How do I rephrase "the answer is white male patriarchy"?
May 17, 2022 6:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm creating a presentation to use in classrooms at high schools for a leftist climate organization (Sunrise Movement) and am looking for a better way to phrase my current answer, "injustices in our system", as the answer to "why do we have the climate crisis, actually". Without just blatantly saying that the answer is "white male patriarchy/capitalism/etc." how can I phrase this better to answer the question while also minding the context in which I will be presenting (high school classrooms as a guest speaker)?
posted by defmute to Law & Government (34 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
By and large "progress" has made life easier and lives longer, for a great many humans, but that progress has had a price, and those who have benefitted the most have been slow to want to pay that price.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:02 PM on May 17, 2022 [12 favorites]

I'd probably start with tragedy of the commons. It's reasonably easy to understand, and in my experience resonates fairly well with high school students.
posted by true at 7:04 PM on May 17, 2022 [15 favorites]

I would answer "why we have the climate crisis" more directly blaming fossil are some (old) stats about how much of the problem has come from a small number of companies, and you can give a little history about what the fossil fuel industry did on the misinformation front to preserve itself.
posted by pinochiette at 7:05 PM on May 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

If I were teaching I would talk about perverse incentives.

For more detail I'd might do a simple example of "externalities" (if it costs you money not to pollute, and but costs someone else money or health damage when you pollute, you lose money by not polluting.)

And also political economy, which boils down in this context to the fact that the people who pollute most are very rich and have a lot of influence. The people who might be better off with lower CO2 are not currently rich, so have less influence.

(A note on the tragedy of the commons: I think it can be a great example, and might be worth including. But in recent years it seems to be looked at a bit askance, especially by progressives, because it's a great thought experiment but not as historically clear cut as it sounds and it is often framed as an argument for expanding property rights. On a skim the "criticism" section of the wiki does seem to reference a lot of that, so just be aware of it.)
posted by mark k at 7:13 PM on May 17, 2022 [19 favorites]

the answer to "why do we have the climate crisis, actually".

forgive me for being nearly as blunt as a high-schooler, but do you know the answer? precise phrasing will come more easily when you do.

white male patriarchs are typically as terrified of their own personal mortality and preoccupied with their position in History as anybody, and often much more so than most (clever teens will know this and demand an explanation to reconcile what will appear to be a contradiction). when abuse of power by the ruling class fails to reflect the selfish human concerns we know they have, something complicated or terrible is up. "capitalism" is a little closer, but I would not assume that school kids have the full grasp of economic theory and history it would take to make sense of this shorthand. though they may think they do. so some definitions will be in order.

while also minding the context in which I will be presenting (high school classrooms as a guest speaker)

in that context, telling the truth without euphemism is more important than in any other context except perhaps a high-level white house briefing.

besides that, "why did this happen" is a question that largely answers itself once you have a thorough understanding of the "this." so if I were you, I would focus as tightly as possible on a broad and deep explanation of what it is that is happening.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:19 PM on May 17, 2022 [11 favorites]

An urban planner's answer is that it's decisions about the environment that are passed down to the future, and the world we live in now just reflects those decisions that were made by people in the past; either by small groups of powerful people, or broad societies preferring certain ways of life. And that's an answer that's rather agnostic about economic systems—the former Soviet societies were also very invested in planning their environments, and did much worse in terms of environmental harm: it was decisions that locked us into paths that are now hard to break.

Get your students to think about the environments they live and study in, and how old it is. Maybe it's centuries old, maybe it's a new development. Who chose to build their city or town the way it is? Who put the school there, who decided how big it would be? Who decided what kind of education it would be, for what kind of students? Who decided how they would get to school—in buses, on pushbikes, in cars, on foot? What did they assume about students and cities? Were they right?

People made decisions about what kind of houses they wanted to make cities from, people made decisions to prefer cars in streets, smaller numbers of people made decisions about what fuels to use, even smaller numbers of people made decisions about what kind of world economy of oil export and import would prevail.

