Ian Angus on the climate crisis: ‘We are NOT all in this together’
Ian Angus, editor of Climate & Capitalism, recently completed a three-week tour of Australia, organized by the Socialist Alliance and Links to introduce his new book, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System. He presented the following talk, which draws on material in Chapter 11 of his book, at forums in Perth, Adelaide, Hobart, Brisbane, and Newcastle.
By Ian Angus – Every two years, the leaders of the world’s richest countries assemble for UN Climate negotiations, and deliberately sabotage any effort to slow climate change. After one of those betrayals, in Copenhagen in 2009, activists from hundreds of African organizations eloquently expressed their outrage in the African Climate Justice Manifesto:
Africa stands on the frontline of climate change. Across our continent, in villages, in towns, on coastlines and deep in the heart of Africa, people battle daily with a growing climate crisis. Our rivers run dry. Our crops turn to dust. Seasons shift and change. The effects of climate change are reflected in the expectant eyes of hungry children, and in the lengthening footsteps of women carrying water.
Across Africa, a growing congregation of people suffers starvation and disease while others, after freeing themselves from the grip of grinding poverty, are shackled again by an increasingly hostile climate. It is a cruel irony that a people who have lived for so long in harmony with Mother Earth, imprinting the lightest of footprints, are now suffer a crisis they did not cause.
We bear the burdens of climate change; but they are not of our making. For over two centuries the industrialized world became wealthy by polluting the atmosphere. Wealthy countries and corporations plundered resources from every region of the world. On mountains of coal and oil they built cities of plenty. In the great buildings they constructed while causing the climate crisis they now shelter from its adverse effects. Those left outside are told find another path to prosperity, while the sun beats down, or a perfect storm – not of their making – gathers on the horizon.
That statement powerfully describes what I and others call Global Environmental Apartheid.
Apartheid rules on spaceship earth
I’m sure you’ve heard liberal environmentalists insist that we are all passengers on Spaceship Earth, sharing a common fate and a common responsibility for the ship’s safety. Former US vice-president Al Gore, for example, tells us: “We all live on the same planet. We all face the same dangers and opportunities, we share the same responsibility for charting our course into the future.”
In reality, as the African Climate Justice Manifesto says so well, a handful of Spaceship Earth’s passengers travel first-class, in plush air-conditioned cabins with every safety feature, including reserved seats in the very best lifeboats. The majority are herded into steerage, exposed to the elements, with no lifeboats at all. Armed guards keep them in their place.
The first months of 2016 were the hottest on record. According to conservative estimates by climate experts, if business as usual continues, within 50 years the global average temperature will be permanently hotter than at any time since modern humans evolved, 160,000 years ago.
That won’t just mean warmer weather, but more extreme weather, more storms, more floods, more droughts. Significant parts of the world will be literally uninhabitable, and ocean levels will begin swamping coastal cities.
But climate extremes aren’t the only records that are being broken.
Twenty-first century capitalism is also characterized not just by inequality—that’s always been a feature of class society—but by gross inequality, an unparalleled accumulation of wealth in the hands of a very few, coupled with mass poverty that that is enforced by all the economic, political, and military resources the ultra-rich can muster.
Many studies, articles, and reports have documented the disproportionate wealth at the top. Rather than overwhelm you with a long list of appalling statistics I will just cite two. In 2015, the richest 1 percent of the world’s population owned as much as the remaining 99 percent combined, and just 62 individuals owned more than the poorest three and a half billion.
Branko Milankovic, the former lead economist at the World Bank, is one of the world’s leading authorities on economic inequality. He says bluntly that we are now experiencing the highest level of relative and absolute global inequality at any point in human history.
So the 21st century is being defined by a combination of record-breaking inequality with record-breaking climate change. That combination is already having disastrous impacts on the majority of the world’s people. The line is not only between rich and poor, or comfort and poverty: it is a line between survival and death.
Climate change and extreme weather events are not devastating a random selection of human beings from all walks of life. There are no billionaires among the dead, no corporate executives living in shelters, no stockbrokers watching their children die of malnutrition. Overwhelmingly, the victims are poor and disadvantaged. Globally, 99 percent of weather disaster casualties are in developing countries, and 75 percent of them are women.
The pattern repeats at every scale. The Global South suffers far more than the North. Within the South, the very poorest countries, especially in Africa south of the Sahara, are hit hardest. Within each country, the poorest people—women, children, and the elderly—are most likely to lose their homes and livelihoods from climate change, and most likely to die.
The same pattern occurs in the North. Despite the rich countries’ overall wealth, the poorest neighborhoods are hardest hit, and within those neighborhoods the primary victims are the poorest people.
