Climate chaos and the capitalist system
Hurricane Irma barreled into Florida over the weekend as a Category 4 hurricane after leaving a trail of destruction on islands and island chains in the Atlantic. Less than two weeks before, Harvey caused a catastrophe in Houston and along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast.
In both cases, it's obvious how the priorities of capitalism made these natural disasters so much worse. But what can be done about it? Below is a speech, edited for publication, bygiven last week--before Irma reached Florida--at a meeting of an International Socialist Organization chapter at the University of Vermont.
WE ALL witnessed two catastrophic storm events in the past two weeks, and a third, Hurricane Irma, is heading through the Caribbean toward southwestern Florida, where I used to live.
The weather catastrophe that got the least attention in the U.S. was the extreme rainfall in South Asia over the last several weeks as a result of the worst monsoons in decades. One-third of Bangladesh is underwater, and there are over 1,400 reported deaths in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. And this is just the beginning. Millions face a longer-term crisis of hunger and lack of access to drinkable water.
In the U.S., Hurricane Harvey produced record rainfall in Houston (50 inches), caused more than 60 deaths, flooded 100,000 homes and forced 100,000s of people to flee floodwaters.
As Houston resident and SW contributor Folko Mueller wrote, "It will take weeks, if not months, for the city to recover. We can only guess how long it may take individuals to heal from the emotional and psychological distress caused by having lost loved ones or their homes."
The Houston area is home to 30 percent of the oil refinery capacity in U.S., along with a heavy concentration of chemical plants. There were massive toxic releases from industrial plants into air and water--even by the standards of industry self-reporting, which means systematic underreporting.
Explosions rocked the Arkema plant in the Houston suburbs that produces stock chemicals for manufacturing. It will be many years before we know the full magnitude and effects of this and other releases that took place during the disaster.
TO UNDERSTAND and learn from this crisis in Houston, we need to begin with the fact that Houston is a prime example of capitalism in the 21st century.
It's a city, like others, built around extreme wealth disparities--with immigrants, people of color and the working class as a whole often relegated to the most environmentally dangerous areas. It has its own cancer alley along the Houston Ship Channel, which was, of course, swamped by Harvey.
The area is home to oil refineries owned by all the giant energy firms, from ExxonMobil, Shell and Marathon on down. Houston was the global capital of the oil industry in the 20th century and is still that, which means its elite had an outsized responsibility for global warming.
A city without zoning, Houston has been left to real-estate capital as a super-profit center. Because of the unrestricted development, wetlands and prairie that provide natural storm buffers were paved over with impermeable surfaces. Quick profits were made from building in low-lying areas.
A similar dynamic took place in South Asia with "land reclamations"--filling in wetlands to build mega-cities. As SW contributor Navine Murshid pointed out, the word itself "speaks to the entitlement that capitalist developers feel with respect to the earth."
Houston had an estimated 600,000 undocumented workers running key sectors of the city's economy before Harvey, and immigrant labor will be critical to rebuilding. Yet Texas' anti-immigrant law SB 4, which deputizes state, county, city and campus law enforcement officers as immigration agents, was supposed kick in during the middle of the disaster, scaring many immigrants away from seeking aid.
The city has been devastated by hurricanes before. A ProPublica article published last year found that it was a matter of time before disaster struck--meanwhile, 80 percent of homes flooded by Harvey don't have flood insurance.
Even for capitalists, there is a carelessness about the making of Houston that is remarkable. One-third of U.S. oil-refining capacity was shut down during the Harvey crisis, and half of all capacity is located in this region that is vulnerable to storms. These are the plants and facilities that send fracked natural gas and refined oil products around the U.S. and the world.
THE PHYSICS of severe weather today is pretty simple. A warmer atmosphere holds more water and more energy, providing the fuel for bigger and more intense storms. More severe storms are a certainty as a result of man-made climate change.
And the trend of superstorms, extreme heat events and droughts--of extreme weather events in general--is going in the wrong direction, toward greater instability and extremes. Harvey, therefore, gives us a sobering glimpse of the future.
Naomi Klein, the left-wing author, is right that now is the time to talk about climate change--and after Harvey and Houston, it is necessarily a time to talk about capitalism.
I want to sketch out a basic Marxist understanding of the capitalist roots of the climate crisis. For everyone dedicated to fighting against climate change, Marxism is a great starting point, beginning with the contributions of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the 19th century.
As Marx observed in the mid-19th century: "Man lives on nature--means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man's physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature."
Marx and Engels noted that this unity with nature is ripped apart by capitalism through a "metabolic rift"--a separation that deepened and further developed under capitalism, where a small minority of the population controls all major aspects of the economy.
Capitalists are driven by competition to single-mindedly seek more profits. The free market imposes the drive to accumulate on individual capitalists, which results in a focus on short-term gains that ignores long-term effects of production. As Engels wrote:
As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers...
