As I’ve watched young people around the world take part in the climate actions of the last few weeks, I’ve gotten the sense that I’m watching a spectacle which has been orchestrated to create the illusion that we’re still in an earlier, more stable time for the planet’s climate. Legitimate as the passion and commitment of this generation of teen climate activists is, their efforts are being packaged by the political and media establishment in a way that encourages denial about our situation. These ruling institutions neither want us to recognize the real solutions to the crisis, nor to see the irrecoverable and massive damage that’s already been done to the climate.
We’re told that if we restructure capitalism with the help of the “green” corporations and NGOs that are backing Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, a catastrophic outcome will be prevented. Supposedly radical politicians like Bernie Sanders promise that by making an appeal for corporations to partially reduce emissions within a capitalist framework, we can save the world. People want to believe the claims of these “green” capitalists because they want to believe that our living arrangements won’t fundamentally need to change in order for humanity to survive.
These sources of false hope let Western capitalist society continue to ignore the primary role that imperialism and militarism have in the climate crisis, to view the capitalist governments as legitimate, and to not try to break away from the philosophy of capitalism and endless growth. The lifestyle tweaks that we’re told will save the planet-eating less meat, carpooling, flicking off the light when you leave the room-won’t be able to solve the problem even if society were to largely adopt them. The climate solutions that the capitalists present to us are designed to make us feel better while we keep letting the system move us closer to apocalypse.
To survive, we must recognize two truths about this crisis: that it’s no longer possible to avert a substantial catastrophe, and that global capitalism must be toppled in order for the human race to have a future. Once we understand the former fact, it becomes easy to accept the latter.
When you objectively examine the state of the world, it becomes clear that something needs to drastically change. Extreme inequality amid neoliberal policies and rampant corporate power has made the Western countries in many ways become part of the Third World. As American power declines, the imperialist wars are continuing and tensions between the major countries are escalating. Another global recession looms at the same time when a stable and comfortable life has become impossible even for most Americans to attain. Refugees are fleeing the worst dangers in their home countries, and are being met with inhumane treatment by the reactionary governments of the core imperialist nations. All of these capitalist crises are intertwined with the climate collapse that’s threatening the foundations of civilization.
The goals of the Paris climate agreement, which require reducing emissions by around 45 percent before 2030 so as to avoid a 1.5 degree Celsius warming, most definitely aren’t going to be met. Global greenhouse gas emissions hit a record high in 2018, indicating that we’ll [reach] 1.5 by 2030. The climate feedback loop will quickly turn this into 2 degrees in the following years, which will turn into somewhere between 3 and 5 degrees by 2100. It’s estimated that with just 2 degrees of warming, sea level rise will engulf 280 million people, earthquakes will kill 17 million, and over 200 million will die from droughts and famine.
Just ten years from now, this transition will be far enough along that the basic structures of capitalist society will no longer be stable. In June, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights issued a report which said that more than 120 million people could be forced into poverty by 2030 due to the destroyed property and resource scarcity that climate change-related disasters will cause. In response, more social services will be cut, society will become more militarized, and more immigrants will be deported, imprisoned, or left to die in disease-riddled concentration camps.
Such cruelties against the victims of climate change are realistic — and are all already being carried out — because in a world that’s falling to pieces, the feeling of desperation drives a survival instinct that makes people devalue the lives of their fellow human beings. Capitalism, with its fixation on competition, is the driver behind this impulse to exclude and eliminate the immigrants who seek to share in the West’s relative stability. This is why Philip Alston, the author of the U.N.’s June report, said that barring radical systemic change, “Human rights might not survive the coming upheaval.”
As the warming continues, increasing food and water scarcity, flooding, deadly heat waves, epidemics, and inequality will set off wars and civil unrest. Where stable states still exist, the prevailing paradigm will range from heightened government vigilance to outright martial law. Otherwise, borders will become less clearly defined and the existing governments will lose their power, making for a global version of the Middle East in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Syria. The vacuum will be filled with militant groups. In the Arab world these new monopolies on violence have been ISIS and Al Qaeda, and in North America they’ll be white supremacist paramilitaries.
