against each other, with labels for glass, paper, and cardboard.
His statement was both disturbing and enlightening. It laid bare one of the main dialectics of climate change: these rich societies that project an aesthetic of cleanliness, law and order, and ecological consciousness, also are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita. These green cities, with parks, trees and flowers enveloping office towers, give the appearance of ecological responsibility, while turning the Earth into a thermodynamic hell for the poorest billion of humans. It’s not the ignorance of the poor, with their filthy streets, and lack of recycling consciousness that is destroying the environment, but the highly ordered, clean and beautiful residents of the liberal metropoles of Canada and Germany, who go to the mountains every weekend, ride their bikes to work, and wear hiking shoes in their offices.
Perhaps the old marxist theorists forgot to mention an ecological imperialism, where the earth is made habitable for a few at the expense of the majority.