Plainly, the earth is burning. Though reified in the burning of the Amazon rainforest, the conflagration is not a crisis that cropped up out of nowhere. There are currently comparable forest fires raging in parts of Southeast Asia, California and southern Africa. And there is no shortage of efforts by national governments and grassroots organizations to combat humanity’s negative impact on this burning planet.
The problem, however, is that too many people in positions of power don’t care. Even after the Amazonian arson drew international ire, 4,000 more intentional fires sparked up in the next two days (The Independent, 09.02.2019, “Amazon fires: Almost 4,000 new blazes started across Brazil in 48 hours after ban on burning forest land”). We don’t all sympathize with the despotic machinations of Brazilian President Bolsonaro, nor do some of us share the sheer ineptitude and unflinching disregard for human life embodied by President Trump. We as (even temporary) residents of the United States and of Vassar College, however, suffer from a seemingly incurable illness which we have contracted and continually spread amongst ourselves with sadistic penetrative smiles. This, of course, is the malady of being in the world’s top one percent economically, and the chief symptom is dissociation from the needs of the less-fortunate. After all, the scenic Hudson Valley’s trees aren’t on fire. Rest assured, if they were, our Board of Trustees would rush to build an Inn and Institute on top of the ashes.
It is all too easy to fall into a routine of individualized environmental destruction on a day-to-day basis. Vassar is no exception. The green-hearted among us shudder at the Deece management’s willingness to supply copious quantities of single-use cups for coffee and cold beverages, even at the height of the lunch rush. This prioritizes ease of running the facilities over environmental impact.
Bon Appétit is not the only offender—each time that I take a cup of coffee off to my morning class, rather than use a mug of my own, I am complicit in humankind’s torturing of the earth, even if it is just in small increments. Every time you ask for a beef taco at Global, you are complicit in it too. Our overindulgent meat-eating culture tends to forget that beef singlehandedly contributes 44 percent of all food-related emissions (U.N. Food and Agriculture Administration, “Tackling Climate Change through Livestock,” 2013 study). This is not to mention the ethical implications of supporting capitalism-fueled global genocide of animals in captivity. Whenever we fail to voice discontent with the environmental policies of campus dining, we as students and faculty signal our tolerance of ecological injustice. That is, we fling ourselves at the mercy of the law of supply and demand. By thoughtlessly engaging in practices like the use of disposable goods and meat consumption, we maintain a demand for the production of single-use items and the wholesale slaughter of animals. Plastics are produced from crude oil, and livestock is brutalized so that you can enjoy a chicken sandwich between your classes. Vegetarians are no better; whereas meat-eaters are complicit in the mass slaughter of animals, you merely subject them to brutal serfdom. Your cup of milk is no more righteous than my hamburger; moreover, both leave a carbon footprint. In active participation in destructive practices, we revel in our negligence. But why? Why are we so willing to continue to contribute to global climate change while pretending that everything is just business as usual?
It’s tempting to pat ourselves on the backs—we throw quaint Green Fests, plan protests on campus and share pithy posts on Facebook. But these efforts pale in the face of concern that energy improvement goals will not be met on time. According to Vassar’s Students for Equitable Environmental Decisions (SEED), it is of a frightening uncertainty whether New York state will meet its goal of achieving a 50 percent renewable energy grid by 2030. This would substantially hamper the College’s efforts to transition from central heating to biofuels, which are not carbon neutral, and would only buy the College a temporary period of cheaper energy. Although the proposed replacement for fossil-fuel-based heating would be cogeneration, the use of steam to produce energy would still “commit[t] us to fossil fuel infrastructure for at least the next ten years.” Vassar cannot afford to put off sustainability for another ten years. Furthermore, the strides taken by students towards progress have already met resistance from the Administration, as SEED describes the Board of Trustees as “firmly against divestment” from fossil fuel sources (Boilerplate Magazine, “Can Vassar Go Carbon Neutral by 2030?,” 04.13.2019).
On campus, the future is unclear. In the world, prospects are even more daunting. Humanity may soon face the reality that it is simply too late. That is, if not too late to prevent ecological destruction altogether, then too late to reverse some permanent damage. Small acts such as die-ins, as well as individual recycling, simply may not be enough. Slavoj Zizek, political philosopher and author of the book “Living in the End Times,” recently wrote about the Amazon fires for The Independent. As Zizek put it, “We are like a soccer fan who supports his team in front of a TV screen at home, shouting and jumping from his seat, in a superstitious belief that this will somehow influence the outcome” (The Independent, 09.04.2019, “The Amazon is burning, and your tiny human efforts against the climate crisis have never seemed so meagre”). Zizek continues to identify the consequential problem as ideological individualization; that is, focusing on one’s self rather than “raising much more pertinent global questions about our entire industrial civilization.” Zizek is an adamant quasi-Marxist, and has been a long-time proponent of communism as a means of confronting existential threats to humankind. He might be onto something here.
While it may not take a neo-Leninist global uprising to combat climate change, I can’t help but wonder if a solution is closer to that scenario than the billionaires, baby boomers and the bourgeois students among us would care to admit. After all, the 2017 Carbon Majors Report found that just a small number of corporations are responsible for 71 percent of emissions (The Guardian, 08.10.2017, “Just 100 companies responsible for 71 percent of global emissions, study says”). As difficult as it is to throw off the yoke of capitalism, especially for people in underprivileged communities, we need to recognize our collective responsibility for lining the pockets of the owners of those companies. The same folks who proudly wave picket signs at die-ins are purchasing computers from environmentally irresponsible tech companies, using diesel-fueled vans to travel to each other’s protests, and are thereby indulging the corporations pillaging the planet of its natural resources.
I’m glad you got your free potted plant at your posh college gathering—I really am. Just be sure to hug it close with your Macbook, Amazon-ordered textbooks, and Starbucks coffee cup. Soon, it will be all you have as you gasp for air. Soon, our die-ins will not be a mere act of playing pretend, as the carbon dioxide strangles us.