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The Great Capitalist Climacteric

‘‘Capitalism’s War on the Earth’’

Omar Rashid Chowdhury

The present global system has evidently entered into a phase of acute crises that can be summed up in a rather poetic phrase: "Nothing is enough for someone for whom enough is little". Today, humanity, is faced with a Great Capitalist Climacteric.

Climacteric, in standard definition, is a period of critical transition or turning point in the life of an individual or a society (derived from the Greek klimaktêr meaning the rung in a ladder). From a social perspective, climacteric can be defined as issues of historical transformation in the face of changing conditions. In the 1980s, Ian Burton and Robert Kates, two famous environmental geographers, referred to the notion of a Great Climacteric as one that is "applied to population, resources, and environment throughout the world," and "captures the idea of a period that is critical and where serious change for the worse may occur. It is a time of unusual danger".

As the world is faced with a rapid climate change deteriorated into a crisis, and ecological and environmental degradation and devastation unlike any in human history, the existence of human and other species on the planet earth is threatened with extinction.

Despite the red alert calls of a planetary emergency, carbon emissions have continued to rise throughout the globe, with rich countries emitting the most. With the present rate of carbon emission it will take only a generation or so to break the global carbon budget and reach the trillionth metric ton of combusted carbon thus generating a 2°C average global temperature. Once that threshold is reached it is feared that humanity will be facing irreversible changes where the Earth will no longer be in the conditions that mark the Holocene epoch in which civilization itself developed.

As climatologist Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change tells, "revolutionary change to the political economic hegemony," is needed to stop the emissions beyond the 2°C threshold. "More concretely, staying within the carbon budget means that global carbon emissions must at present be cut by around 3 percent a year, and in the rich countries by approximately 10 percent per annum-moving quickly to zero net emissions (or carbon neutrality). For an 'outside chance' of staying below 2°C, Anderson declared in 2012, the rich (OECD, Annex 1) countries would need to cut their emissions by 70 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 2030."

The brunt of the emission fueled climate crisis has been destructively evident in recent times. The average global surface temperature for February, 2016, according new NASA data, was 1.35°C warmer than the global average for the month between 1951-1980-a margin that shattered the previous record of 1.14°C, which was set just one month earlier-and exceeded preliminary figures released earlier in March. "The data shows that February 2016 was not only the hottest in recorded history, but it soared past all previous records, prompting scientists to describe the announcement as 'an ominous milestone in our march toward an ever-warmer planet'." Half-a-million deaths by 2050 due to climate change incurred food crisis has been projected by recent studies.

The global carbon budget has already been proposed by researchers to be cut in half, to contain global warming to the limits set in COP-21. The scenario seems bleaker with sea levels rising at a far more alarming rate than ever before. Studies find that global sea levels stayed fairly steady for about 3,000 years. Then, from 1900 to 2000, the seas rose 5.5 inches—a significant increase, especially for low-lying coastal areas. And since 1993, the rate has soared to a foot per century. Without a sharp reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, sea levels worldwide will likely rise by one to four feet by the end of this century. Even if the ambitious climate policies set in the 2015 Paris agreement are implemented, sea levels are still projected to increase by 20 to 60 centimeters by 2100, necessitating coastal adaptation such as building dikes, designing insurance schemes for flooding, or mapping long-term settlement retreat.

Warning that the "the probability of global catastrophe is very high", unless immediate action is taken, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Science and Security Board moved the hands of the historic Doomsday Clock to three minutes to midnight for the first time in three years. Richard Somerville, a member of the Science and Security Board, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and a distinguished professor emeritus and research professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, said: "Efforts at reducing global emissions of heat-trapping gases have so far been entirely insufficient to prevent unacceptable climate disruption. Unless much greater emissions reductions occur very soon, the countries of the world will have emitted enough carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by the end of this century to profoundly transform the Earth's climate."

A recent research paper from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia have warned: By the end of the century parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region could be too hot for humans to survive. The MENA is a climate change hotspot that could turn into a scorching area in summer. There is general consent that heat extremes impact human health, contribute to spreading of food- and water borne-diseases, and that more intense heat waves increase premature mortality. In the past, climate assessments of social and economic impacts due to changing weather extremes including consequences for human security and migration have often focused on storms, floods, droughts and sea level rise. It is increasingly recognized that hot weather extremes cause a loss of work capacity and aggravate societal stresses, especially for disadvantaged people and vulnerable populations.

It is imperative to keep in mind that climate change is only one of the interrelated parts of the Great Capitalist Climacteric. The world economy closing a whole set of planetary boundaries, has set off planetary emergency alarms that include increase in ocean acidification at alarming level, loss of biological diversity, the disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, disappearance of fresh water, land cover change (particularly deforestation), and growing pollution from synthetic chemicals (leading to biomagnification and bio-accumulation of toxins in living organisms). "The common denominator behind all of these rifts in the biogeochemical cycles of the planet is the system of capital accumulation on a global scale. This points to the need for truly massive, accelerated social change exceeding in scale not only the great social revolutions of the past, but also the great transformations of production marked by the original Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution : namely, a twenty-first century Ecological Revolution."

The global ecological crisis can be defined as the industrialization of the human-metabolic relation to nature destabilizing earth's ecosystems, destroying the bases on which society exists.

"Marx's concept of 'social metabolism' (also sometimes referred to as 'socio-ecological metabolism') has been used by critical ecological economists to chart the whole history of human-nature intersections, together with the conditions of ecological instability in the present." More direct linking of Marx's metabolic rift theory has led to further analyses and historical-empirical research into a whole range of ecological problems that include unequal ecological exchange or ecological imperialism.

