‘The climate crisis, by presenting the species with an existential crisis and putting us on a firm and unyielding science-based deadline, might just be the catalyst we need to knit together the great many powerful movements bound together by the inherent worth and value of all people, and united by the rejection of the ‘sacrifice zone’ mentality.”
Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein made these remarks in London last week in a lecture (available online) commemorating Palestinian theorist Edward Said. She was inspired by his argument that many peoples have been classified by imperial powers as "the other" – less than fully human – and said the climate crisis was entrenching inequality across the globe.
As a result many neglected populations – either left behind or exploited by capitalism’s relentless appetite for growth and profit – reside in “sacrifice zones” where pollution, extreme weather events, poverty and political disempowerment are now commonplace. It will not be just the poor and disenfranchised who pay the price.
“Wealthy people think that they are going to be okay, that they will be taken care of. But we all will be affected,” she said.
Klein made similar points in Dublin last week, drawing on campaigns based on her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. It argues that climate change is a battle between capitalism and the planet, that the commitment to perpetual growth is incompatible with planetary limits and that "the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralysing almost all serious efforts to respond".
Crisis of civilisation
In a lecture in Dublin on the same evening Klein spoke, US environmental sociologist
Foster delivered a parallel message. His subject was “the anthropocene and the crisis of civilisation: climate change and capitalism”.
He argues that scientists’ adoption of the anthropocene as a new geological epoch succeeding the post-Ice Age Holocene epoch, which lasted 12,000 years, signifies a radical change in humanity’s relationship with the rest of the Earth’s systems. Global-scale social and economic processes are now becoming significant features of its geo-biological functioning.
The power to shape planetary outcomes passes from nature to humans. Ecological change irreversible on a human time scale now threatens civilisation and possibly the survival of the human species. As he put it, a capitalism based on the perspective of infinite accumulation and growth in a finite planet is not compatible with the survival of civilisation. Hence the slogan he champions in the influential Marxist journal, Monthly Review, he edits: "System change not climate change!"
He traces the history of civilisation from the first period of settled agriculture, class-based urban settlements and writing 8,000-10,000 years ago as a system of “ordered human society”. He says a new “anthropogenic rift” in the evolution of the planet has altered humanity’s relation to the Earth. This draws on his research into Karl Marx’s theory of a “metabolic rift” between humanity and nature under capitalism arising from the profligate use of natural resources.
Bellamy Foster says an “ecological civilisation” is a necessary transitional society beyond capitalism, defined by far more substantive equality of global resources and burden-sharing of cutbacks in consumption between rich and poor states and people.
He and Klein rely on climate scientists in their analyses, including Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University. Speaking in Dublin last March, Anderson outlined his case that delivering on the 2 degree climate warming target agreed at the UN conference in Paris last year requires radical and rapid cuts in consumption among the world's richest consumers who emit most carbon, together with a reordering of economic priorities (see iiea.com).
These are big, bold and challenging ideas with a significant and informed following in Ireland. They are identified here to illustrate an important strand in the climate change debate combining green and socialist thought with the possibility of civilisational collapse.
It could have a powerful appeal in the coming years, based on intensifying climate, economic and social change alongside greater political conflict. Events indicate we are heading into a more illiberal period with less civility – defined by sociologist John Hall as "an agreement to differ".
Capitalism, markets and contemporary politics may be more capable of heading off catastrophic climate change than they allow. But that case needs to be argued convincingly against the evidence Klein, Bellamy Foster and Anderson bring to bear. firstname.lastname@example.org