One of the dumbsmart PR things governments—at least in comfy, privileged nations like mine—do from time to time is to declare war on nouns. War on Poverty. War on Drugs. War on Botulism.
So it’s unsurprising—inevitable, even—that if you google the phrase War on Climate Change, you get lots of hits. Lots of ‘em. What’s weird, though, is they don’t all mean the same thing.
If you see the phrase War on Drugs, frex, you can usually take it to mean some variation on Prohibition. It’s an indicator of legally constituted agents of government, identified by acronyms (ATF! RCMP! CDC!) trying to prevent the manufacture, sale and use of controlled substances.
But when CNN or heads of state say War on Climate Change! half of them mean taking steps to slow the human-triggered transformation of the planet into a bright blue Easy-Bake oven. The other half are actually government officials or influencers of various types trying to deny the evidence—essentially, to stick their fingers directly into our voter ears.
Now, it’s not surprising that public figures resort to War on Gluten, War on Loitering, War on Photofilters rhetoric, because that language evokes all sorts of things many of us think of, vaguely, as laudable. War in this context means a total commit! Big resources! Much serious effort. It tries to stake out the ground of a stern daddy figure, making tough choices for the whole human family.
Sure, there may be tough choices ahead. Here’s a tweet of mine quoting Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article of September 6.
Sounds like the sort of thing I mean, right? Virtuous self-denial, for altruistic reasons.
But on the way to the photo op, the folks who employ War On language conveniently step over all the war things that have, y’know, bad optics. Like murdering people, destroying lives, plague, genocide, war profiteering, censorship and widespread environmental destruction. (And did I mention murdering people?)
Admittedly, it might seem rather pedantic of me to come over all huffy about how a press statement about a war on Cannabis or Climate Change or the Youth Using Whatsapp isn’t actually armed conflict. We all know that, kind of. (Random aside: for kicks I just looked up War on the Anthropocene and I’m not getting any hits. Please let me know when the politicians jump on this bandwagon, so I can invoice them heavily. )
Kidding aside, the reason this is more than mere wordplay—the reason it fucking matters–relates to another mendacious aspect of getting up in front of the world and breaking off diplomatic relations with, say, poverty. Oooh, poverty is the enemy, and we’re gonna end it!
And then, in the end, we don’t. We don’t actually obliterate these alleged social ills we want the people to agree are in need of a serious effort.
If somebody declaring War on the Anthropocene was all it took to actually get a society-wide massive commitment to the continued health of the planet… why, I might even be for that! In fact, I think that as things deteriorate climatewise and we all move into the period that, in my book Gamechanger, is described as the Clawback, it’s very likely going to come to that. The surplus production of most of the planet’s peoples will eventually be recruited into ecological mitigation projects and geoengineering on an unheard-of scale.
Will this manifest as some kind of reasoned and measured choice, deployed with a bit of logistical elan, or as a desperate last resort? And what would it even look like? Let’s talk about just a few of those big, heavily romanticized military-style commitments:
Wars draft people. They impress them into armies and force them to work for months and years, not on their own hopes and dreams, but on the national project at hand. In a few decades’ time, will most adults be expected to put in a few years among armies of tree planters and eco-rehab labourers? It’s not impossible.
Land use is one of our many nested climate problems. We need to start clawing back acreage for forestation and rewilding—remember the trillion threes thing? Somehow, we have to achieve projects like that without sacrificing agricultural output.
In Canada in World War II, 1.1 million volunteers and draftees eventually served in the various branches of our armed forces. Imagine that many people tasked to topsoil generation, tree planting, land use assessment, urban farming startups, and carbon banking. To seaweed farming, Arctic and Antarctic ice propagation, to anti-erosion measures. To demolishing selected suburbs and helping people relocate to places with infrastructure for more sustainable, denser populations living within ever-smaller footprints.
This isn’t a new concept, of course. The Civilian Conservation Corps in the New Deal-era U.S.A. was the same thing. And interestingly, one of their projects was replanting the Great Plains after over-farming caused the Dustbowl. We have historical precedent, in other words, for drafting terraformers to reverse our collective environmental folly.
We already have climate change refugees. Soon we may also, as we did in the Dustbowl, have climate change draftees.
State micromanagement of agriculture and food distribution: Even green armies need food, and green armies that are trying to figure out what to reforest and what to leave for crop production? Are gonna need oversight. Plus food production is likely to drop as we lose arable land to warming and erosion. So… will we need to start rationing again, as places like the UK and Canada did in 1939? There’s a BBC series called Wartime Farm that shows how little a family had to live on, week to week, during that period… and how much the government expected of farmers during that era. It’s illuminating, and it starches the romance right out of those sepia memories of rationing books and chin-up togetherness. (Check it out on Youtube).
State-directed production of green tech and carbon remediation: The next time you are feeling as though our collective human efforts couldn’t possibly make any difference to climate change now, think about bombs. Think about how many bombs, in how many shapes, sizes, and configurations, the industrial nations of the world have produced over the years. Add in the chain-of-production stuff: the full-time miners who dug up the resources, the folks who refined the steel, the scientists who improved their effectiveness at killing—that was one fast product development cycle!– the trucks that got them to the people who were going to drop them on… well, on other people and their stuff.
Then add in the delivery systems—the planes, the subs, the tanks. The mechanics who tightened the bolts on same. The gas that fuelled them and the people who got that to the airfields.
Remember that all that material, all that spending, all those hours on the factory assembly lines, resulted in no significant long term benefit to humanity. We make these things to throw them away, in a particularly horrifying and destructive fashion. Producing bombs is basically a way of flushing precious resources just to see if we can stop up the toilet.
So next time someone tells you we don’t have the wealth to tackle climate change, remember this and tell ‘em that it’s not that we can’t afford it, it’s just that we don’t want to. Enough. Yet. We totally have what it takes to farm atmospheric and oceanic carbon on an industrial scale.
Wartime production of all the machinery of combat skyrocketed during both twentieth century wars. We suddenly needed (well, let’s add air quotes to that “needed”) the stuff… and we made it happen. Innovation leapfrogged too, because the resources was pouring in and the tech—tragically—was getting lots of testing. Those bombs got better and better at it because, we were making an effort, paying attention and spending, spending, spending.
Wrap your head around what we could accomplish as a species if we directed one tenth of every nation’s bomb-building capacity into cooling the planet.
International Climate Crime Tribunals. You wanna declare war on climate change? What if, when the dust settles a bit, we start going after the citizens, human and corporate, who did the most damage? Just a thought. I’ll leave it over there in the corner.
Lots of people, me included, love consuming stories about events like the Battle of Britain. Whether it’s Foyle’s War or Squadron 303 or a nice documentary, all that working together and plucky can-do spirit in the face of adversity looks great on the screen. A cause you can get behind is a unifying and validating thing. And we know how the story ends, which doesn’t hurt.
We have whole fandoms built around the romance of mid-twentieth century fashions, dance crazes, and the events of those troubled decades. The stirring speeches! The great songs! The esprit d’corps and tales of derring do!
The thing is, we can have all that stuff again. We do have all that stuff. Thinking about Winston Churchill makes you mist up? Look at Greta Thurnberg, y’all. Better yet, listen to her. She’s trying to save you, your kids, and your little dog too.
Effort. Commitment. Pulling together. Doing your bit. These are laudable things. How about instead of blowing hot air at focus groups and press conferences, we jump on that bandwagon now, and give it a big wholehearted embrace. But at the same time, let’s decouple the idea of massive society-wide effort from the Be Patriarchy, Do War! narrative. That’s the part we don’t need, the part whose only real capacity, at this point, is to make things even worse.