2. Ecological Collapse and Climate Crisis
Before we move on, let’s take some time to dig deeper into a couple of examples related to how we feed and clothe ourselves: industrial agriculture and the fashion industry. Below we explore how practices that are harmful to the environment and all life on this planet are built into these industries. But remember, they don’t need to be. Humans have created these systems and humans can change them.
Industrial Agriculture and Food Waste
“Aside from the fossil fuel industry, one of the biggest causes of the climate crisis is industrial agriculture. It causes deforestation, mass pollution, and harms the environment with the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Based entirely on capitalist interests, it remains centred on profit and is a huge perpetrator of land theft from local communities. In addition, it has led to enormous amounts of food waste. A solid third of all food produced on this earth is wasted. That’s enough extra food to feed 3 billion people per year, or provide enough water for 9 billion people!”
Industrial agriculture- or agribusiness- refers to mass-production associated with:
- livestock and the dairy industry
- fruits, vegetables and grains produced for human consumption and for cattle feed,
- products including sugar cane used for “green energy”
As described in the introductory video, industrial agriculture causes:
- contamination and other health problems due to the use of chemical fertilizers
- soil depletion
- loss of biodiversity because wild animals and plants are pushed out to make way for industrial farms
- huge amounts of waste pollution through runoff into nearby waters and into soils
- loss of cultural diversity and Indigenous food systems that have sustained communities for time immemorial
Industrial agriculture is often thought of as a great solution to address food insecurity and an ever growing population, but a closer look reveals its many flaws. Unlike independent smallholder farming, agribusiness is entirely wrapped up in a capitalist system that causes harm to the planet and non-human life, while exploiting the labour of Black, Indigenous and people of colour to maximize profit.
Industrial agriculture drives land theft worldwide. Private equity firms, corporations and the governments that support them view food as a kind of investment security, so they have an interest in acquiring large swaths of land, basically anywhere they can.
Starting after 2008, the scale and speed of what governments and corporations call “land acquisitions” have been accelerating. These groups often go after the lands of local communities who have been practicing customary agriculture for hundreds of years; they coerce them into giving up their lands through new laws and policies, often ones shaped on colonial era legislations.
The plan is to deforest these lands to make way for more industrial agriculture, despite environmentalists and climate scientists saying clearly that customary or smallholder farming is much better for people and for the planet. This is because smallholder farming uses rotational crop planting and promotes biodiversity.
Currently, industrial agriculture dominates in the US and Canada, but worldwide, at least half of food is still produced by smallholder farmers. So the fight of preserving smallholder farms and preventing their lands from being taken by massive corporations is ongoing. There have been huge protests by Indigenous and local communities to prevent land theft all over the world.
And not only does industrial agriculture hurt the environment and racialized and Inidigenous communities, it is also super wasteful. A solid third of all food produced on this earth is wasted. That’s enough extra food to feed 3 billion people per year, or provide enough water for 9 billion people!
People living in North America and Europe waste the most food. They waste about ten times more than those living in Asia, for example. Food waste is a massive emitter of greenhouse gasses: if it was a country, it would be about the third largest emitter on Earth.
Why does food waste happen? One might say, because of capitalism, or the drive to make a profit. In the US, half of all food is wasted at the farm: it’s refused by retailers because it’s deemed “ugly” and thus unsellable. Food retailers also overstock their shelves on purpose in order to draw in customers, because customers have been shown to buy less when shelves seem understocked. This leads to more food being wasted at the store. Promotions and coupons also cause food waste because people buy more than they need and end up throwing it away at home.
- “Food Waste: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” HBO, July 2015 (18 mins)
- “Canadians get creative in solving feed waste problem,” CBC News: The National, August 2018 (6 mins)
The principle that when people acquire things at a very low cost, they value it less, applies to another massive consumer driver of waste: clothing and textiles.
About 85% of our textile waste—that is, our clothes and drapery—ends up in landfills. Most textiles are now made of synthetic materials that come from fossil fuels (plastics). But even “natural” clothing requires a huge amount of resources, with one cotton t-shirt taking an estimated 2700 litres of water to produce.
The waste caused by the fashion industry can be largely attributed to fast fashion. Fast fashion has been a growing trend through the 21st century, one that has taken hold across the capitalist system. How does capitalism drive fast fashion?
Fashion companies are some of the biggest profit-reaping enterprises on earth. They have some of the highest profit margins because they employ people for so little, and pay nothing at all for their massive environmental impacts.
In just the United States for example, 95% of clothes were made within the country in 1960. Today, 97% of all clothes come from outside the country. Companies recruit cheap labor overseas to make their clothing. Clothes are made mainly through women’s labour and women are paid some of the lowest wages on Earth for that work. Then, companies sell clothes at low prices to encourage high turnover in their stores; when consumers feel clothes are cheap, they throw them out more often. This demonstrates how the textile industry is at the intersection of climate change and capitalist exploitation.
- “Fast Fashion – The shady world of cheap clothing,” DW Documentary, February 2022 (43 mins)
- “The Ugly Truth of Fast Fashion,” Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, November 2019 (29 mins)
- “Recycling revolutionary Veena Sahajwalla turns old clothes into kitchen tiles,” ABC News In-depth, February 2021 (29 mins)
After watching the video “Man” by Steve Cutts found below, consider the following:
- Was the video hard to watch? Why or why not?
- Consider the examples of industrial agriculture and fast fashion. How are the harms these industries cause hidden and/or normalized? Why?
Note: to access your reflection journal please review the Introduction section of the Ecological Collapse and Climate Crisis module.