Chester Hartman and Gregory Squires titled their account of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans There Is No Such Thing As a Natural Disaster. They write:
Those with means left when they knew the storm was coming: They had access to personal transportation or plane and train fare, money for temporary housing, in some cases second homes. Guests trapped in one luxury New Orleans hotel were saved when that chain hired a fleet of buses to get them out. Patients in one hospital were saved when a doctor who knew Al Gore contacted the former Vice President, who was able to cut through government red tape and charter two planes that took them to safety. This is what is meant by the catchphrase “social capital”—a resource most unevenly distributed by class and race. . . .
Sociologist Saskia Sassen calls this experience a “savage sorting” – and if such extreme divisions occur in the world’s richest country, we know that it is far, far worse in places where absolute poverty is the norm.
Chronic hunger, already a severe problem in much of the world, will be made worse by climate change. As Oxfam reports: “The world’s most food-insecure regions will be hit hardest of all”:
Unchecked climate change will lock the world’s poorest people in a downward spiral, leaving hundreds of millions facing malnutrition, water scarcity, ecological threats, and loss of livelihood. Children will be among the primary victims, and the effects will last for lifetimes: studies in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Niger show that being born in a drought year increases a child’s chances of being irreversibly stunted by 41 to 72 percent.
In 1980, the English historian and antiwar activist Edward Thompson proposed the word exterminism for “those characteristics of a society … which thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes.” Thompson’s focus was on the nuclear arms race, but others have extended the concept to address the impact of systemic ecological destruction on human beings and society.
The best definition of exterminism I’ve seen was given by environmentalist Stan Goff in his summing up of the lessons of Katrina:
[Exterminism, Goff writes, is] the tacit or open acceptance of the necessity for mass exterminations or die-offs (often beginning with mass displacements) as the price for continued accumulation and the political dominance of a ruling class. . . .
Exterminism is not totally, or even most often, characterized by offensive action against whole populations, but frequently accomplished by calculated neglect—the instruments of which are poverty, disease, malnutrition, and “natural” disasters . . . and frequently facilitated by economic isolation and the mass displacement of populations.
We see exterminism in action today, when untold thousands of people from the Middle East and Africa have drowned in desperate attempts to reach Europe, and those who reach the far shore are imprisoned and driven back, in violation of international law. The European Union has turned the Mediterranean into a mass grave, and its southern coastlands into concentration camps.
Governments that follow such policies say that they want to help people adapt so they can stay in their home countries, but their actions belie their words. A case in point is the Green Climate Fund, set up at the UN climate conference in Cancun in 2010. The rich countries promised to provide $100 billion a year, to assist Third World nations in adapting to climate change.
That was six years ago. By March of this year, the Fund had actually received only 7% of the money required for just one year. Even if all the promised pledges are actually delivered, the total fund will still be 90% short of its first year requirement. As India’s representative on the Green Climate Fund Board said, “At this pace we will not be able to do anything much.”
Perverse climate spending
That’s not to say the rich countries aren’t spending money to deal with climate change in the Third World—they’re just spending it in other ways. The European Union, which has pledged 1.8 billion euros in aid to Africa, has budgeted over six times that much for carrying out deportations.
As Christian Parenti says, “The anticipation of increased conflict in a world remade by climate change has led the militaries of the Global North toward an embrace of militarized adaptation.”
In 2003 the Pentagon commissioned a study titled An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security. The authors argued that rapid climate change “could potentially de-stabilize the geo-political environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war”:
Nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves. Less fortunate nations, especially those with ancient enmities with their neighbors, may initiate struggles for access to food, clean water, or energy.
They left no doubt about who would be who in that scenario:
The United States and Australia are likely to build defensive fortresses around their countries because they have the resources and reserves to achieve self-sufficiency. . . . Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants.
Let’s be crystal clear: this was a call for the use of armed force against starving people. This is precisely the policy that was advocated by the right-wing ideologue Garrett Hardin, in his infamous 1974 article, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor.” He wrote:
In a less than perfect world, the allocation of rights based on territory must be defended. . . . It is unlikely that civilization and dignity can survive everywhere; but better in a few places than in none.
As socialist environmentalist Barry Commoner replied in his book The Closing Circle, that such policies have nothing in common with civilization and dignity.
Here, only faintly masked, is barbarism. It denies the equal right of all the human inhabitants of the earth to a humane life. It would condemn most of the people of the world to the material level of the barbarian, and the rest, the “fortunate minorities,” to the moral level of the barbarian. Neither within Hardin’s tiny enclaves of “civilization,” nor in the larger world around them, would anything that we seek to preserve—the dignity and the humaneness of man, the grace of civilization—survive.
