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Betsy Hartmann: Climate Change and Privileged Despair

People can and do cooperate in times of environmental disaster and stress—why isn’t that part of the dominant narrative?

Doomsday panic is as American as apple pie, though the precise recipe depends on the era. Today climate change is a primary focus of apocalyptic fears. No doubt hotter temperatures, warming oceans, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and the likelihood of more intense droughts and storms signal hard times ahead for people and the planet. But while the situation clearly calls for urgent action on climate change, there are real drawbacks to pushing the panic button.

A recent New York Times article describes the phenomenon of young American women—mainly white and middle class—who are so freaked out by climate change that they’re considering whether or not to have children. Their vision of the future is a grim, chaotic dystopia of raging wildfires, flooded shorelines, and dirty air.

A group called Conceivable Future is holding house parties around the country where distressed young women can come together to discuss their reproductive dilemma. While the group encourages some action on climate change, such as the removal of fossil fuel subsidies, the emotional navel-gazing involved is counterproductive on multiple levels.

For one, it begs the question of who are the real victims of climate change. When climate-related disasters strike, the impacts usually fall along class lines. The poorer you are, the more vulnerable you are to losing your life, health, home, and/or livelihood. Similarly, if energy or food prices rise, or water becomes scarce, those on the bottom of the income pyramid typically fare the worst. Well-resourced American families do not face comparable risks. To think they do is to indulge oneself in a sort of privileged victimhood.

This attitude also obscures the raw racial calculus of reproductive survival. Of all developed nations, the U.S. has by far the worst infant and maternal mortality rates. These in turn are highly skewed by race. In 2015, according to the CDC, non-Hispanic blacks had over twice the infant mortality rate of non-Hispanic whites. Moreover, black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes.

The reasons are no mystery. Lack of access to reproductive healthcare and healthcare more generally, untreated chronic medical conditions, and the systemic effects of racism and inequality combine to condemn far too many women of color and their children to an unconscionably early death.  Viewed against this background, middle-class white angst over birthing a baby in an era of climate change seems an unnecessary luxury.

Race is also implicated in dystopian visions of climate change. Images of a hot, overpopulated, violent planet roamed by dark-skinned migrants, terrorists, and criminal gangs are a cultural staple of Hollywood films, media hyperbole, and even Pentagon scenarios of future climate chaos. Climate porn, as it is sometimes called, is shot through with slum porn—inner cities inhabited by people of color and immigrants are portrayed as the seat of evil, deserving of destruction. In his classic book The Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis writes how in American disaster fiction more generally, the “urge to strike out and destroy, to wipe out an entire city and untold thousands of its inhabitants—is rooted in racial anxiety.”

Instead of playing to these perverse versions of the future, it would be far better to challenge them. People can and do cooperate in times of environmental disaster and stress—why isn’t that part of the dominant narrative? Why is it so much easier to imagine a nightmarish world where children don’t belong than a more hopeful future of clean, renewable energy, universal healthcare, human rights, and social, economic, and environmental justice?

Part of the answer lies in the ways many Americans project onto climate change the ravages of militarism and war. For a real preview of dystopia, try the battlefield.  We live in the most militarized country on earth, in a state of permanent war. Under President Trump, the defense budget is growing and nuclear tensions are escalating. But rather than confront the ongoing disaster of militarism, it’s easier to absolve ourselves of political and moral responsibility by making climate change the main bogeyman. While we owe it to the next generation to make a speedy transition out of fossil fuels, we also owe it to them to end the endless wars.


Betsy Hartmann is the author of The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Call to Greatness (Seven Stories Press/NY) and Reproductive Rights and Wrongs (third edition, Haymarket Books). She is a professor emerita of Development Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA.


Activists march with a “System Change Not Climate Change” banner at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo: Kris Krüg/Flickr/cc)

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