So the simpler way to answer 'why do we have a climate crisis' is that it's the result of decisions made both recently and a long time ago; but that we also get a say now in decisions that we make, and the future we'll hand on.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:22 PM on May 17, 2022 [41 favorites]

As the above answers suggest, perhaps a better approach is to avoid a simple answer - because high school students are smart, and many are unlikely to accept that there is a single cause since, well, there isn't one reason. There are scientific reasons (emissions have increased/ozone depleted), reasons rooted in political economy (fossil fuel industry is powerful and can use that power/$ to influence policy/law), psychological reasons (it's hard for humans to admit society is on the wrong track), etc.

You might make a useful comparison to COVID - had all of the world acted fast, decisively, and in unison, we could have eliminated COVID. But that obviously didn't happen, for a number of reasons.
posted by coffeecat at 7:42 PM on May 17, 2022 [5 favorites]

Another psychological factor is that it is hard for humans to think about the future. We (and maybe most animals) are much more geared to the here and now. And I'm sure there is more to the psychology than that.
posted by NotLost at 8:09 PM on May 17, 2022

I studied environmental history in graduate school. White, male patriarchy can be blamed for a lot of problems, but the human capability to wreck our own environments through our own short-sightedness is something that transcends recent history. For millennia, people of all different cultures have done things with unintended consequences that changed and sometimes ruined their environment, from over-hunting megafauna in the Americas to salination of ancient Sumerian irrigated fields to deforestation which led to disasters in 19th century northern China.

The problem is externalities, especially when the impact of what you're doing is indirect and slow, you don't see it. Overgrazing, for example, has a direct impact that shows up quickly, and that's why commonly managed pastures were commonly managed to prevent that (and why Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" annoys environmental historians and historians of common resources, because he's right about oceans, but wrong about traditional common pastures). But deforestation in north-west China in the 18th and 19th centuries led to soil erosion that couldn't necessarily have been predicted, and that soil erosion led to massive flooding problems and (eventually) changed the course of the Yellow River. Similarly, when the Dutch started draining their wetlands in the middle ages, they had no idea that this would result in a lowering of the overall land-level - and thus create the necessity of further draining. Coal was an important source of fuel as early as the 17th century in England, but it didn't start impacting the climate until the 20th, and (even now) the worst impacts are coming decades after we first started observing the changes.

One could say that the short-term orientation of modern capitalism is a serious factor in "why don't we do something now that we understand", because it functions in the very short term: the quarter's profits, the year's return. Whereas traditional societies - whether indigenous swidden farmers in the Philippines or early modern aristocrats with estates in Europe - tend to think in the much longer term: 20 years, 100 years, etc. - and that can lead them to engage in practices that protected their resources (but not always - let's not get romantic about tradition). It wasn't because they were smarter or more environmental - they just had a financial incentive to keep their resources going for generations that modern capitalism doesn't. As part of my PhD research, I studied white, male, English capitalists in the 17th century and how they handled local agricultural development in a wetland area: a few were in it for quick money and sold out within a few years - but most of the families that got involved were invested in their property for 200-350 years (seriously - they got estates in 1650 that the family still owned in 1910). That said, they were also badly hurt financially when there were truly unforeseen consequences because they just didn't understand the science of wetland drainage - but unlike modern coal and oil companies, they didn't know they were wrecking their environment, and didn't just keep on to get a couple more years worth of profit.

It's also not just modern economics - modern politics also functions on a very short scale. Governments come in for 4-6 years, not decades.

But, overall, human beings have a really poorly developed sense of risk and consequences for anything that happens slowly and/or indirectly -- and that includes our leaders. Some really don't care; others care, but don't know what they can do about it, and they know that only half the population (or less) would accept the kind of sacrifices that are needed to seriously do something about it. People are great at pulling together in immediate disasters - like during the Blitz - but that was just at first. To sustain that cooperation, the British government engaged in a very conscious and organized process of mass mobilization during the second world war, which is something few western countries have done in the 80 years since and current leaders don't even know how to do. (Now I'm channeling my partner, who studies contemporary history and in particular has done work on reactions to crises).

