Poisoning the Well: The Charade of COP26
Starting at the end of last month, leaders from all over the world met in Glasgow, Scotland for a 12-day Conference of the Parties (COP). Called COP26, this is the 12th conference of this type. The declared purpose of the meeting is to tackle climate change. We are told that the conference will facilitate urgent, much-needed action against catastrophic and irreversible climate change.
The effects of this changing climate are being felt all over, with extreme weather, natural disasters, heatwaves and forest fires engulfing the world. People from all countries are taking to the streets to demand a political and economic response that protects themselves and their children.
In the face of environmental crises, and with increased public pressure for urgent and serious action, what can we expect from this 12-day conference? More importantly, what should our role be as Muslims in solving this issue?
The Usual Suspects
The quickest way to find out what to expect from a political event is to see who is paying for it. The sponsors of COP26 are Google, Microsoft, car companies like Jaguar, massive manufactures like Unilever and retailers like IKEA and Sainsbury. In short, the companies and industries that are the most responsible for fueling the climate crisis are paying for a conference on how to protect the environment.
Key speakers included Jeff Bezos, a man who is so committed to the environment that he is burning countless amounts of fuel in recreational space travel. Or Barack Obama, whose commitment to the environment was demonstrated by how quick he was to escalate the bombing of countless lands, destroying both their environment and the people who depend on it. This is like burglars having a conference on how to protect houses!
So, what is the agenda here? Why are those who have done such damage to the environment paying money and gathering the world to talk about saving it? To understand the nature of their ‘solution’ to the climate problem, we have to understand the cause of the problem itself.
Who is Damaging the Environment?
The overwhelming majority of greenhouse emissions are caused by companies, not by individual people. Of the total greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere from 1988-2015, 70% could be traced back to 100 companies. What this tells us is that the changing climate is not a problem that is caused by everyday people. Recycling, taking the bus, and not littering are admirable actions, but these actions do not affect climate change by much.
The real problem of climate change is caused by a system for which production and consumption of goods is more important that meeting the needs of people. So, while people in Pakistan need safety from increasingly intense deadly heat waves, and people in Bangladesh need protection from flooding and natural disasters, the rich and powerful prefer lining up their own profits.
While the indigenous people of Canada are more interested in regaining control over their territory so they can protect it from environmental degradation, the Canadian government is more interested in granting exploration rights to the same companies who poisoned the waters and contaminated the air of indigenous communities. For example, when the Mount Polley tailing ponds burst, it released over 400 tons of arsenic and 177 tons of lead into pristine water streams that are used by the indigenous for fishing. The tailings ponds are actually toxic lakes of waste used to store mining waste.
This extreme selfishness is a trait of the Capitalist ideology, which eliminates any restraints to self-interest. In turn, the Capitalist ideology ignites individualism, the notion that each person should only look out for themselves, with no concern with the rights of society upon them. This means that those who are born with the most wealth, connections, and status can float to the top, with no real concern for how their actions will impact the rest of us.
This ideology leaves destruction in its wake, and its plain to see. Capitalist economies create massive inequality between the rich and the poor, create a system of crushing debt which most people are drowning in, and often cater to the needs of the rich at the expense of everyone else, especially the poor.
Capitalist societies introduced consumerism and individualism to the family level too, which has resulted in the promotion of indecency and infidelity, the neglect of elderly parents, and the breaking families. The Capitalist foreign policy is imperialism: subjugating weaker countries using economic strangling, carpet bombing and occupation.
It is this philosophy of selfishness that is destroying the environment. Companies like Exxon Mobil have known for decades, according to their own internal documents about the concerns surrounding carbon emissions and did nothing to alert the public or change their own behavior. It was making them money.
Ultimately, the goal of companies and industry titans is to make money. Caring for society, or the environment, is not part of their DNA. More importantly, this is not their legal obligation. Their legal obligation is to increase ‘shareholder value’. Consequently, their desire for profit will always outweigh any other considerations
Which brings us to the question, why are those who benefit the most from this system of exploitation now interested in talking about solutions?
