We Killed the Climate Canary

COP28 put pressure on the US and China to spend, but we all should know that spending alone is not the magic wand that will sustain our climate.

Published: Jun 16, 2024  |  

Megan Thiele Strong, Ph.D., is a Social Sciences professor at San José State University and a Public Voices Fellow at the TheOpEdProject.

We cannot spend our way into sustainability. We cannot defy logic and elevate private bads, such as greed, to the highest form of public good, and expect a happy ending. Our culture of wealth chasing is not to be idolized, it is to be shifted. It’s time we transverse the gap between our personal values and the unrighteousness of our status quo.

The climate canary is dead; we killed it. When mining coal, workers kept a canary to signal if the work environment became too dangerous. The canary would pass out from carbon monoxide early and give the miners an opportunity to get out. Climate scientists have established boundaries that, within which, keep our Earth inhabitable. We are surpassing them. Our society is organized around collective self harm. I have too much experience with self harm. I began self harming as a child. I couldn’t fix what was broken at home and in the world and I was frustrated at myself for these inabilities. I have been a danger to myself. When it comes to climate, we all self-harm.

Climate alarm bells are ringing across the globe and also inside of us; we have a generalized climate anxiety.  Consciously, somatically, or both, there is this awareness of this misalignment with each other and with our climate. A heavy sigh here and there as we read the headlines: the floods, the fires, the violence. We all have various symptoms of our allergic reactions to our environmentally destructive status quo. 

We are like the frog in the boiling water, except unlike the unsuspecting frog, we are aware of the threat and we are also actively working to turn up the heat. We are born into these trauma and cancer generators. We are good people who collectively self-harm. We treadmill together. We justify bad behavior with religion. We are living through institutionalized, lived environmental and social harm. We don’t have to be bad people to do bad things. We don’t have to hate the Earth to disrupt her life systems. 

The evidence of our collective sabotage abounds in its seeming ubiquitousness. Yet, the output bias in our system shields us. We see the juicy hamburger, but we don’t see the illegal activities that put that hamburger together because ag-gag laws prohibit whistle-blowing in the meat industry. We rely on our screens, but can’t name the raw materials that were excavated to bring them to us, and we don’t know if or which children worked on the products in our possession. Waste colonialism, whereby wealthier nations like the United States export trash to less resourced countries, insists that we are not connected to the communities that will be impacted by the trash we produce. Environmental racism puts disproportionate environmental harms, and environmental deaths on BIPOC populations both nationally and globally and protects white people from the worst consequences of climate disaster. For many environmental hazards, being Black is a larger predictor of exposure than being low-income

This disproportionality of climate damage ensures the wealthier we are, the whiter we are, the manlier we are, the more we gobble up, the more abuse we cause. And, then there’s “the white male effect.” In terms of climate destabilization, the white male effect has three tenets; white males, compared to both women and people of color, are most likely 1) to underestimate the risk of collective harm, i.e. downplay the threat of climate destruction, 2) to be willing to take risks, i.e. are more likely to have gotten away with risky behavior, and 3) to be in the crucial positions of power related to geo-engineering solutions, i.e. be positioned to take large-scale, high-risk bets with all our lives on the line. 

To be sure, we say there is nothing we can do to become sustainable; that there is no alternative to collective self-sabotage. Except, navigators know that ships embark on an entirely different trajectory when coordinates are off by 1°. A conversation you begin could be the granularity of change needed to reach a tipping point. 

We can investigate our ecological footprint, the origination and destination stories of products, the “grade” of companies in the Better World Shopper’s guide, and the propensity of our products to cause harm to us. We can appreciate our existence, the sunset, trees, and dirt. We can join a climate café, check out the Climate Reality Project, and related movements. And, there are larger investments we can take to shape society. We can consider the Environmental Justice for all Act, vote for the Green New Deal, enter politics and create other pathways to  organize politically for a sustainable today. 

We can elevate the caring nature of our shared humanity. If we can awaken to see ourselves as the problem, we can be our own anti-hero. We may be exhausted in the eleventh hour, and we must pull on reserves to save ourselves. 

I have been teaching Environmental Sociology for more than 10 years to undergraduates at SJSU and before that UC Merced. The class interweaves the importance of individual agency and the need for structural and organized solutions and promotes dialogue about us, society, and Earth. Gen Z cares about our climate sustainability. The youth know we hold the power to establish a sustainable steady-state. It will take bold and brave lifts to listen to climate scientists and the youngest generations and get ourselves rearranged to collective self-care. It took me 30 years to develop a self-care practice and what I learned from that journey is that the best time to start is right now. Stop talking about your new Tesla and start talking about climate stabilization. 

The 988 Lifeline is a national number that accesses local crisis centers you can call or text for free and confidential support during emotional distress 24/7.

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