Climate Catastrophe
Less than a decade ago there was a virulent debate on the left on the question of “catastrophism”. A number of influential socialist thinkers, including friends of ours, charged Monthly Review with having exaggerated the dangers to humanity arising from the accelerating planetary ecological crisis induced by capitalism. Fast-forward a few years to the present, in which we are increasingly confronted in our daily lives with a chain of catastrophes, including record heat waves, persistent droughts, out-of-control wildfires, megastorms, unprecedented floods, torrential rainfall, glacier melts, and sea level rise, combining in myriads of ways to threaten every region and ecosystem on earth—with the prospect that under present conditions this will only get worse. The CD-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has alerted the world to the dangers of the spread of zoonotic diseases across the globe, resulting from the economic destruction of critical ecosystems and the interface of this with agribusiness monocultures and global commodity chains.

The new Sixth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that the world is on a cliff’s edge, facing the prospect of cataclysmic, irreversible change on a planetary scale during this century if drastic action is not taken in the next two decades. Unless existing trends are reversed, billions of lives will be endangered, accompanied by the collapse of industrial civilization. The earth will cease to be a safe home for humanity (and for innumerable other species). In a leaked portion of Part III of the IPCC report we are informed that capitalism is an “unsustainable” system, and that the only way out of the climate crisis is a vast transformation of production and consumption systems across the globe in accord with principles of a just transition.

Meanwhile, capitalism is itself in a long-term crisis, characterized by economic stagnation and financialization. War has become permanent, a new Cold War has been unleashed on China, and neoliberalism has given birth to its partner in crime, neofascism. “Surveillance capitalism” (a term that originated in Monthly Review) is everywhere. Although the socialist movement is rising from the ashes in country after country in response to this global crisis, and while it is possible to point to pockets of the world where the struggle against capitalism’s creative destruction of humanity and the earth is facing concerted resistance, thus providing a rational basis for revolutionary hope, there is no denying that the world situation is at present extremely grim.

So grim, in fact, that many on the left are now openly talking about resignation and resilience (a fashionable new term for adaptation). An example of this state of mind is to be found in left cultural analyst Curtis White’s Living in a World that Can’t Be Fixed. White proclaims that the best we can do with the hand that we have been dealt is to follow the example of the 1960s counterculture movement (or even the nineteenth-century English Romantics) and simply “drop out” of society, living our own solidaristic, countercultural lives, while the world as a whole, which is beyond help, falls apart around us. Unable to fight a capitalist system that courts planetary disaster we should find our own peace in the interstices of the system, a kind of defiant cultural adaption to what is, aimed at simply saving ourselves, our local communities, and our own sense of autonomy and personal defiance, while abandoning the struggle for what ought to be or what could be in the world as a whole. It is as if we were told: The point is not to criticize the world but to renounce it.

Confronting the question of working-class “adaptation” to the capitalist system, Karl Marx wrote in Capital: “The first word of this adaptation is the creation of a relative surplus population, or industrial reserve army. Its last word is the misery of constantly expanding strata of the active army of labour, and the dead weight of pauperism.” Today, we can add to this, with respect to the world population’s adaptation to capitalism’s alienated metabolism (in accord with Marx’s own critical ecology): “The first word of this adaptation is the degradation of the earth. Its last word is the utter destruction of humanity.”
John Bellamy Foster,
Editor, Monthly Review

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Vol. 54, No. 21, Nov 21 - 27, 2021