This doesn't really answer your initial question, because maybe you're struggling to rephrase it because "white male patriarchy" and "capitalism" aren't really the full answer. Communist systems can be equally as blind - and sometimes worse, because of the centralization of power which means that dissent isn't even heard (the Great Leap Forward, for example, directly caused the deaths of millions through poor environmental planning and the inability for anyone to tell Mao he was wrong). The Soviet Union was famous for its environmental irresponsibility.

tl;dr: the climate crisis is the kind of crisis that humans really don't handle very well, but now that we're aware of it, we have to do something else that humans sometimes can do but also find difficult: working together in an organized way that includes immediate sacrifices for amorphous future gains that aren't going to happen tomorrow or next year and maybe you'll personally never see but just have to believe.
posted by jb at 8:10 PM on May 17, 2022 [102 favorites]

Try something less blame oriented and universal, try...
What It Really Takes To Make A Piece Of Toast
Start with planting wheat
Working the land
Fuel for harvesting machinery
Transportation from field to wheat mill
Packaging sales to bakeries
Bakers transportation to work
Factory which makes plastic bags for bread
From fossil fuels
Delivery to the grocery store
Drive to the store
Buy the bread with work money
Go home with the bread
The metal ore in the ground
Refining process metal sales
Appliance factory workers how they travel to work
The toaster factory in China
Shipping the toaster here shipbuilding, fuel
OK, the electricity the wiring
Make a piece of toast.
Then there is the orchard for the jam
The peanut farm for the peanut butter...yum!
posted by Oyéah at 8:28 PM on May 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

We have a climate crisis because a few people are making a shit ton of money by doing the things that are causing the crisis & they manipulated the system so we can't stop them. That's the injustice.
posted by bleep at 8:37 PM on May 17, 2022 [4 favorites]

I think a shared feature of capitalist and communist environmental bullshit has been "Top industrial leaders could get in personal trouble if they didn't deliver big results fast." Some places it was shareholders who came after them, some places it was the government—but either way, if they left opportunities for growth on the table, they were replaced by people who wouldn't do that, and maybe financially or politically ruined in the process. That encouraged them to do harmful things even when they were aware that those things were harmful, just to save their own way of life.

In the even bigger picture, that pressure for growth comes from competition. This isn't unique to capitalism either—communist countries historically did a lot to encourage competition between regions, schools, industries, shifts at a factory, etc. In the biggest picture, countries are competing against each other, and back in the day, capitalism and communism themselves were competing. At each level, losing the competition is seen (sometimes correctly!) as an existential threat. So it's seen as justified to be ruthless with a leader who wouldn't deliver quick growth—since if you didn't get rid of that leader, you'd destroy the whole institution.

Tl;dr, the answer isn't "capitalism." It's "ruthless competition with personal consequences."
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:01 PM on May 17, 2022 [8 favorites]

This is sounding like a pretty axe grindy presentation that will likely come off as one. These issues are very complex and aren't done justice by oversimplification. The problem is that there are no leftist explanations. There are just explanations, and while you might be itching to whittle it all down to "white male patriarchy/capitalism/etc.", the really hard truth is that the benefits that have been had, resulting in climate change, have trickled down to you and I. These are benefits that nobody is all that eager to abandon, which is the huge task we all are facing. If "white male patriarchy/capitalism/etc." is really your explanation for "why do we have the climate crisis", these kids are going to know that you actually don't have an explanation.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:15 PM on May 17, 2022 [40 favorites]

To me, a good presentation is one with a clear goal, and in this case, the goal is to involve as many of these kids as possible to fucking do something concrete, measurable, and fast to mitigate our climate disaster. You have this tiny chunk of time in front of these kids and every single slide should be calculated to convince the kids and teachers and whoever else is wandering by the classroom to get involved in a collective effort to fix this. Soooo, to me it's only useful to talk about causes to the extent that it motivates action. The most direct cause of climate change is extraction and burning of petroleum and coal. They do need to know this, because the literal only way to slow this shit down is to stop extracting and burning petroleum and coal. So ideally all of them (and us) will start spending their energy stopping these practices.

