Justice Will Save Us
This is a draft introduction to a book-in-progress entitled Justice Will Save Us: Why Justice Holds the Key to Solving the Climate Crisis, by Alex Lenferna. The aim is to complete the book by the end of 2021. The author is still working to find a book publisher, so there is no publication date yet.
When the world as we know it seems like it is going to end, humanity tends to look for saviours.
Spandex superheroes saving the day from cataclysm are household names. In literature, the hero figure emerges time and time again on an epic quest against the odds. And almost every major religion prophesizes that a saviour will come forth to save the world from the end times.
Back in the 1990s, polls showed that one in four Christians in America believed that they would see apocalypse in their lifetime — many thought it was going to happen with the coming of the new millennium on January 1st, 2000. Tens of millions of Americans were so strongly convinced that they felt the need to urgently convert their friends and family to prepare for the coming apocalypse.[i]
According to some versions of the biblical prophecy, the apocalypse would bring the second coming of Jesus Christ. [ii] In a time of darkness, Jesus would cast the anti-Christ into a Lake of Fire and Satan would be bound for a thousand years. God’s Kingdom would be established on earth and in the Rapture that followed, Christians would be united with the Lord.
Certain sects of Islam similarly believe that the world will enter a period of moral decay where a one-eyed anti-Christ figure named Dajjal would bring chaos and destruction. Dajjal, however, is not prophesized to succeed, but rather to be slain (also) by Jesus during his second coming. In the reckoning that followed, God would reward the good with paradise and condemn the evil to hell.[iii]
In Hindu writing, the god Kalki is prophesized to appear at the end of the present age to punish the wicked and reward the good. Kalki is another divine saviour, who kills the demon Kali and brings an end to a dark and destructive cosmos. As he winds down the cosmos though, he reopens it immediately to a period of peace and prosperity, and he restores dharma and justice to the world.[iv]
In the face of the climate crisis, which threatens to upend the world as we know it, it might be cosmically comforting to believe that out of darkness a divine saviour will come to restore order. If that saviour is coming though, then they better come fast, as scientists warn that we are rapidly running out of time to stop the crisis from spiralling out of control.
Most people, of course, do not believe that supernatural deities will save us from climate change. There are, however, several false saviours emerging — some of them may even have God-complexes. In particular, I have in mind an emerging group of billionaires who are serving as self-appointed climate saviours — from Branson to Bezos, to Musk to Gates. What these billionaires tend to sell is the promise of science and technology to save us from this crisis.
Bill Gates once even stood on the stage of the prestigious annual Nelson Mandela lecture in South Africa, promising “energy miracles” that would solve the climate crisis and lift people out of poverty. A look to the history of colonial missionaries coming to Africa promising miracles, might help explain why Gates’ promises were met with quite a lot of skepticism. (There is good reason to be skeptical too, as we will explore in this book’s chapter on the billionaire saviour complex).
To be sure, scientific and technological solutions are vital parts of tackling climate change. The problem arises when those selling them obscure the deeper underlying causes of the crises that we are in. As this book will detail, at the root of the climate crisis is an extractive and harmful economic system. It is the dominant cause not only of the climate crisis, but of an interconnected set of social, ecological, and economic crises we face. Of course, billionaires who most benefit from that system, are unlikely to tell us that. It suits them to sell technology as our saviour, not systems change.
Billionaires, however, are not alone in believing that technology and science will save us from the climate crisis. Consider the results of a 2020 survey from the United Kingdom, which tried to gauge peoples understanding of climate change.[v] The survey showed on the positive side that most people understood that climate change is real, happening, human-caused, serious, and something we can address by taking action. For those beliefs we can give the UK public an A+ as they match with what the science of climate change is telling us.
However, according to the survey, the UK public generally also believed that climate change is a problem separate from social justice issues, which has no impact on existing inequalities. They also believe it is a problem solved by reducing emissions through science and technology, not by changing economic and politic systems. On all these fronts, UK public opinion is off the mark.
