Thursday, March 23, 2006

An Anti-Capitalist Perspective on Global Warming



I rarely talk about so-called “environmental issues”.

The “green” movement rubs me the wrong way – both because its analysis is often superficial and because it seems to offer no coherent strategy for change. The mainstream environmental movement has little class or political analysis, and even eco-radicals often point the finger at vague entities (“human society”, “Western values”, “civilization” or somesuch) which is not really helpful in establishing a revolutionary perspective on environmental issues.

Nevertheless, i think it’s fair to say that what appear as environmental questions from our perspective – being in the present looking forward to the future – will in fact emerge as critically important terrain in the future, when they may be experienced first-hand as “really” being about class, nation or gender.

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Which should not come as a surprise, for these are the ways in which everything is parceled out under capitalism. It is misleading of me to write about this in the future tense, because it is already happening, and has been happening for as long as class society has existed.

Look at New Orleans. Class oppression, racist oppression (remember what J. Sakai has said: “‘Class’ without race in North America is an abstraction. And vice-versa.”) – and underlying it all some basic facts of urban planning and the worst hurricane season on record. A reality which some insist is “non-political” manifests itself under capitalism as a racist calamity.

Writing this, i am thinking that my problem with a lot of “green” activism is that i (perhaps incorrectly or unfairly) get little sense that this aspect of environmental breakdown is really appreciated. Outside of those groups dealing specifically with environmental racism, i don’t hear a lot about the way “non-political” or “natural” realities will be experienced in a manner determined by capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy – not some too-big-to-see “civilization”.

What’s more, this plays against the “end of the world” mystique surrounding many predictions - there is no way climate change or GMOs or pollution is going to kill “us” all, any more than “everyone” in New Orleans was left homeless. There is no homogenous “us” to kill any more than there was a homogenous “everyone” there. Different classes, different nations, different realities.

The cruel irony is that this makes environmental violence under capitalism more deadly to oppressed people while at the same time making it less threatening to the ruling class.

Take a look at global warming. For most of the people on this planet, this is going to have life and death consequences. Remember how Ronald Reagan wouldn’t say the word “AIDS” until well into the crisis? That’s what i think of when i remember how politicians and corporate scientists spent years denying there was solid evidence for what was happening to the climate.

Like AIDS, global warming is going to be genocidal in scope. Most obviously to those peoples who live on coastal areas, low-lying islands, or the Arctic. Indigenous nations like the Inuit are already being hit hard. Massive numbers of people from different nations will be displaced as their homes become either flooded or else unsafe. In other areas, people will be displaced as their farm lands dry out, or when local animal populations they may depend on will move away or else be driven to extinction.

In each of these situations, those who have money will find it easy to adapt. Those who don’t may just die.

As for capitalism itself, it definitely will not be threatened any more than the privileged capitalist classes. A quick think back through the past several centuries reveals quite clearly that massive dislocation and poverty is what capitalist economies thrive on. The larger the number of desperately poor people the greater the pressure to accept subhuman work at starvation wages. The more people’s communities are destroyed the more they will be alone and vulnerable to new and heightened levels of exploitation.

It’s all been done before. Not the end of the world – just more of the same shit.

(i should point out that while thinking about this i have been thinking of the “dialectical method” as described by Bertell Ollman.)

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Beyond the obvious “smash capitalism”, i am not pretending to have some brilliant solution. Relating what i am writing to a previous post, i do think this question highlights the inadequacy of adopting a non-hegemonic strategy, as suggested by Richard Day in his book Gramsci Is Dead – however it comes about, any meaningful response to global warming will have to be hegemonic.

Bet just because i don’t have a solution doesn’t mean i can’t think of certain things radicals should be doing.

Most importantly, we should be incorporating issues like global warming into our strategic thinking. This is tricky, as disasters and dramatic calamities tend to distort one’s analysis, often leading one to focus on details more than the big picture, sometimes even descending into dumb conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, by looking back at how conflicts and change have played out in the past, we can gain insight into how they are likely to play out in the future.

In Canada, for instance, it is already clear that the receding Arctic ice will lead to a heightened level of State violence and aggression against the Inuit people, who will be increasingly displaced from their coastal communities at the same time as their lands and the Arctic seaways become increasingly valuable to the Canadian ruling class. Already during his recent election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised that if elected he would be stationing armed icebreakers in the region, building a deep sea port in Iqaluit, and stationing the military in Nunavut's capital. This is at the same time as the Conservatives have clearly signaled that they will adopt a more aggressive approach to nullifying First Nations land claims.

One doesn’t need to be a climatologist to see where this could be leading in ten or twenty years time.

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Want to get an idea of what global warming might mean?

The Canadian government actually has some interactive maps available online, with which you can zoom in and see how different areas will be effected by the different effects of climate change (forest fires, flooding, sea level rise, erosion, etc.). When viewing the Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise Map remember that up until a few weeks ago, the prevailing guesstimate was that sea levels would rise 90cm over the next hundred years – however, recent news that the Greenland ice sheet is melting much more quickly than previously thought means that this figure may be much too low.

(Compare these maps to the government’s 1996 Aboriginal Population interactive map to get a chilling idea of what is to come.)


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