In these times, we face an increasing crisis of dehumanization, both interpersonal and systemic, driven largely by the capitalist society we live in. As well as everyday impacts, dehumanization has direct implications for our response to the climate crisis; the less responsibility or solidarity we feel for the most dehumanized and vulnerable among us--who experience first and worst the impacts of climate change--the less we will feel the urgency of protecting the planet.
A point where dehumanization is enacted very acutely is in the marginalization of disabled people. Ableism, the structural oppression that produces a system of thought and action that harms and discriminates against people with disabilities, is often sidelined or invisible, such that the resulting oppression and stigma often go unchallenged.
So in an age of accelerating crisis and tremendous dehumanization, what usefulness could the lens of disability offer us in tackling all sorts of interlacing oppressions and global crises?
I believe that the fight for disability liberation challenges climate justice to adopt a more radical analysis and strategy, refusing to settle for superficial or insufficient reforms.
As a person with disabilities, I am terrified of climate change at a very personal level. Currently, I have class and geographical privileges that could enable me to hole up in an insulated, “secure” community for a certain time, but one day the crisis will be in my backyard. It will be my life in the balance. Perhaps the day when a storm rips through my safe suburban home, or the day I cannot get the medical supplies I need to treat my chronic illnesses. Perhaps climate wars will reach my doorstep, or perhaps the specific foods I can eat will become scarce commodities. And when that happens, I won't be in a good position for survival. Knowing that I would not survive an environmental disaster that deprived me of medical supplies has long been a personal driving force in my activism.
One hard reality is that climate solutions cannot be limited to lifestyle politics, the tepid idea embraced by mainstream liberals that the best way to make a difference on climate change is to take personal responsibility for what we eat, what we buy, what we wear, where we shop, what cars we drive, whether we recycle, what lightbulbs we use. These are commendable actions all--to live very consciously is not a bad choice, per se. Where this paradigm becomes dangerous is when lifestyle politics are substituted for more radical changes in our society, personal relations, modes of production, and economic systems.
Because in the end, we cannot rely on our individual choices as the agents for systemic change. According to journalist and activist Naomi Klein: “The hard truth is that the answer to the question ‘What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?’ is: nothing. You can’t do anything… We can only meet this tremendous challenge together. As part of a massive and organized global movement.” The emphasis on individualism has obscured the logical truth that we each on our own will not make the difference. Klein adds that “we often end up acting on canvases that are unnecessarily small—the canvas of our own lifestyle, or maybe our neighborhood or town. Meanwhile, we abandon the structural changes—the policy and legal work— to others.”
Rejecting the feel-good politics of individual choice may seem disheartening. But through a disability lens, even without recognizing their large-scale inefficacy, lifestyle politics solutions were already unrealistic for plenty of people, including disabled folks.
For instance, consider the idea of a “zero-waste” lifestyle. I've seen pictures of people’s trash bins after a whole year with barely a few plastic scraps in them. That's really impressive. It's also completely impossible for me to emulate, and the logic of lifestyle politics therefore renders me a problematic person living a problematic life. Sorry, but I’m type 1 diabetic. My syringes, test strips, blood glucose meters, bottles for sugar tablets, insulin pump infusion set equipment--all this amounts to an awful lot of plastic that I will dispose of over the course of my life. And I can't just opt out or change my habits, and stop using test strips or something. This is my reality.
So if lifestyle politics, demanding superficial, individual changes that are both insufficient and completely out of reach, is a narrative that leaves disabled people behind, what can take its place? How does a disability lens offer different possibilities for climate activism? How can climate justice also manifest as a struggle for humanization?
Consider the concept of sacrifice zones. The term takes its roots from a Cold War designation for areas that could be written off in the case of destruction by nuclear fallout. Now, because of the fossil fuel industry’s appetite for endless growth and profit, various regions and communities have been designated environmental sacrifice zones. Journalist Chris Hedges frames sacrifice zones as a consequence of “unfettered, unregulated capitalism,” describing them as “areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit… environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed. And…these sacrifice zones are just going to spread outward.”
Those sacrifice zones don’t just write off land: neoliberal capitalism also demands sacrifice people. These can be people who directly live in environmental sacrifice zones, be those mining communities, lands slated for pipelines, or neighborhoods situated right beside incinerators or landfills. But they can also be specific populations--poor people, people of color, people in developing countries. And disabled people.
Disabled people are fundamentally dehumanized, quintessential sacrifice people, because already we have been sacrificed over and over again, through discrimination, harassment, murder, neglect, torture, stigma, mockery, inept healthcare systems, and the casual disregard for our lives or the belief that life with disabilities or chronic illness is fundamentally lesser or not worth living at all.
And just as environmental sacrifice zones are created so that corporations can continue their unrestricted pillaging in the name of economic growth, sacrifice people are also maintained for profit. Disabled folks are dehumanized to make a group of people branded as inferior and less useful into a uniquely exploitable workforce, because disabled labor is dispensable and replaceable. Capitalism fundamentally offers a justification for devaluing disabled people in the name of efficiency and profit, just as it does for destroying the planet.
So we can conclude that in order to entwine disability liberation with climate justice, we cannot base our solutions on the same system that created these problems through its incentive for exploitation and dehumanization.
The climate crisis must be a battleground for humanization, for greater empathy in this time of depravity and sacrifice. Paolo Freire reminds us in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed that change is possible, that we “must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which [we] can transform” into one of greater freedom and humanization (49). Those of us struggling for climate justice and those who still cling to inertia or denial all will have to reckon with the imperative questions: whose lives are worth saving, when the stakes are highest? For whom do we want to build a better world? And in times of crisis, as well as in the day-to-day--who will we sacrifice?