Maybe you can link this harmful system of extraction to the kids' own experiences in the world, by pointing out that this extractive system ALSO causes enormous harm to people, because it also treats PEOPLE as a resource to be extracted, without regard to the harms it is causing, and that extraction system exploits and amplifies and is built on racialized and gendered systems of enforcement of a classed society, and also directly extracts wealth [in the form of land or labor] from people and creates, amplifies, and exploits racist and misogynist myths, thereby maximizing it's extractive potential. But that's kind of a lot to get on a PowerPoint slide.
posted by latkes at 9:17 PM on May 17, 2022 [6 favorites]

"why do we have the climate crisis, actually"

Tragedy Of The Commons is a nice innocuous entry point. You don’t need to get into *who* exactly has been abusing the shared resources, just that no one was looking at the big picture and so things slid out of control. To remedy this the Kyoto Protocol was created.

And then…

"So if you want to understand who caused this mess and continues to make it worse? Take a look at the very small list of countries who refused to sign the Kyoto protocol."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:29 PM on May 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

"why do we have the climate crisis, actually". Without just blatantly saying that the answer is "white male patriarchy/capitalism/etc."

By the by, moderately well informed high school students are going to know that China is a major contributor to climate change, so you may want to reduce your reliance on "white" and "capitalist" in your pitch. Male patriarchy is a very solid cross-cultural fit however.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:40 PM on May 17, 2022 [7 favorites]

Interesting essay on how the students need solutions, campaign advice, and hopeful examples.

On your question, can you ask them what they think the root causes are? It'll probably cover your point but you won't have to say it.
posted by slidell at 9:49 PM on May 17, 2022 [4 favorites]

You could start from concrete examples -- who lobbies against climate efforts and why, who creates the "carbon footprint" concept and how that framing benefits them. Then these fit together into the framework of externalities and cost-shifting to benefit the powerful. Students can follow the motives and build the picture for themselves.
posted by away for regrooving at 9:52 PM on May 17, 2022

I concur that that specific examples will help students grasp the complexity (as well as give them talking points). E.g. Exonmobile knew back in the 1970s that climate change was a problem, but it was in their financial self interest to mislead the public about the truth. While electric powered cars were popular in the early 1900s, they were eventually beat out by cheaper gas powered cars.
posted by oceano at 10:08 PM on May 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

Agree with those who say simply describing the nature and scope of the problem is the most important thing -- more important than trying to blame it on a particular demographic group.

Another thing that I think is important is spending at least some time focusing on possible solutions. Climate doomerism doesn't motivate people -- it fills them with despair and apathy.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:23 PM on May 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

The "Tragedy of the Commons" is something someone made up to justify private ownership of hitherto public resources, and it has been shown to NOT be inevitable. The work of Elinor Ostrom explores how a wide variety of what she calls common pool resources have been successfully shared by various groups for generations: fisheries, water, land, etc.

from Wikipedia:
many examples have existed and still do exist where members of a community with regulated access to a common resource co-operate to exploit those resources prudently without collapse,[7][8] or even creating "perfect order".[9] Elinor Ostrom was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Science for demonstrating this concept in her book Governing the Commons,[10] which included examples of how local communities were able to do this without top-down regulations or privatization.
She found that there were some factors she could identify that differentiated successful sharing vs. unsuccessful sharing, including things like (the two I always remember, but there are others, and I may be misquoting):

- How distant from the resources and communities the regulatory authority was geographically and/or how large the sharing community is;

- When a rule, as understood by the community, was violated, whether the penalty was *proportional* to the severity of the transgression;


Of course there will be critics of this idea saying that this isn't a realistic way to think about dealing with modern problems of sharing resources, but a) there are definitely lessons to be learned, and we need to get away from "modern" (current) solutions and try something else, and b) actual groups of people CAN and HAVE shared, nurtured, and protected their environment without overusing it, and we can identify reasons why they succeeded; we can also learn why other groups don't succeed and use that knowledge.

