Wednesday 5 October 2022

Book Review: Burnt - Fighting for Climate Justice by Chris Saltmarsh

“In the textbooks and on broadcast media, the impacts of climate change are abstracted as technical policy debates without a proportionate sense of the scale of the suffering and devastation already being endured. Both offer a cursory acknowledgement of impacts including droughts, floods, tropical storms or lower crop yields, but it is impossible to understand what these impacts mean without their political context and without the stories of those with direct experience. To understand climate change, our stories must directly address the question of justice.”

    - Burnt, page 8


From Karachi to Pembrokeshire to Tuvalu, the impacts of the climate crisis are being felt by ordinary people. Across the world, our homes are on fire, underwater and we are choking with fumes. We need change and we need it now. 


In Burnt, Chris Saltmarsh looks at how we bring about that change, some of the issues with current and past environmental movements and groups (including big environmental NGOs like WWF and larger activist groups such as XR), as well as how and why justice needs to be embedded in every part of the action we take to prevent and slow down climate disaster. 


Saltmarsh highlights a Green New Deal as the first necessary step to achieving change on a big enough scale to make the impact we need to survive and thrive. In one chapter he breaks down key aspects of the GND, including shutting down the fossil fuel industry, creating (or in some cases adequately funding) national energy, food, health, housing and transport services, and moving to a system of democratic public ownership. Reading parts of this chapter actually made me quite emotional. But emotional in a positive, hopeful way. Emotional because I was in awe imagining what could be possible. One aspect of the GND Saltmarsh describes that I’d not come across before was the idea of a National Food Service. A service which “could begin to concurrently address the interlinked crises of food insecurity, abuses of land rights, and emissions through the universal provision of food free at the point of access.” The fact that my only two margin notes on this section are “this seems wild but amazing” and “this makes me want to cry (in a good way)”, I think says it all. 


While I was reading Burnt, I kept thinking of the quote by Chico Mendes: “environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening”. That sentence is scrawled in at least two margins of this book, if not more, and for good reason. This book emphasises how capitalism and wealth inequality contributes to the climate crisis. We can’t rely on corporations to stop climate change of their own accord, because they simply won’t as this would mean changing their entire business model and relinquishing profit. Saltmarsh uses the example of Quorn, who use the climate crisis as a central part of their advertising campaigns, to highlight how “individuals ‘reducing their carbon footprint’ and practicing moderation is conveniently synonymous with buying their product.” Saltmarsh demonstrates the hypocrisy of Quorn’s climate claims by pointing out that while they may sell a food product more sustainable than meat, their views of climate justice fall short as they “don’t have much interest in transforming the food system to eliminate workers’ rights abuses, environmental degradation and emissions”. This is the same with so many brands. From Levi’s branding themselves as an ‘activist’ company but refusing to commit to signing the legally binding International Accord which would ensure their workers have safe workplaces, to universities claiming to be forerunners of climate action while their staff are on strike around pay, workload, and pay gaps. Green capitalism will not help us. 


Just like Feminism, Interrupted by Lola Olufemi (also part of Pluto Press’s Outspoken series), is an incredible introduction to intersectional feminism, Burnt is a great introduction to climate justice and more specifically to the Green New Deal. It doesn’t cover absolutely everything the Green New Deal would involve – that would be tricky in eight short chapters - and not in huge depth, but Burnt provides a strong foundation of knowledge on the GND and why we need one.  


What can we do to make this happen? Here are a few ideas: 


Support striking workers - whether by attending pickets, donating to strike funds, communicating with bosses and politicians, or whatever other way you can think of.  

Join a movement. There is a role for everyone no matter what you think your activist skills or credentials are, there is something you can do. Green New Deal Rising and Stop Cambo are a fab lot, and there are so many other organisations that are working for change too. Find what’s right for you. Find friends and join together if it seems scary. You’ll undoubtedly make more friends along the way and then a few months later be in awe of what you’ve managed to do as part of a community. 


Write to your MP (or find them in person wherever they may be) to ask if they back a Green New Deal, and if not, ask why not. We need to keep the pressure up otherwise its highly unlikely politicians will take the action we need them to take. 


Work to unpick the oppression that shapes all of our thoughts and behaviour. That means unlearning the racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and ableism that has been pressed upon us from the get go, identifying how we perpetuate those systems of oppression and how we can put a stop to them and reduce the harm caused in our communities. As Saltmarsh emphasises in Burnt, anti-oppression must be central in our fight against climate change, otherwise we won’t achieve climate justice. This is not easy in any way, in fact it should be pretty uncomfortable if it’s done properly, but it’s crucial if we want to create the just world we’re aiming towards. This process should be never ending and can’t be a tick-box exercise. 


Keep imagining. The Green New Deal is an alternative future. It is something to build towards and a task of radical imagination and hope. Sometimes it can feel like we’re only fighting against things – to stop oil and gas fields from construction, to stop forests from being cut down, to stop repressive governments from taking power… What would you want the world to look like in its most perfect form? If there were no barriers and everything was possible, how would you imagine the world to be? Now why shouldn’t that be possible? Why can’t we all be provided for and live our lives to the fullest? Alongside stopping harmful things that are happening, we have to keep in mind the world and the society we want to live in. Having something to fight for keeps our hope and our motivation. What’s the point in saving the world if we don’t live better lives once we’ve done so?


There are so many more things that you can do to help make meaningful change. 


We’ve got this. 

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