books climate change

The Violence of Climate Change, by Kevin J O’Brien

Climate change can be understood in many different ways. Economists see it as a market failure. Religious commentators see a spiritual problem. Others see it as a political problem, while politicians deflect attention away from their responsibility by saying that “we should use technology to reduce carbon emissions.”

In his book The Violence of Climate Change, Kevin O’Brien acknowledges all of these perspectives, and adds another:”I have become convinced that the degradation of the planet’s ecosystem is best understood as violence and that I am guilty of this violence.”

This is not a common view, though it’s one I find compelling and have written about before. We don’t tend to see climate change as violence because it is slow, and because it is structural. The idea of structural violence isn’t popularly understood with relation to climate change, though it is more familiar in discussions around racism or feminism.

O’Brien, who is an ethicist, begins his book by making the case for climate change as violence. He then argues that in opposing it, we can learn from the rich tradition of non-violence. The second and longer part of the book then explores the life and legacy of five ‘witnesses of nonviolent resistance’, and draws lessons from their lives to apply to climate change. There are chapters on John Woolman, Jane Addams, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr, and Cesar Chavez.

These are well chosen names, as each of them demonstrates a particular approach that O’Brien wants to investigate. John Woolman for example, was an early abolitionist. He sought to confront the evil of slavery by extricating himself from it as much as possible. It affected his choice of work, the food he ate and the clothes he wore. It was a personal activism of non-participation: “John Woolman believed that individuals can change the world by modeling an alternative to selfishness and violence”.

Jane Addams, by contrast, was a campaigner and advocate for the poor who was more concerned with institutions than personal complicity. She modeled a different life up to a point, but knew that real change would only be possible at larger scale. She was an advocate for democracy and social reform who had a national impact in the US, while still remaining committed to the urban Chicago neighbourhood she had chosen to live in. O’Brien uses her example to look at how campaigners keep the local and the global in perspective at the same time.

The book introduces each of these campaigners with a short biography. It describes their thinking, using their own writing. Then it interrogates their approach, looking at its power and its limitations, before applying their philosophy to climate change. It’s a smart, nuanced and insightful read that deals with difficult moral arguments in very accessible language.

O’Brien is a Christian and the five campaigners he profiles are part of that tradition to one degree or another, though this is not intended as a Christian book nor written for a faith audience. It’s primarily written for people who are privileged and wealthy, and who are becoming aware that their lifestyles damage the earth and inflict violence on other people. How have previous generations dealt with similar situations? What was useful from their approaches?

There aren’t any easy answers, either to climate change or to the question of how we should respond. And so this is a book that wrestles with the questions, and is all the stronger for declining to offer simple solutions. “Our task is not to save the world but to resist structural violence as we encounter it, doing our best with the tools we have in the world as we find it.”


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