In the prevailing global system, "the greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth," the greater is the magnitude of ecological exploitation by the system and environmental degradation. The second law of thermodynamics guarantees the "entropic degradation" with the advance of production; yet the existence of a capitalist mode of appropriation bent on promoting private profits with little or no regard for social or environmental costs guarantees that this entropic degradation tends globally toward maximum economically feasible levels at any given historical phase of development.

Worsening the scenario, the contemporary structure of commodity production, innately dependent upon pesticides, petrochemicals, fossil fuels and nuclear power generation, with its treating external habitats as a vast commons, maximizes the overall toxicity of production and promotes accelerated habitat destruction, that in turn create problems of ecological sustainability far outweighing the general entropic effect.

"The social relation of capital, as we all know, is a contradictory one. These contradictions, though stemming from capitalism's internal laws of motion, extend out to phenomena that are usually conceived as external to the system, threatening the integrity of the entire biosphere and everything within it as a result of capital's relentless expansion."

The system, structurally bereft with runaway reactions of the contradictions that define it, has turned into a threat to the planet. With increasing throughputs of energy and material and continual value expansion and commodity consumption, it has created a vast waste system. The global environment is threatened by the "accumulation of capital under the present phase of monopoly-finance capital". "Capital's social metabolic processes attempt to recreate the planet in its own image, treating all planetary boundaries as mere barriers to surmount, thus generating a global metabolic rift on a rapidly warming planet. All of this points to the need to place limits on economic growth, and specifically on the expansion of today's disaster capitalism."

An epochal crisis, both environmental and economic, threatens the system, manifested in over-accumulation, stagnation and financialization, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, there is ecological rift and disruptions within each and every ecosystem extending to a planetary level. "Capitalism in its crisis-ridden history has never faced a similar situation like now when so many crises have 'come down' on this earth, have joined together, acting together and also, acting against each other, aggravating all, and are threatening not only humanity, with which capitalism's relation is antagonistic but which is essential for the survival of capitalism, but also the world system capitalism has constructed over centuries."

"It is this irrational system of artificially stimulated growth, economic waste, financialized wealth, and extreme inequality that needs to be overturned if we are to create a society of ecological sustainability and substantive equality."

It is paramount for the forces of change to recognize this scenario in its whole proximity and determine strategic stances with respect to socio-political equations characterizing class antagonisms. It is also imperative that these forces define the continuous contention between the social classes in light of these contradictions within the system. Ecological sustainability should be recognized as a strand that affects the dominated classes in its most direct form. The dominated classes are often befuddled or swept away by pseudo-entities founded by the dominating classes and are forced to keep a blind eye towards the issue of ecological rift that directly affect their lives. Without a radical, dialectical approach, the agenda to make the dominated classes assimilated with and aware about the ecological rift, will be far removed from being a reality.

To envision an effective socio-ecological change, institutions for the masses should not fall prey to mere slogan-mongering, placard-brandishing, singular shows of personal heroism far alienated from the dominated classes; but recognize and address the economic and socio-political struggle of the masses that in turn are often explicit or implicit manifestations of the system's all-out attack against the ecological bonds that nourish the planet. Common, real and effective, agenda that directly affect the dominated classes, and play vital role in their everyday lives, should be identified and addressed.

The dialectic of the historical process, as Baran wrote, is "that within the framework of monopoly capitalism the most abominable, the most destructive features of the capitalist order become the very foundations of its continuing existence—just as slavery was the conditio sine qua non of its emergence". And, now it is a historic need to take a stand against the absolute destructiveness of the system of capital and replace it with a society of substantive equality and ecological sustainability.

With an ecological rift, explicitly characterizing the Climacteric, dimensions and dynamics of class antagonism and class struggle will necessarily take a more heightened and intensified form. As the system suffers from its own inherent contradictions now deteriorated into crises, the system's onslaught on the planet has become more violent. While the system continues increased destruction of ecology in its throes of desperate need to survive, the metabolic rift only grows larger with direct and indirect repercussions that can rapidly increase the magnitude of class contention between the dominated and the dominating classes.

The system has proven itself to be utterly incompetent in resolving crises that have turned more vicious with ever increasing over-accumulation, expansion and exploitation of nature, destroying subtle ecological balances around the planet. The brunt of this imbalance in ecology, in turn, threatens the system's existence that it can only continue for a shorter period in comparison to the Earth's history, by more accumulation, expansion and exploitation until it busts everything. In an attempt to mitigate the crises the system vehemently attacks the dominated classes, forcing them to bear the brunt of the crises of the system's making.

In the words of Marx and Engels, the scenario is easily depicted: "The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented." With these conditions more profound today in their historically most destructive form, class struggle will intensify across continents giving rise to a more experienced, radical proletariat. The middle-class, it is also to be noted, whom Marx refers to as "conservative" and "reactionary", can by no means play any role in this ongoing and ever intensifying class struggle and can only take the seat of a historically obsolete bystander.

The intensification in class struggle with growing ecological rift is singularly significant. This must be recognized with reference to an exact, effective understanding of socio-political and economic equations in respective societies. This understanding is important for the proletariat for consciously opposing adventurism and apolitical activities and become the dominating force in the class struggle.

Frontier
Vol. 48, No. 48, Jun 5 - 11, 2016