Climate change is deeply interconnected to broader questions of social justice, and if we do not address those issues of justice simultaneously, we will likely fail to solve the climate crisis. Climate change also threatens to widely deepen an already vast chasm of inequality. And, if we are truly to tackle the climate crisis, then we will need to transform our economic and political systems.
Fortunately, not everyone thinks like the UK public. If we turn to movements in the global south, you find that they see solving the ecological and climate crises as primarily a question of justice and systems change. Demands from indigenous movements and the global south, tend to put justice as the guiding principle, which science and technology should serve.[vi] They are right, as this book explores.
In the end, science only helps us understand the world and what is possible. It is what we do with that knowledge that counts. Similarly, technology only opens up new possibilities, both good and bad. What technology we use and how we do so, is what matters. In the words of Professor of Philosophy and Cosmology Brian Swimme:
Humans through our scientific insight and our technological skills have become a macrophase power, something on the level of glaciations or forces that caused the great extinctions of the past. Yet we have only a microphase sense of responsibility or ethical judgement. We need to develop a completely different range of responsibility.
Here is the thing, we already have most of the physical resources, science and technology we need to create a socially and ecologically just world. What we do not have is the economic, social and political systems in place to actually do so. To see why, we can consider the case of COVID-19 and vaccines.
With the development of several successful vaccines in 2021, we technically had all the technology and science we needed to do a mass vaccine roll out and vaccinate the world. The global community would simply need to come together, pool its resources, and use our productive capacities to mass produce vaccines and get them to every citizen in the world.
Instead, what we have is a world defined by vaccine apartheid — where an artificially scarce amount of vaccines are administered mostly to the minority of wealthy, whiter citizens of the world, while the global majority remains vulnerable, unvaccinated and undervalued. That is thanks to a system which prioritises profit and intellectual property, and values some lives more than others.
Likewise, when it comes to climate change, the world’s leading economists and scientists have been telling us that for years we have most of the technologies we need to solve the problem. They’ve told us that acting on climate change would be better for our economies, societies and communities. Instead of acting though, we have “climate apartheid”, where the rich, who benefit most from our current polluting system, pay to escape the devastation caused by the escalating climate crisis while the rest of the world suffers the brunt of its impacts.
Corporations have used scientific insight and technological prowess to scour the earth, to rapaciously extract as much as they can from it with little regard for the consequences felt by people and planet. We have put technology and science largely in the service of profits, increasingly for the few — and profit tends to have little by way of moral compass.
That is not to say profit has no place in the world. As political theorist Michael Walzer wrote in his book Spheres of Justice, one of the biggest problems in the world is when a value system rules beyond where it rightfully should. Similarly, while profit has its place in society, the problem is that it has ruled well beyond where it rightfully should. It is beginning to devour all else that is of value.
To overcome climate apartheid, what is needed is not simply to develop more technology, although innovation is an important part of needed action. Rather the more urgent task is the responsible use of existing science and technology in the service of justice, morality and the common good. We need to develop political, economic, and social systems that follow a moral compass. It is by making justice our guide, that science and technology can be truly made to solve the climate crisis.
That is the core premise of this book, that it is justice that will save us. Justice is not just a box to tick or something that is nice to have to make climate action more palatable. Rather, it is the key to ensure we solve the climate crisis, and the set of interconnected social, ecological, and economic crises that fuel it. Justice is also key if we are to weather the storms of climate change that lie ahead.
Of course, it is all good and well to say that justice will save us. It sounds like one of those political platitudes you might find on a placard at a protest. Broad enough to ring roughly true, while not specific enough to meaningfully guide action. So, what do I mean by it? To get a better sense, it will help to understand what sort of justice I am referring to.
Justice is a term that is so broad that it does not easily admit of a precise definition. It is a term that philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance concept” where there is no single essential common feature shared by all things we call “justice”. Rather, across different conceptions of justice there is a complicated network of similarities that overlap and crisscross, as well as major differences and variations.
