Waste, Inefficiency, Gluttony.
Buffalo High Road Fellow Timo Isreb (ILR '26) considers the interconnectedness of climate change and capitalism.
On my first full day in Buffalo, June 4th, I remember driving with a couple of other fellows to buy groceries. It was a hot afternoon, and the once-open sky had by now given way to a smoky fog. We didn’t think much of it until we pulled into the parking lot. Then, my friend pointed toward the sun through the dashboard—a small and dark orange hole in the grey morass of the sky.
“I’ve never seen the sun like that,” they mused. “I wonder why it looks that way.”
As I stepped out of the car and into the muggy outside air, I was suddenly brought back to September 2017, when the Eagle Creek Fire near my hometown of Portland seemed to set the very sky ablaze for two days. Sparked by a teen playing with fireworks, that wildfire sent about an inch of ash into the Portland metro area. Years before the pandemic, my friends and I were donning N95 masks just to go to school. I can still remember the smell enveloping us then, like meat that had charred beyond discernability. Small flecks of thin, papery material floated around aimlessly. The very air seemed to stick to my skin and clothes, making me sweat just as though I was surrounded by the steam of a sauna. And for those two days, the sun was just a darkly orange hole in the grey morass of the sky.
“There’s a fire,” I replied curtly.
In the next few days, the first national news reports on the Canadian wildfires began to come out, confirming my intuition. But we didn’t need to name the cause to know the effects. As New York City rose to the very top of the charts for the worst air pollution of any city on June 6th, the environment in Buffalo too devolved into what I could only describe as a hellscape lite. The smoke made my head hazy and my eyes water, making the otherwise-exciting High Road orientation and my onboarding at BCAT feel like a mental slog. I’d come back to my apartment too sooty to get into a clean bed and too exhausted to get into the shower. It—for lack of a better word—sucked.
Eventually, the rain washed away the damage and the air quality returned to normal. But this week, I started to feel the smog come back. And this time, so did the Midwest. The record-setting wildfires in Canada are still raging, with no end in sight anytime soon—if the comparatively puny Eagle Creek Fire is any indication, it will likely take over a year for them to extinguish. Even then, there are no promises that next summer won’t be even worse.
I was always convinced of the evidence of climate change and global warming, but you really can’t get it until you see it for yourself. How fires in the middle of nowhere can now turn distant megalopolises into poisoned lands. In the 21st century, it’s not just technology that connects every place in the world, it’s carbon emissions too. After all, the Earth doesn’t know borders. It will spread the shit we pump into it indiscriminately, without concern for lines drawn on a map centuries ago. It’s time we understand that “global warming” means warming everywhere, not just the desolate Arctic or the densely-populated Southeast Asia. But then, people in the West have always ignored problems until it starts to affect them.
Solving a problem of this scale requires mass cooperation and a sea change in the ways we structure society. If it wasn’t before, the capitalist fetish for competition is now squarely at odds with health and human wellbeing. Climate change will only make economic and racial inequality worse and more obvious, as the people who have the least succumb to the most pollution. The market will cease to provide incentive for innovation when there are fewer and fewer humans left to innovate.
And all our consumerism and commodification, for what? For some trendy shirts that either fall apart or go out of fashion in a month? For twenty different yogurt flavors packaged in cups perfectly designed to choke out a hapless bird? For boundless grocery produce that employees can’t take home at the sell-by date, but have to throw out? For a second or third home in a city where some sleep on the streets? As millions of people go hungry and we poison the world, for what? I’m amazed at the cognitive dissonance of economists who claim that markets allocate resources and labor where they’re most needed when capitalism is most characterized by waste, inefficiency, and gluttony. Whenever I enter a department store, all I see stocked on the shelves are hundreds of varieties of junk. It disgusts me.
Left unchecked, the ugliest excesses of capital’s thirst for unending resource extraction will continue to make the globe uninhabitable to human life. To our lives. And maybe for now, the wealthiest among us will have the means to flee to bluer skies and leave us to live through their damage, but they only prolong the inevitable. For if we continue down this path, no place on Earth will be safe. No matter where we are, we will soon look up and see nothing but a dark orange hole punched through the grey morass of the sky.
I know that for most of us, thinking about this probably sparks feelings of anxiety, depression, or hopelessness. Those are appropriate things to feel in the face of such a catastrophic force as climate change! But I want to stress that things don’t have to be this way. The very factors that create the most destruction in our economy, namely industry and automation, also offer the most hope. Humanity has invented incredible technologies and products that extend our lives, produce plenty of food with less toil, and offer opportunities for many to lead more meaningful and interesting lives. Humans have cultivated plant life in greenhouses and performed life-saving surgeries on animals in need. We are nature, we don’t just destroy it.
The big secret: we already have all the machines and tools we need to support all of humanity in a sustainable, regenerative way. We just need to stop putting our resources towards producing luxuries that we hardly use anyway and start putting them towards producing what every human really needs: food, water, shelter, a community, and a purpose in life.
Capitalism, as a system of resource allocation, is based on two contradictory lies: that we need constant economic growth and that we live in conditions of scarcity. But when the scarcity is artificial and the growth starts hurting our health, we should really begin asking ourselves, are we actually putting Earth’s resources to good use?