None of this can be prevented by voting for Democrats, or changing one’s personal lifestyle, or participating in climate demonstrations that are sanctioned by the corporatocracy. The momentum of the climate’s destabilization is unstoppable, and the fascistic political forces that have emerged amid the crisis aren’t going away. However, my message with this essay isn’t to become apathetic in the face of what’s happening to us, but to embrace a worldview of realism that allows us to actually combat the problem.
We in the Western world must take guidance from the colonized people who are struggling for their liberation from imperial control and the capitalist carbon economy. Our goal should be not to reform capitalism, but to overthrow the capitalist centers of government and replace them with ecosocialist power structures. This is what the Chavistas are in the process of doing in Venezuela, which is moving towards an ecosocialist revolution where the country weans itself off from dependence on oil markets. Bolivia, whose socialist president Evo Morales has given the environment legal protections that are equivalent to human rights, provides further inspiration for the new systems that we’re capable of building.
The path to taking over the power of the state and seizing the means of production, as the socialists in these countries are doing, requires building mass movements that aren’t co-opted by the influence of the capitalist class. Our objectives need to be unambiguous: an end to capitalism and an end to all forms of imperialism, which entails decolonization.
The people of Venezuela and Bolivia are lucky to have been able to use electoral means to install a government that pursues these goals. In the U.S., where electoral politics are rigged against third parties and a deadly police state has been created, freedom will only be gained by working to usurp the authority of the capitalist state. India’s Maoist gurriellas (or the Naxalites) are doing this by taking territory away from their region’s government, as are Mexico’s communist Zapatistas. These groups are building strongholds for the larger movements to take down capitalism, which gain greater potential for victory the more that capitalism’s crises escalate; capitalist regimes that are under threat of being overthrown can already be found in Haiti and Honduras, whose U.S.-backed governments may well soon be ousted through sustained proletarian rebellions.
To replicate these liberation movements worldwide, we must stop denying the extremity of the crisis and fight capitalism with the knowledge that we’re fighting for our survival. To commit to their battle against India’s corporate fascist government, the Naxalites have had to experience the desperation of living in a severely impoverished underclass that’s increasingly suffering from water shortages amid the climate crisis. We Westerners can’t be kept complacent by the fact that our conditions are marginally better than theirs.
In the coming years, we’re not going to be living out a scenario where capitalism changes itself into something sustainable. We’re counting down to the collapse of civilization as we know it, and all that can save us now is the construction of a new ecosocialist civilization in its place.
Inequality, Climate Change, and America’s Destabilization
Early this month, I began picking up on news of large-scale social collapses happening throughout the Third World and the global south as a result of our imploding global neoliberal paradigm. I heard about Iraq, where martial law has been declared amid a vast anti-government uprising. I heard about Haiti and Honduras, whose U.S.-backed regimes are under threat from growing civil unrest. I heard about Ecuador, where mass protests by indigenous people against the country’s corporatist, pro-colonialist government have been met with extreme police violence. This was wholly unsurprising to me, since I’ve known that the unrestrained capitalism and neo-colonialism which grips these countries would have to come to a head eventually. But I didn’t anticipate that within a week, a systemic collapse of at least somewhat comparable proportions would come to my own country.
I guess I was fooled by the illusion that in the United States, and in the core imperialist nations in general, the crisis of late-stage capitalism isn’t nearly as far-gone as it is in the countries I mentioned above. Widespread systemic failures and levels of scarcity that threaten the social order still feel like such distant possibilities for most people who live in the world’s wealthier areas. But for me and over two million other Californians this past week, this First World illusion of security was shattered when our electricity was shut off.