The problem with such an open concept is that it is open to many interpretations and is broad enough to be abused. Rather than justice saving, it has often been used to enslave. Many decidedly morally unjust actions have been pursued in the name of what was once deemed legally just. Laws have upheld deeply unjust practices and systems such as slavery and Apartheid. Many of our current legally sanctioned actions will likely be deemed similarly immoral. Consider, for example, brutal and inhumane immigration enforcement regimes and the so often legal destruction of ecosystems.
The sort of justice we are after is not about the hard arm of the law enforcing the existent legal order. It is a moral sense of justice that transcends the law. Under this view, our legal system must be held in check by what is morally just. Our laws must progress in accordance with our evolving understanding of what is morally right. This deeper moral sense of justice is about working together to bring what is right, fair, and moral into how we collectively shape the world. It is a more revolutionary sense of justice that is about protecting and building a world that we love. After all, in the words of Professor of Philosophy Cornel West, we must “never forget that justice is what love looks like in public”.[vii]
To emphasize the importance of love, there are few better sources than the words of professor, poet, and activist, bell hooks.[viii] In her powerful essay Love as Practice of Freedom she points out that:
The absence of a sustained focus on love in progressive circles arises from a collective failure to acknowledge the needs of the spirit and an overdetermined emphasis on material concerns. Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed. As long as we refuse to address fully the place of love in struggles for liberation we will not be able to create a culture of conversion where there is a mass turning away from an ethic of domination. Without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations, we are often seduced, in one way or the other, into continued allegiance to systems of domination…
Talk of love may seem idealistic, perhaps even wishy washy, but if you ask someone why they fight for something, the typical response eventually goes back to love. In the over a decade that I have spent in activist spaces, what I have found tends to move people is the things they love — whether it be love of people, places, creatures, or communities. Love has an immense power, which we must harness and put at the centre of our visions of justice.
Putting love at the heart of justice is not easy though. It can be immensely difficult to do, particularly in societies in the grips of systems that vehemently reject it. Dominant Western culture is steeped in visions of justice that are about vengeance and retribution, rather than about building a kinder, more loving world. Many legal systems are often laser focused on the task of punishing wayward individuals, rather than working to heal and transform the systems and societies that produced them. A similar narrow vision of retributive justice often creeps into how we attempt to tackle the climate crisis.
Consider some of the viler criminals of our times: fossil fuel executives and corporations. Reams of evidence detail how they have jointly orchestrated a massive, sophisticated, and well-funded campaign of delay, obstruction, and misinformation on climate change. By doing so, they have helped condemn the world to climate chaos and millions of deaths every year due to the pollution and harms created by our continued dependence on fossil fuels.
What they have done is a grave crime against humanity and against all who share our planet. Understandably, there have been calls for them to be held accountable, to be made to pay, and to be thrown in jail. Locking them up would certainly help satisfy a thirst for vengeance. However, if we want to secure a more meaningful sense of justice, we will have to understand that those individuals are products of a system, and it is the system which must be transformed.
I am not asking you to hold hands and sing kumbaya with these recalcitrant climate apartheid profiteers. We do need to hold them accountable and make them pay for their actions. But we must also do something much more radical than that. It involves realising that those individuals are not aberrations. Their actions are very consistent with the logic of the economic system within which they operate. They are part of a long line of corporations who have acted similarly, from asbestos, tobacco, pesticides, banks, big ag, and more. It is commonplace for corporations to manipulate political systems, the truth, and the public to serve their own profiteering ends
A radical, love-centred vision would focus more on the need to uproot the rapacious systems driving such morally abhorrent behaviour. I am not here talking about radical just in the sense of calling for extreme and drastic changes. Although we will need radical change in that sense too, as the status quo is rapidly destabilising our planet. The other sense of radical justice I am talking about though, has to do with dealing with the root of the problems we face. The word radical comes from the Latin radix, meaning root. As such, a radical sense of justice is one that asks us to address the root causes of the crises we face, rather than focusing merely on the symptoms. [ix]
A radical, love-centred vision of justice would work to replace a dominant global economic system centred on profit, competition, and violence, with systems centred on the common good, cooperation, and love. It would focus not just on persecuting the individuals profiteering from climate apartheid but also on uprooting the systems that create climate apartheid. Doing so is not only more just, but also a wiser way to achieve climate justice. Otherwise, we will spend our days trying to pick off bad apples without recognising that the soil we are growing in is poisoned. It is time we instead restored the health of the soil and the entire (eco)system.
