Now, I know thats a controversial statement, but please hear me out.
Climate change is a major challenge facing today’s world. We speak seriously about the ‘war on climate change’, ‘fighting climate change’ and ‘defending our environment’.
But, the political language we use around climate change has a far deeper influence that we may realise, and not necessarily in a good way.
Political Consequences of War Metaphors
Metaphors of war have been used in political approaches to several social issues. One example is that of the US ‘war on drugs’ campaign, which heavily criminalised drugs to the effect of mass incarceration on a distinctly racist basis. Similar terminology is used in health campaigns, with ‘war on obesity’ or ‘war on cancer’ being common phrases which have been shown to reduce our commitment to self-controlled preventative action. Most recently of course, we are ‘at war’ with COVID-19.
Describing our management of this global pandemic as a battle or war does an excellent job of realising the urgency of the situation and reflects the mass mobilisation of resources that are necessary. However, it also promotes divisive, nationalised responses. We hear, for example, Donald Trump’s label of the “foreign virus” which is merely the latest occurrence in a long cultural history of assigning blame to ‘outsiders’. Previous examples include the blaming of Irish migrants for cholera outbreaks, or of Jewish communities for spreading the Black Death around Europe. By pointing blame at certain groups, the boundaries between communities are further entrenched, deepening systemic inequality and marginalisation. In turn, collaborative action becomes an increasingly unrealistic goal.
War analogies also further justify Governments’ use of power. Harsh measures can be put in place with just a tiny proportion of the criticism or questioning they would otherwise receive, and their consequences are portrayed as necessary sacrifice.
Emergency powers are granted with the promise of their reduction when crisis has passed. The infamous American prison camp, Guantanamo Bay, was built on such a premise in George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’, and to this day maintains its practice of stripping humans of all their citizen’s rights. This is just one example among many of powers being legitimised during a crisis period before sneakily becoming permanent features of society.
During political ‘wartime’, powers of surveillance become normalised and the technology to facilitate them is developed. When crises occur, they provide a nice excuse for surveillance technology to be funded, built and instilled in our daily lives.
War analogies can also be used to target crisis as an explanation for long term issues, which distracts us from tackling major underlying dilemmas. Coronavirus has presented an example of this, as disruption in supply chains has been publicised as the impact of national lockdowns rather than as an underlying vulnerability of mass globalisation.
The Impact of War Metaphors on Climate Change Management
Apply these consequences of military language to the need to manage climate change and you arrive at a rather grim vision of the future.
With environmental crises being such a global issue, the divide and conquer approach seems doomed to fail. As national pride and ideas of ‘victory’ encourage state leaders to put forth their winning climate management strategies, input from other countries is ignored or marginalised.
This is problematic in two ways. For one thing, it prevents the sharing of innovative ideas between governments or academic communities. For another, it means that environmental solutions are developed without consideration of the diverse effects of climate change, which often differ by locality, ethnicity, gender and social class.
Nationalised approaches cannot fully understand a global problem, and therefore cannot provide a global solution.
As metaphorical military language legitimises the distribution of power to certain elite groups, voices that could otherwise provide great insight in managing environmental problems go unheard. Members of the public are encouraged to place their faith in leaders, which contributes to social rejection of individual opportunities to take part in solutions.
Furthermore, describing environmental crises as wars causes us to fear nature and attempt to dominate it. Nature is portrayed as the opponent we face.
This representation is used to justify activities such as building huge hydroelectric dams or developing new pesticides to protect ourselves against natural ‘attacks’. Such initiatives capture the fear of global societies – fears of natural disaster, crop failure and so on – and attempt to solve them by taming nature through brute force.
While such fears are entirely justified, the approaches we take towards them must include recognition of our own impact and how we can reflect on and change it. Military metaphors make little sense in framing nature as our enemy when, frankly, our problems have largely been self-inflicted.
So what is our relationship with nature?
Nature must be our ally if we are to stand a chance of building a sustainable future. As worded beautifully by psychonaut and author Terence McKenna,
“Nature is not our enemy, to be raped and conquered. Nature is ourselves, to be cherished and explored.”
When we approach nature as a friend and collaborator in our environmental efforts, new opportunities present themselves which are bold, exciting and sustainable.
Innovative ideas such as regenerative farming practices or the development of new textiles which utilise natural waste are examples of how we can work alongside nature, drawing inspiration from living ecosystems and learning from their wondrous power rather than fearing it.
So, we are not at war with climate change.
There, I’ve said it again – but I hope that by now my perspective is a little clearer to you. I am not a climate change denier. In fact, I’m quite the opposite. But, I believe that we must cooperate with the natural world and treat it with the respect and admiration it deserves, rather than dig our trenches and knuckle down on the war tactics which have failed us so cruelly in the past.
Its time we question the language we use around nature and our struggles with sustainability. In questioning our framing of the issue, we enable ourselves to question our solutions.
This questioning can empower innovation, bringing to life the excitement and creativity available to be explored as we endeavour to build a sustainable future.