Pacific Gas & Electric acted like it was doing this because of an unavoidable fire risk. But the danger that prompted October 9th’s days-long shutoff was no naturally caused phenomena; the cause, in essence, was capitalism. PG&E was shutting off the power to avoid lawsuits against them in the event that their technology would malfunction-which is only a risk because PG&E has been spending money on enriching its shareholders and paying lobbyists instead of on improving its equipment. They punished us for their greed-driven failure to manage California’s infrastructure. Because of capitalism we were faced with a choice between likely having more people killed in a new autumn fire, and having our power turned off for long enough to put the most vulnerable people at risk of dying from lack of access to medical equipment. PG&E chose the latter for us only because it was more profitable.
This is the latest step in the destabilization of America. As the collapse of the climate and the destructive effects of economic inequality create crises around the world, wealthy people like the heads of PG&E are maintaining their status by sacrificing the safety and comfort of the lower classes. Another example of this dynamic is the situation in India, where the rich are getting richer as more and more of the population falls into desperation amid the country’s growing water crisis. Or the situation in Iraq, which has also been experiencing deep inequality and water shortages as a result of the management failures of the neoliberal government that the U.S. installed in the country after the 2003 invasion. In the case of India’s transforming Kashmir into a tightly controlled area where food and medicine are artificially scarce, or Israel’s depriving Gazans of humanitarian aid during its growing water crisis, ethnic hatred has been the deciding factor behind who’s gotten sacrificed.
This neglect of human rights speeds up the process of growing inequality, social unrest, and environmental damage, prompting the capitalist governments to respond with more repression, austerity, and militarization of law enforcement. It’s a vicious cycle where capitalism consumes itself in reaction to the falling out of the system’s foundations.
“We’re entering a climate era when there are no total solutions,” columnist Michael Coren has written in response to the California shutoff. “There are only tradeoffs. Disaster relief is becoming less about rebuilding or fixing infrastructure, and more a way to buy time or retreat from the hardest-hit areas. In low-lying and fire-prone areas, communities are already beginning to abandon their homes, from Alaska to Louisiana. As the cost of defense and rebuilding after climate-driven disasters becomes too costly, exceeding the ability of even insurers and governments to absorb, this will become the new normal.”
California’s rich have been affected by the shutoff along with everyone else. As director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University Irwin Redlener has said about the ordeal, “People with limited means are always going to do worse in initial impacts and also have a much more difficult time in the aftermath. But these [impacts] are essentially inevitable and affect the multimillionaires on Fisher Island [Florida’s richest zip code] and the poor people in Little Havana. There will be some equalization of impact.”
Despite this immediate vulnerability of the elites to these kinds of infrastructural failures, the shutoff is a signal to the rich that it will soon be time for them to retreat into areas isolated from the threats the lower classes will be facing. The world’s richest people have been creating luxury disaster preparedness shelters for themselves in the last decade, with billionaires buying up massive amounts of empty land throughout inland areas for seemingly no other purpose than to build sustainable private living spaces within them. In 2017, successful investor Reid Hoffman told the New Yorker that he estimates more than 50% of Silicon Valley billionaires have bought some level of disaster insurance. As events like last week’s shutoff become more frequent, these oligarchs will become more likely to abandon their homes on the coast and migrate to their fortified enclaves elsewhere.
What will the rest of us need to expect when things get this bad? Expect electricity to be available a lot less of the time, and for water to become less often available even in the more lush places. Expect for more social services to be cut. Expect for there to be a strengthened police presence, as happened in California this week when ICE sent Homeland Security vehicles into the town of Weed. Expect for companies to try to privatize services in the aftermath of disasters, like they did in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Expect things to get worse a lot faster and with more severity than your First World upbringing might have previously made you assume.
America is about as far along in its capitalist societal deterioration as Haiti, Honduras, Ecuador, and Iraq, and like the people in these countries, Americans must build mass movements to defeat corporate power. We can start with seizing the means of energy production from negligent corporations like PG&E. Then we can move towards creating a socialist workers’ democracy, which will make it so that the people in charge throughout the climate catastrophe are the masses instead of a small circle of kleptocrats.
If you appreciate my work, I hope you become a one-time or regular donor to my Patreon account. Like most of us, I’m feeling the economic pinch during late-stage capitalism, and I need money to keep fighting for a new system that works for all of us. Go to my Patreon here.
From the archives: