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CLIMATE CRISIS AND THE PERILS OF INCREMENTALISM

Climate specialists have characterized the climate crisis as unpreventable. The planet is heating beyond repair, and yet, communities are still forced to negotiate with elected officials, begging and pleading for their lives, for a dignified chance at survival. 

By Kyliel Thompson

In 1989, the late, but always timely, James Baldwin invoked a modification of progress in the interview, “The Price of the Ticket,” demanding to know the terms of “progression.” Baldwin, a product of urban sociality, makes clear his disbelief of progress, experiencing its full abjectness, and how the very idea necessitates his demise. Said otherwise, Baldwin’s protest of progress can easily be characterized as a departure from the bleak promises of electoral incrementalism—applicable to our current ecological crisis, a symptom of imperialism. In such an emergency, progress becomes a privilege, as those whom it should most benefit are handed only its misfortunes. Progress performs as an accurate guise for change. We are forced into waiting, a placeholder for death under incrementalism, all to soothe the illusion of “progress,” as progress does not malfunction, it operates as normal. Progress is a transposition of death. 

On August 9th, 2021, The New York Times published an article detailing a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific report—an intervention on the current climate catastrophe. Climate specialists have characterized the climate crisis as unpreventable. Unpreventable, in the sense that it is no longer looming, and will progressively become worse if societal interventions aren’t proactive. Scientists have warned us of this rapid increase in Earth’s temperature for decades, noting that the rate at which the planet warms continues to increase exponentially. Now, the planet is heating beyond repair, and yet, communities are still forced to negotiate with elected officials, begging and pleading for their lives, for a dignified chance at survival. Rather than our needs being met with meaningful solutions, our representatives veil their private interests behind public policy, often assigning the fault on bipartisanship. 

In 2021, we’ve faced record temperatures, heatwaves killing hundreds of people in the United States and Canada, floods destroying parts of Germany and China, and wildfires ravaging Siberia, Turkey, and Greece. This isn’t the first time we’ve witnessed the effects of climate catastrophe. In 2019, the world watched nervously as Australian forests burned, forcing fauna into the streets, wildlife scorched upright—their ashes compacted and still. In 2020, California had its most dangerous wildfire season, burning towns down to their soil, displaying a week-long quasi-apocalyptic sky in the Western Hemisphere. According to the IPCC report, “Even if nations started sharply cutting emissions today, global warming is likely to rise around 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades,” clearly demarcating the lines of salvageable and irrecoverable. Already beyond cure, is the looming threat of droughts, depleted bio-life, insufficient food supply, and rising sea levels, putting islands, coastal cities, and the global south at an insurmountable risk. 

RECOMMENDED: Dawning Climate Catastrophe and the Paradox of Green Capitalism

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina tore through Louisiana, displacing 1.3 million people, and killing over 1800. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), failed to respond adequately to the needs of Louisiana residents. Sixteen years later, the government’s response is the same. Hurricane Ida, the second-strongest hurricane to strike Louisiana has yet again revealed the poor strategizing by another presidential administration, failing to evacuate families in a timely manner and provide them with proper resources. Many families have sought relief not from the government, but through mutual aid, or “a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit.” Families have always been burdened with the task to flee, and that is only if resources are available, as it is quite costly to take refuge away from home. 

In 2005, Jabbar Gibson used a school bus to drive sixty residents to safety during Hurricane Katrina.

We have seen cries for help on social media, individuals tweeting from attics, rooftops, in search of some relief, and any kind of aid. As Dr. Jared Sexton put it in “The Obscurity of Black Suffering,” “If anything, we have a surplus of plans, many of them quite sound and longstanding and unrealized. What we do not have is a language, much less a political culture, that adequately addresses the complexity of our position(s), our predicament(s), and our pain(s) without recourse to euphemism.” What I indicate with this quote, is not an implied unpreparedness of those who were victims of Katrina and Ida, but an incessant unpreparedness of electoral incrementalism regardless of where it lies on the political spectrum to quell climate disaster that has been caused by imperialism. 

During the Obama administration, the Democratic Party held a supermajority, capturing both the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. During that time, very minimal climate policy was enacted, a time when the Democratic Party had the numbers and support to pass bold climate policy. Instead, a large swath of the federal budget was allocated toward defense spending, increasing exponentially each year. Now, we are witnessing a repeat with the Biden administration. If we are to draw any conclusions from this, it must be that electoral incrementalism will not save us, that if we are to depend on filibuster-proof supermajorities for serious climate interventions, we will all crumble, Black and brown communities being the first. 

RECOMMENDED: 19 Youth Climate Activists of Color Who Are Fighting To Protect The Earth

Our government officials exempt themselves from all liability, leaving the most vulnerable to be subjected to means-testing and deplorable living conditions. While community organizers are desperately trying to extend climate relief to the poor and marginalized, legislative and executive bodies continue to increase the military budget, the world’s largest pollutant—cementing themselves as oppositional to our collective well-being. Many of us are now beginning to witness the harm of the military’s imperialist efforts. After twenty years of occupancy in Afghanistan and other parts of South Asia, we are well aware of the intent of military interventions to destabilize regions and embezzle their resources. Any policy that does not hold the United States military accountable for its imperialist measures and contribution to climate devastation is meaningless. But, why would the state ever hold itself accountable? Hence, wherever there is a carceral presence, Black, Brown, and Indigenous Peoples are forced into fugitivity, the captor being imperialism and its symptoms. 

Our wretched dystopia becomes more a reality each day. Environmental organizers are struggling, failing to allot land back to indigenous groups because the Biden administration continues to sign legislation that pillages their land. Black and brown communities are struggling to combat environmental racism as factories open waste dumps and fracking sites in their backyards, contaminating air, water, and soil. Our dependence on local elections has continued to fail us, as they do not possess the power to reduce harm on the scales that it is needed.    

As we continue to exist inside a neocolonial world, we must acknowledge that freedom will always be non-existent. We must always recall that our representatives are aware of our freedom, and are antithetical to it. For them, freedom is not unthought, it is locked away somewhere so we, the working class, the poor, the fat, the disabled, would never attain it. As long as social life consists of the poor, fat, and disabled, there can be no compromise, as compromise is certain death. For those wondering what is the alternative—anything. Chaos and disarray are far more organized than any aspect of “progress,” as progress and death are in cahoots. Divesting from electoral incrementalism forces us to re-imagine a life free of captivity, where “harm reduction” by warmongers does not constitute our livelihoods. As this concludes, we must ask ourselves, what does our “flight” entail? And, what is the position of freedom outside of “progress?”

References: 

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons : Fugitive Planning & Black Study / Stefano Harney & Fred Moten. Minor Compositions, 2013.

Sexton, Jared. “The Obscurity of Black Suffering”. What Lies Beneath : Katrina, Race, and the State of the Nation / Edited by the South End Press Collective. South End Press, 2007.

Sharkey, Patrick. “Survival and Death in New Orleans: An Empirical Look at the Human Impact of Katrina.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 37, no. 4, Sage Publications, Inc, 2007, pp. 482–501, doi:10.1177/0021934706296188.

Born in Brooklyn, Kyliel Thompson (he/they) is a writer, seeking to explore the depths of literature, theory, and visual aesthetics. He is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of Architecture, researching the multifunctional use of planning methods, particularly how motion influences urban planning. You can find him on Instagram @kylielthompson, or contact him through email at @kylielth@buffalo.edu

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