The 2003 report caused an uproar when it was leaked, leading Pentagon officials to insist that the scenario was speculative, but they didn’t abjure the “virtual fortress” response to climate crisis. Many examples, including the walls and armed patrols on the U.S.-Mexico border, Australia’s brutal concentration camps for refugees, Britain’s exclusion of refugees camped in Calais, and Hungary’s fence against people escaping from Syria, show that the report’s only error was its assumption that refugee exclusion policies would only happen in case of a sudden global climate shift.
The armed lifeboat
Christian Parenti calls this the politics of the armed lifeboat—“responding to climate change by arming, excluding, forgetting, repressing, policing and killing.” It is a major element of the climate-change policies of wealthy countries today. It is certainly the best-financed part.
In 1844, Frederick Engels described how the streets of Manchester were carefully laid out so that rich didn’t have to come into contact with the poor or see the slums they lived in. “The money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the labouring districts to their places of business, without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left.”
Today, that physical separation is global. What Archbishop Tutu calls “adaptation apartheid” is business as usual.
While the military targets climate-change victims as enemies of the capitalist way of life, global elites are preparing for dark times by creating protected spaces for themselves, their families, and their servants in the hope of ensuring that they continue to get more than their share of the world’s wealth, no matter what happens to anyone else.
In the book Evil Paradises, Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk document the “unprecedented spatial and moral secession of the wealthy from the rest of humanity,” in custom-built communities of unspeakable luxury:
On a planet where more than 2 billion people subsist on two dollars or less a day, these dreamworlds enflame desires—for infinite consumption, total social exclusion and physical security, and architectural monumentality—that are clearly incompatible with the ecological and moral survival of humanity. . . .
They are willful, narcissistic withdrawals from the tragedies overtaking the planet. The rich will simply hide out in their castles and television sets, desperately trying to consume all the good things of the earth in their lifetimes.
Private jets and super-yachts enable the ultra-rich to flee to protected enclaves, but the not-quite-that-rich can also hide from nature’s revenge, while remaining in the crumbling cities of the North. Real estate developers in New York City are promoting multi-million dollar condominiums with emergency lighting, power and water systems, and even sealed waterproof rooms to keep out floods.
As one of those developers told the New York Times: “I think buyers would happily pay to be relatively reassured they wouldn’t be terribly inconvenienced in case of a natural disaster.”
Meanwhile, Superstorm Sandy, a hurricane made far worse by global warming, left thousands of New York’s poorest people trapped in tiny apartments for weeks, without electricity, heat, or water. “Terribly inconvenienced” doesn’t begin to describe it.
Ecosocialism or barbarism
Long ago, Karl Marx wrote that
Capitalist accumulation constantly produces . . . a population which is superfluous to capital’s average requirements for its own valorization, and is therefore a surplus population.
As capital expands, Marx said, “the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market,” creates an ever-growing global divide between rich and poor.
Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows.
You know, when I was in university, my economics professors insisted that Marx was wrong, that capitalism was improving life for everyone. But what we see today goes beyond what Marx described. On one hand, ever-increasing wealth concentrated in the hands of the tiny billionaire class. On the other, an increasingly large proportion of the population has been made not just “relatively redundant” but absolutely surplus to capitalism’s profit-making requirements. They aren’t needed as producers or consumers, and few of them ever will be. So they can be – and are – abandoned.
Hundreds of millions have already been pushed to the outer edges of the global economy and beyond, denied access to the minimum requirements of life, and left to survive the deteriorating global environment on their own. Excluded from the fossil economy, they have become its primary victims.
If this continues, the 21st Century will be a new dark age of luxury for a few and barbaric suffering for most. That’s why the masthead of Climate & Capitalism, the web journal I edit, carries a slogan adapted from Rosa Luxemburg’s famous call for resistance to the First World War: “Ecosocialism or barbarism: There is no third way.”
I’d like to finish by quoting an Australian activist some of you may have known, Del Weston. Her tragic death four years ago robbed Australia and the world of an outstanding ecological Marxist scholar. In the final paragraphs of her brilliant book, The Political Economy of Global Warming, Del wrote
We can choose to fiddle while the globe burns, to be afraid to be called alarmists, to be secure in the knowledge that we in the West will not be so immediately and devastatingly affected by global warming. That however would leave us morally bankrupt and living in a sea of chaos on a stricken planet.
But, she wrote, we still have a small window for action “to change the disastrous trajectory we are on.” We must she said, devote ourselves to
Building new political, economic and cultural systems and societies that are metabolically restorative, equitable, resilient, just, diverse and democratic. It is a challenge that could bring the different peoples of the world together, to build something better together and make history for the benefit of all people. We cannot afford not to try, nor to fail.
I could not agree more.
Reprinted from Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Ian’s tour of Australia was organized by Socialist Alliance and Links to introduce his new book, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System.
Facing the Anthropocene can be pre-ordered through many online booksellers. Orders placed now through the Monthly Review Press website will be shipped immediately. – JR