Dominating the Conversation
What should be clear at this point is that the economic and political elite, who are the leaders of this conference, are not interested in saving the environment.
What they actually want is to dominate the conversation on the issue. This is because they know that every day more and more people are realizing that there can be no solution to the climate issue without overthrowing the system that created it. The real threat to the Capitalist elite is not environmental collapse, but the collapse of Capitalism itself.
This is why they are willing to spend all this time and money arranging a 12-day conference. So that they can assure the masses that the system is fine and is responding to their concerns. It is similar to what they did after the 2008 financial collapse, using language to assure people that the system was fundamentally fine, and this was just the case of a few bad actors. The reality is, as long as we remain in a system that gives the most power to the economic and political elite, there is no solution to any of our crises.
To Save the Planet, We Need Islamic Economics
Muslims should be at the forefront of any conversation about caring for the natural environment. Our Most Merciful and All Wise Creator revealed to us:
“It is He who made you successors on the earth and raises some of you above others in rank, to test you through what He gives you. [Prophet], your Lord is swift in punishment, yet He is most forgiving and merciful.” [TMQ 5:165]
Part of the meaning of being “successors” on the earth is to be the appointed caretakers of it.
And our beloved Messenger (saw) advised us:
Indeed, the world is sweet and green (alluring) and verily Allah is going to install you as a vicegerent (khaleefa) in it in order to see how you act. So, fear Allah regarding the world.” (Sahih Muslim)
This is not just moral instruction, rather, Islam provides a whole system of life built upon the Divine Guidance, ensuring the responsible development and sharing of resources. The Islamic economic system ties the profits of companies to the production of goods and services that benefit their community, and not to harmful products, usury or hoarding. As well, the Islamic Social System fortifies relationships between people and emphasizes responsibility over mindless pleasure seeking or bottomless consumerism.
Economically speaking, minor tweaks to Capitalism will not save our planet. We need a new economic system. Consider that in 2019 a “record 53.6 million tons of e-waste was produced globally“. That’s 118 billion pounds of trash that includes “$57 billion in gold and other components discarded — mostly dumped or burned “.
That is the weight of nearly 850 million people or nearly 11% of the earth’s population. Why? It is stock market logic. Apple, Samsung, and the other consumer electronics giants must churn out more and more products each and every year. Otherwise, shareholder value will fall. More earth has to be ripped up, more workers must be exploited, and more waste will be sent to the trash heaps.
Economic policies of Islam abolish stock markets and banks. Instead, Islam facilitates real partnerships. More broadly, the policies focus on ensuring the wealth produced gets to the people who need it. Therefore, it does not peg the people’s prosperity to the “fairy tales of eternal economic growth”.
Furthermore, the Khilafah can step in at any point to restrict the actions of the economic elite if they are harmful to the community. In fact, if it did not do so, the people would have the right to hold their leaders accountable in an Islamic court.
This is because the system of Islam is built upon divine guidance, not the inclinations of powerful men.
Yet even with all this guidance, and the fact that the Muslim world is rich with natural and human resources, none of our rulers in the Muslim lands have taken any leadership on this issue, much less diagnosing it correctly or presenting the Islamic solution to it (which is the only correct solution).
This is because they are ultimately tied to the system of global Capitalism. Thus, weakening this system would actually weaken their own grip on power.
What we need is an Islamic leadership that presents the Islamic alternative to Capitalism’s philosophy of exploitation. It is only such leadership that will help humanity reverse any environmental harm and become a beacon of hope and justice to those who choose to accept it or live under its protection.
“When it is said to them, ‘Do not cause corruption in the land,’ they say, ‘We are only putting things right,’ Indeed, it is they who are the corruptors, but they fail to perceive it.” [TMQ 2:11-12]