So, the real problem isn't that anything shared will be destroyed; the real problem may be something like overcentralization, or too much being controlled by one entity/person - the drive toward centralization.

You could take a whole other tack about the problem with overpursuit of "efficiency" (a business that uses its employees fully all the time will be completely unable to handle an emergency or an emerging opportunity, because nobody will have any flexible time to handle it, for example, but non-business-centered example shouldn't be hard to invent). Too much centralization -- a big problem for sharing common pool resources -- is just another form of too much "efficiency".

I LOVE the work of Elinor Ostrom (the first woman to win a Nobel in economics -- and she wasn't even technically an economist). Here she is on Wikipedia;

here is the foundation.

Some current research showing success in sharing common pool resources
posted by amtho at 1:54 AM on May 18, 2022 [12 favorites]

Climate change is a global problem. Here's a chart showing 2019 carbon emissions by country. The biggest current contributor is China with 28%, followed by the US with 15%. Europe is something like 10%.

The cause is greenhouse gases-- about 80% carbon dioxide, 22% methane, 7% nitrous oxide. As to who produces those: we do, humans, our global industrial civilization.

I think blaming "white male patriarchy" would be seriously misleading your students. That's kneejerk leftist trash talking, not analysis. All humans are part of the problem and can be part of the solution. Telling your students that it's "white male patriarchy" is telling them that it's someone else's fault and they don't need to do anything.
posted by zompist at 2:00 AM on May 18, 2022 [12 favorites]

I think it might go over better if you let the students come up with a phrase or term.

An example that most students will get is the interstate freeway system through cities: where it was built, what neighborhoods it destroyed, what happened to those residents, and what these roads facilitated. Use the example in your city and let students make the conclusions.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:05 AM on May 18, 2022

Give the theory. Use slides to show the individuals making decisions at each turn. At the last slide throw all the individuals (and maybe some current individuals for good measure) and ask the class if they see anything in common.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 3:08 AM on May 18, 2022

Surely the answer is that the benefits of industrialisation were almost immediate (and they include everything that makes modern life what it is) while the costs did not become obvious until much later. In addition, some people benefit more and some people/organisms have higher costs on them. This basically continues through to now.
posted by plonkee at 4:58 AM on May 18, 2022 [6 favorites]

I think you can examine motivating factors without vilifying individuals.

I'd look into the effects of technological progress. For example, the internal combustion engine was invented at the end of the 19th century, about 130 years ago. It was the technology that led to the invention of the automobile and the airplane. It relied on fossil fuels then and still does. Only now are we starting to see the possibility of other energy sources for land transportation, and airplanes are going to continue using fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:07 AM on May 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

I avoid using Hardin at all. A lot of the article is a racist diatribe against brown people having too many kids and we need to use the State to smash their families. Not joking.

Luckily, Hardin only popularized the ideas of collective action problems and the only thing he really added to it were the racist diatribe, family-smashing parts.