The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees--what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!"
At the heart of capitalism is wage labor. Workers are compelled by the need for work to survive to carry out the labor that drives the system--including its most destructive operations, like the drilling platforms or the chemical factories.
In fact, the workers who do this particular work often best recognize the ecological consequences involved--and, unfortunately, experience many of the most dangerous ones. It makes perfect sense that the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union spawned a radical labor leader like the late Tony Mazzocchi.
For Marx, the alternative to capitalism's destructive system was a democratically planned economy: socialism--by which he meant "the associated producers rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature."
Capitalism is driven by the perpetual need to produce more profit, or it snowballs into recession and crisis. So it isn't enough for scientists to develop new technologies that could create a sustainable world. They have to be put to use, and under capitalism, they won't be unless it is profitable to do so.
IF WE need a radical reorganization of society, then environmentalists must set their sights not just on changes within the capitalist system, but ultimately on the abolition of capitalism itself. To avoid ecological catastrophe, we need a society based not on competition and undirected growth, but on cooperation, economic democracy and long-term sustainability.
Marx offers a compelling vision of such a society in the final pages of his three volume work Capital: "Even an entire society, a nation or all simultaneously existing societies taken together are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations."
Is it possible to reform the current system to achieve this goal? Why can't oil and chemical corporations at least be regulated so they are not toxic polluters? They should be regulated--but environmentalist and author Fred Magdoff explained why we can't count on this under the existing system in an interview with SW:
The companies fight against regulations, and if they see that they're going to pass, they try to get them watered down. And then, if they actually go into effect, the companies try to make sure they aren't very well enforced. So even if the regulations exist and are meaningful--which is rare--the industry finds ways to get around them.
Often, the fines for violations aren't very much. You could have a good regulation, and a company violates the regulation, and they pay a thousand-dollar fine or a ten-thousand-dollar fine. For them, what's the difference?
This is part of why reforms can't be counted on to save the planet: At the end of the day, capitalist corporations and the pro-business parties running the government will prioritize profits over anything that would reduce them, even by a small amount.
This isn't only true about the U.S. government under Trump. Barack Obama came into office in 2009 promising radical steps to address climate change. Instead, under his presidency, the U.S. ramped up fossil fuel extraction and processing to deliver cheap energy to U.S. manufacturing so it could better compete globally--and to turn the U.S. into a net oil and gas exporter.
Obama helped undermined the Copenhagen climate change summit less than a year into office, ran cover for BP after the company's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and bragged to oil company executives about laying enough pipelines to ring the planet.
FOR SOCIALISTS, there are at least two sides of this fight that we have to take up.
One is the struggle for justice in the aftermath of "natural" disasters. The establishment will take advantage of every crisis to further its agenda of privatization, accumulation and gentrification, furthering the oppression of people of color and the working class.
Naomi Klein called this the "Shock Doctrine," and it played out in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with mass permanent displacement of African American workers--many of whom ended up in Houston--privatization of the schools and the abolition of the teachers union, although unions are reorganizing today.
We want rebuilding to guard against future floods and disasters--and to take place on the basis of racial justice and equal rights for all, including for all immigrants, regardless of legal status.
Second, we have to fight against fossil fuel extraction and for renewable energy alternatives--which means both protesting pipeline construction and joining with struggles that improve and expand public transportation.
But as we struggle for these short-term measures now, we have to raise the question of capitalism and need for socialism at the same time with everyone we organize with. Our project is for reform and revolution.
If we are organizing with institutions and people where raising the need for a socialist alternative can't be done, then we are probably organizing in the wrong place--and likely an ineffective place as well.
Meetings and campaigns involving Democratic Party politicians are a prime example. Another is the behind-the-scenes strategies to persuade university committees that claim to be considering fossil-fuel divestment. Their loyalty, at the end of the day, is to business interests--unless they feel the pressure of a struggle that will expose them.
There is certainly no simple answer here. But a socialist strategy that prioritizes mass, democratic organizing; free and open discussion and debate on the way forward; and dedicated struggle for immediate gains, without sacrificing a commitment to the bigger goals, has the most promise.
And if we can build up the politics of socialism and socialist organization among wider layers of people involved in these struggles, that will open the possibility of the system change that we need to find our way out of climate disasters.
There is widespread understanding of the urgency for action now to stop climate change. We don't have endless generations. CO2 levels will continue to climb despite the scientific consensus that this will have catastrophic consequences for the planet.
But the technology does exist to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as does the science that can be put to use in mitigating the impacts of past carbon emissions--if the system's priorities were radically changed.
Anyone who thinks we need system change needs to be dedicated to all the struggles for change today--and to arm themselves with the contributions of Marxism toward understanding the roots of the crisis and the alternative to it.
Our struggle for socialism is literally a struggle for the future of the planet.