For too long we have worked to address the symptoms of the problems we face, and as a result the underlying causes have often gotten stronger and the problems worse. Throughout this book we will explore how failures to centre radically just solutions have weakened, derailed, and diluted attempts to address the climate crisis. By extension, we will also see how centring a radical sense of justice can help strengthen our movements and increase the likelihood of securing climate justice.
The claim that justice will save us is not a promise that it will. Rather it is about the promise that if we fight for justice that it is the best thing that could. It gives us our best chance at true success. There is no guarantee that we will achieve justice or solve the climate crisis though. While it is possible that we are on a long moral arch towards justice, the reality is that we have often faltered on that arc, and if we do not solve the climate crisis in time, that arc may well collapse.
If we do succeed though, then a much more prosperous, more socially and ecologically justice world is possible. To get there, however, we will have to engage in a struggle against powerful and corrupted interests who benefit from the status quo — those who would rather see us spiral into eco-apartheid than have us act to secure social and ecological justice.
To secure justice, we will need power. So, this book is also centrally about how we win power to secure justice and how we use justice to build power. We cannot afford to see power as a dirty word, but rather we must instead learn to wield it effectively and responsibly in order effect the changes our world so desperately needs. If we can do so, then we can secure a world and future truly worth fighting for.
You do not need to be an academic or a student of justice to pick up this book. It is meant to be accessible to all who want to understand how centring justice is key to tackling the climate crisis and the interconnected set of social, economic, and ecological crises we face. That said, the book does draw extensively from research on climate justice and interconnected questions of justice.
Since I first began to realise the gravity of the climate crisis as young person, I have dedicated my life to trying to fix the problem as best I could. I have read and studied extensively to understand the crisis. I got multiple degrees, certificates, and a PhD focused on climate justice. I wrote a dissertation on Equitably Ending the Fossil Fuel Era — aimed at taking on the biggest obstacle to the climate crisis — the fossil fuel industry. As a teacher, researcher, and writer, I have shared what I know with others as widely as possible, knowing that it was only together we could win.
The book also draws heavily on my experience as an activist. I’ve been working for over a decade to try bring visions of climate justice into reality. I have done that work in some of the world’s worst climate polluting countries, namely Australia, America, and South Africa. I have campaigned and formed organisations to advance climate justice through divestment, Green New Deal initiatives, carbon taxes, coalitions, and more. Over the last decade and a half, I have tried to put my shoulder to the wheel of climate justice, hoping that in the messy and complex process of social change I was pushing in the right direction.
This book is my attempt to distil the lessons I have learnt from the mistakes, successes, and complexities faced along the way. I do not claim to have figured it out. This is not a gospel, but rather (like me) the book is a work-in-progress. It is a work-in-progress that owes a vast debt of gratitude to the movements, thinkers, and activists who have long been telling us that justice and systems change is what is needed. They did so often in the face of persecution and marginalisation, rather than celebration and publication.
To honour that debt, half of the proceeds of this book will be donated to radical, justice-centred youth, indigenous, women and/or global south-led climate justice movements. This is my attempt to elevate, escalate, and elaborate on their calls. The mistakes made are my own, but many of the ideas formed herein owe their lineage to those who have come before me. Standing on the shoulders of the giants before me, this book is my attempt to show how and why justice will save us.
[ix] The authors of a planet to win similarly talk about radical change as key to solving the climate crisis.