To begin, before we can discuss climate change and our necessary responses to it in terms of a wide-angle lens structuralist analysis, we need to look at the structures that are arguably detrimental to the environmentalist movement.
As the name implies, structuralism is a school of sociological thought that looks to structures such as schools, governments, and, on a far greater scale, economic systems to figure out why things are the way they are in our societies. That last one – the big economic picture – is what we’re looking at today. The bitter taste of the word “economics” aside, having an understanding of our current economy’s effect on the environment is fundamental to anyone concerned with humanity’s violent footprint.
As Westerners (I assume, perhaps arrogantly), you and I live under a specific brand of capitalist thought called neoliberalism. Though you’ve undoubtedly had the former explained to you many times, the latter is a term that has only recently entered widespread use in North America. A discussion of neoliberalism – how it structures society, how it affects the individual, and how it interprets capitalist ideals – could fill up dozens of these posts, but to put it succinctly: neoliberalism is a full-fledged ideology, whereas capitalism is technically only an economic system. That said, many of the tenets of neoliberalism, such as private enterprise, a constant push for freer markets, and unregulated banks, have their roots in the classical liberal thought that gave root to capitalism several hundreds of years ago.
But neoliberalism is so much more than a simple resurgence of post-renaissance classical liberalism; it’s a way of thinking and a way of life. It is a world-system that favours not just the individual, but the so-called enterprising individual – a person who thinks and acts in accordance with market norms, like a little one-man corporation. In that way, neoliberal capitalism makes you less a member of your society, and more one of your economy. That makes perfect sense, given that neoliberalism as a system has succeeded in constructing our society around a supposed free market, rather than in establishing a free market within an existing society.
That’s about as much as can be explained on the matter of the ubiquity of neoliberal thought in under 250 words, but it ends up making neoliberalism seem like some sort of invisible overarching bogeyman. Academics have been making neoliberalism’s roots and effects concretely known for decades now, but if you want to get a far more palatable introduction to the whole thing, consider picking up one of Naomi Klein’s several bestsellers. Klein’s a proud Canadian export, and arguably one of the West’s best synthesists; she’s been the entryway for many to notions of neoliberalism, predatory capitalism, and, in her most recent book This Changes Everything, capitalism’s effects on the environment.
Okay, cool, so neoliberalism is a thing that exists and places a big focus on the individual and his or her place in a free market economy, but what’s that got to do with climate change? Depending on whom you choose to listen to, the answer may well be “everything”. But more on that soon.