If you want to talk about things like collective action problems, you can easily point back to earlier works like Hume or Lloyd -- I want to say Mill talks about this too but wouldn't pinky-swear. Or if you want the ``original'' modern take, that's probably Olson.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:13 AM on May 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Here's how I'd frame it for high school students:

In terms of material wealth - the stuff we have - we in the global North (everybody north of the equator, more or less) are richer than any other group in history. We're talking about shelter (houses and apartments and furniture), food (quantity and quality), clothing and luxury items (TVs, phones, toys). That wealth has come about because we have access to an incredibly efficient and cheap form of energy - fossil fuels. But that energy releases A LOT of CO2 every time you use it. The CO2 traps heat that would normally radiate out into space and that is rapidly de-stabilizing our climate. More and longer heat waves. More and more severe storms. More fires. More extreme temperature swings. More and worse flooding. More and more severe droughts. We are past the point of no return. Every delay makes the situation worse.

Lots of people recognize the crisis for what it is and that we need really major changes in how our economies are powered in order to have a decent chance of surviving. We need to stop using fossil fuels as the energy that powers our economy. But big corporations that are invested in fossil fuels and the people who run them and the politicians who are allied with them will lose a *lot* of money and power if we stop using fossil fuels. So they're doing everything they can to stop the changes being made.
posted by kaymac at 5:29 AM on May 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

There's a long-standing conflict between having nice things and fully understanding the costs. The US is a country that is incredibly rich in natural resources, and it's been hard for Americans to grasp that resources can run out. The Climate is a vast system, and it's been hard for people everywhere to recognize that using fossil fuels to generate material goods and comforts could actually change the climate, and that when the changes really got going, that it would be so fast.

Try some exercises giving students a theoretical amount of money, and choosing to spend it on things with short-term appeal vs. long-term costs. Talk about the true costs of things - many items are expensive to dispose of, and that cost is invisible to consumers. As sellers and buyers, we respond to our immediate assessment, say, buying a house that is spacious and comfortable, but we don't see the fuel bills or the lack of insulation.

A resource I find very helpful is Project Drawdown because it offers well-researched solutions. Search resources teachers climate and there's a lot out there, some of it will likely be useful, of course, be selective, there are way too many crappy orgs funded by Big Oil producing falsehoods about climate. The current news should be a big help, looking at wildfires in US, Australia, Russia, India, Canada and the current and historic drought in California (where our food comes from).
posted by theora55 at 7:06 AM on May 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

latke‘s link is great, and gives an outline for a climate talk to high schoolers, from someone who it sounds like has a lot of experience with exactly that.
posted by eviemath at 7:13 AM on May 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

I have saved this link to a comment on a political forum thread because it is so refreshingly obvious. The upshot of the commenter's point is put in one direct sentence:

"The law cannot protect anyone unless it binds everyone; and it cannot bind anyone unless it protects everyone."

It all boils down to that, and the commenter even uses foul language at one point for emphasis.

Another quote:

"Today, the accelerating de-education of humanity has reached a point where the market for pseudophilosophy is vanishing; it is, as The Kids Say These Days, tl;dr . All that is left is the core proposition itself — backed up, no longer by misdirection and sophistry, but by violence."

I would add that where violence fails, bribery and the "Department of Injustice" are brought to bear.
posted by forthright at 3:59 PM on May 18, 2022

The "Tragedy of the Commons" is something someone made up to justify private ownership of hitherto public resources,

That idea does not appear in Lloyd, Gordon, or Hardin. Together they cover the first 166 years of the concept.

it has been shown to NOT be inevitable.

The idea that an unmanaged commons would inevitably end in tragedy was never suggested in the first place.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:22 PM on May 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

You're absolutely right, Tell Me No Lies.

The idea that the tragedy of the commons is inevitable is something that's seeped into sophomoric discussions all over the place, and so it does need to be refuted, but I apologize for my misstatements.
posted by amtho at 4:29 PM on May 18, 2022

The idea that the tragedy of the commons is inevitable is something that's seeped into sophomoric discussions all over the place, and so it does need to be refuted

Good point. And to be fair, you can see where anyone who has shared a breakroom fridge would become fatalistic on the matter.

I’ve been trying to think of an example of an unmanaged commons that most high school kids would be familiar with. I’m too far out of touch with the media they’ve been watching.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:08 PM on May 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

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