Imagine a dinner party hosted by an oil baron. The oil baron’s guests are a fascist, a communist, an environmentalist, a priest, and a rabbi. An impressive amount of isms around one table. This group may have different beliefs, but they have more in common then their ism suggests. It’s these shared beliefs, the commonalities between people that are causing the climate crisis.
So what’s an ism? An ism is a belief system or philosophy that acts as a guide to decision making and can dictate how we lead our lives. The ism gives us identity and helps define who we are or what we do. Isms can be all-encompassing, affecting the clothes we wear and the food we eat.
If every person at the dinner represents such different beliefs you would imagine the party would descend into chaos. But day to day society is able to function coherently with different isms intermingling. While the dinner party may bring some heated debates the group is far more united then their ism suggests. For one, they’re united by the need to break bread. Some members of the party may have arrived bearing gifts such as wine. They purchased gifts using money. The ultimate unifier.
Isms create differences, but a string of base beliefs act as connectors uniting people with a common understanding. Money is one such base belief. When we go to a shop, there’s a common understanding of how we purchase goods. You can’t just take something from a shop, that would be a difficult ism to justify in a court of law!
These base beliefs or structural beliefs act as social glue. They’re essential in creating a harmonious, coherent, functioning society. Without them, there would be chaos. It wouldn’t be possible for humans to co-exist in large cities if it weren’t for our ability to conform to a set of unifying base beliefs.
Divide and rule
Governments don’t focus on our ability to cooperate, they seek to reinforce isms, creating division in society. They do so intentionally to ensure society isn’t united by the same isms, because a united society is dangerous. Rather than focusing on differences between each other, we all might start focusing on governments. Now that’s terrifying.
One of the foundations of British rule in India was the concept of ‘divide and rule’. Divisions were encouraged (and even incited by the British) between different groups. Focusing attention on each other, rather than the British themselves.
Had society united against the British, they would have had no hope of retaining control. It was only through the strategy of divide and rule that a tiny minority were able to rule over a majority for nearly 100 years.
Governments now use similar tactics to divide society. The ‘war on terror’ is one such example. It’s hard to think of a better ‘enemy’ because there is no specific enemy. And that’s the point, a war against an unspecified enemy can go on in perpetuity.
Islamism has been targeted as the source of terrorism, leading to Islamaphobia. This hatred or fear of Islam serves an important social purpose, to create divisions within society. Providing an underlying feeling of impending danger that ‘the other’ is seeking to destroy our way of life. Looking to destroy our ism. Unthinkable.
A united society is an uncontrollable mass. Dividing people makes them malleable and controllable. It’s an age-old tactic that’s worked countless times.
The great challenge
The climate crisis is unlike any other challenge we’ve ever faced. It’s such a monumental challenge because it’s not a problem in and of itself. Its an effect of one. The cause is consumption fuelled capitalism. The cause is growth on a finite planet. These are beliefs leading to an undesired outcome, changes to the climate. To change the effect we need to place a lens on the causes of the crisis.
Herein lies the problem. The elite benefitting so handsomely from capitalism have no desire to change our ism. It’s in their interest to maintain the same structural beliefs as these belief systems have made (and will continue to make) them fabulously wealthy. What incentive do they have to encourage a change in our belief systems? Doing so would put their power base at risk.
It’s hard to think of a more damning weakness of our structural beliefs than the fact they’re destroying the environment that gives us life. The climate crisis delegitimises our belief systems. And yet, divide and rule tactics continue to be deployed in the form of climate deniers, who sow seeds of doubt in society.
But denying something that’s increasingly happening in front of our eyes is becoming difficult, leading deniers to flip the script and focus on how a warming planet is a good thing.
The great unifier
The global climate strikes represent an interesting dynamic. The climate crisis is creating unity amongst people behind a common aim, regardless of their personal ism.
The climate crisis could act as a great social unifier. Slicing through differences and helping people form connections based on a desire to solve the crisis.
We all breathe the same air. We all need clean water to drink and rely on healthy soils to grow food to sustain ourselves. Our needs are the same. So when the climate crisis accelerates, creating drought where rivers once flowed, deserts where land was once rich in crops, and toxic air forcing people to wear masks, we’ll all be sharing the same hell.
As we progress into the 21st century the climate crisis will get worse, as it does civil society will break down. People will lose faith in governments incapable of dealing with the overwhelming changes. Crippled by the crisis, a climate movement will demand changes governments aren’t able to make. At that moment, a global movement will have the potential to overthrow the current system to create a new system structured upon base beliefs that benefit everyone and everything.
The great divider
On the other hand governments, in a desperate attempt to maintain order, could create divisions based on patriotic lines.
As we progress into the 21st century an effect of the climate crisis will be an increase in environmental migrants. People forced to leave their homes due to changes to the climate. The UN estimates there could be as many as 200 million climate migrants by 2050. Creating a crisis of unimaginable proportions.
It’s impossible to estimate with any certainty just how many people will have to leave their homes as the crisis makes whole regions uninhabitable. But countries could look to close borders, reinforcing differences based on nationalities. Armies will function as a border patrol, protecting people inside from migrants outside.
The crisis will become a living nightmare.
Either option, unity or divisiveness will produce radical systemic changes to how we do things. We’re living through a defining moment in the course of humanity. The path we choose will decide our future. Will the climate crisis erode isms, and create unity amongst people? Or will governments work to reinforce differences? Only time will tell.