Ian Angus at global launch of 'Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System'. Sydney, May 13.
Ian Angus is a Canadian ecosocialist and editor of the Climate & Capitalism website. He was recently in Australia to attend the Socialism for the 21st Century conference in Sydney, where he launched his new book, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System. He also toured Australia, addressing meetings organised by Socialist Alliance in seven cities. The text below is abridged from his talk in Cairns.
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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. As former US vice-president Al Gore says: “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, 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.
Apartheid rules on Spaceship Earth.
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 characterised not just by inequality (always a feature of class society) but by an unparalleled accumulation of wealth in the hands of a very few, coupled with mass poverty that is enforced by all the economic, political and military resources the ultra-rich can muster.
Many studies have documented the disproportionate wealth at the top. In 2015, the richest 1% of the world's population owned as much as the remaining 99% combined, and just 62 individuals owned more than the poorest 3.5 billion.
Branko Milankovic, former lead economist at the World Bank, says bluntly that we are now experiencing the highest level of relative and absolute global inequality at any point in 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% of weather disaster casualties are in developing countries, and 75% are women.
The pattern repeats at every scale. Globally, the South suffers far more than the North. Within the South, the very poorest countries, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, are hit hardest.
Within each country, the poorest people 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, when hurricanes and heatwaves hit, the poorest neighbourhoods are hit hardest, and within those neighbourhoods the primary victims are the poorest people.
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 41–72%.
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.”
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 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 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.
That's not to say the rich countries aren't spending money to deal with climate change in the Third World. The European Union, which has pledged €1.8 billion in aid to Africa, has budgeted more than six times that much for carrying out deportations. I don't know what Australia's budget is for excluding and imprisoning refugees.
Christian Parenti calls this the politics of the armed lifeboat: “Responding to climate change by arming, excluding, forgetting, repressing, policing and killing.”
It is the best-financed part of the climate change policies of wealthy countries today.
In 1844, Frederick Engels described how the streets of Manchester were carefully laid out so the 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.
Long ago, Karl Marx wrote: “Capitalist accumulation constantly produces … a population which is superfluous to capital's average requirements for its own valorisation, 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 monopolise all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows.”
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 the horrors that 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 Australian activist, 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, she 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.”