A child is playing in a smoke-filled environment during January 2020 bushfires in Australia. Junee, NSW Australia. Photo: Greg Stonham / Shutterstock.com
ROAR Roundtable: COVID-19 and the climate crisis
- June 23, 2020
Climate & Catastrophe
The path the world takes out of lockdown will shape the climate struggle for decades to come. What can we do to seize the moment?
COVID-19 has forced a re-evaluation of nearly every aspect of how we fight for social and ecological justice. Yet, when it comes to the issue of climate change it can seem as if the virus has changed everything without changing anything at all. The world we live in today looks nothing like it did at the start of the year, but the climate crisis is still the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced and global capital is still hell-bent on ignoring it.
In sharp contrast to their inaction on climate change, the world’s leading imperialist powers responded to the pandemic with a fervor not seen since the last time capital’s interests were so severely threatened at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. Their actions reveal what we have always known: these governments do not lack the power to mitigate the worst effects of climate breakdown. What they lack is the will.
The pandemic has also revealed the enormity of the changes needed to tackle the climate crisis. As the world went into lockdown, stories began to circulate about the pandemic’s unexpected benefits for the environment. With fewer cars on the roads, the air in major cities was cleaner, songbirds seemed louder and the skies bluer. With less fossil fuels being burned, emissions were also falling. Studies suggest that in early April, global emissions were 17 percent lower than they were at the same time last year.
This is impressive as far as it goes. But research also shows that the pandemic has made no appreciable difference to the world’s ability to meet the targets of the COP21 Paris Agreement. In May this year, with much of the world in lockdown, atmospheric CO2 swelled to 418 parts per million — the highest recorded in human history.
To avert social and ecological catastrophe of unfathomable proportions, global emissions need to fall by at least 7.6 percent a year, every year, for the next three decades. So-called “developed” countries must achieve full decarbonization as soon as 2035.
The path the world takes out of lockdown will be decisive. Global capital plans to return to fossil-fueled normality as soon as possible but as a piece of graffiti from Hong Kong put it: “We can’t return to normal because the normal that we had was precisely the problem.”
The fight is on to create a new normal, to turn the tides on fossil capitalism, tear down the oil and gas industry, abolish industrialized agriculture and build a world in which humans and non-humans alike can flourish. In this, the first in a series of articles questioning the impact of COVID-19 on global politics, we asked a group of leading scholars and organizers to share their thoughts about what the coronavirus means for the world’s environmental movements.
— Kai Heron, Associate Editor
ROAR would like to thank John Bellamy Foster, Thea Riofrancos, Lavinia Steinfort, Giorgos Kallis, Max Ajl, Brian Tokar and Hilary Moore.
What is the main lesson that environmental movements should carry forward from the coronavirus pandemic?
“Everything Affects and Is Affected by Every Other Thing”
John Bellamy Foster
In his classic ecological work, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, Frederick Engels observed that “in nature nothing takes place in isolation. Everything affects and is affected by every other thing, and it is mostly because this manifold motion and interaction is forgotten that our natural scientists are prevented from gaining a clear insight into the simplest things.”
Although Barry Commoner, who was a close student of Engels’s work, designated as the “first law of ecology,” that “everything is connected to everything else,” the full implications of this have seldom been grasped by contemporary environmentalism. This is due to an exaggerated emphasis on the external environment removed from the human sphere, as opposed to what Karl Marx called the universal metabolism of nature, focusing on the metabolism of nature and society. Hence, the study of environmental change has often been disconnected from the etiology of disease, seen as belonging to a disconnected human sphere. COVID-19 has now taught us the seriousness of this error.
The sudden appearance of dangerous new zoonoses such as SARS, MERS, and H1N1 resulted over the last decade in the rise of the One Health approach to the etiology of disease, bringing together analyses from zoology, microbiology, epidemiology, ecology, veterinary medicine and public health, aimed at developing a more systematic approach to epidemics.
Though superior to earlier, reductionist approaches, and quickly adopted by the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, the dominant ideological basis of One Health meant that it backed off from a holistic approach in one very crucial respect: the consideration of capitalism, including the scrutiny of agribusiness and global commodity chains.
There thus arose from within epidemiology a more developed, Structural One Health approach, influenced by the historical materialist tradition, which took into account the way in which capitalism has become the main vector for the transmission of disease, an outlook related to Marx’s theory of metabolic rift. As Marx indicated in the nineteenth century, “periodic epidemics” were as much a manifestation of the disruption of the metabolism of human society and nature as were the disruptions of the soil nutrient cycle.
Understanding how the destruction of ecosystems, the removal of buffers between urban and “wilderness” areas, the creation of vast agricultural monocultures/feedlots, and the globalization of production through commodity chains, are all related to the transmission of viruses between species, is, in the Structural One Health perspective, crucial to grasping the full dimensions of the overall metabolic crisis affecting humanity.
Beyond all of that is the question of the destruction of public health systems under neoliberalism and how this is related to racial capitalism, creating higher morbidity and mortality rates among people of color and the poor in general. It is no mere coincidence under these circumstances that the intersection of COVID-19 with racial capitalism and economic depression has produced a perfect storm of protest, currently manifested in the United States in uprisings over the police lynching of George Floyd. At the same time, carbon emissions continue to rise, and the entire planet is threatened by fossil capital intrinsic to the system of capital accumulation as a whole.
If “everything affects and is affected by every other thing,” we must respond to the dangers to human existence in the 21st century by changing the system, creating a different form of social metabolic reproduction. There is no other way.
John Bellamy Foster is editor of Monthly Review and a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. His most recent books are The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology ( 2020) and The Robbery of Nature: Capitalism and the Ecological Rift (with Brett Clark, 2020) — both published by Monthly Review Press.
One Crisis Meets Another
Crises expose pre-existing injustices. This is the reason for their radicalizing effects — but also for their potential to empower reactionary forces, who endeavor to fortify their authority amidst social unrest. Crises, in other words, occasion contests for power on asymmetric terrains.
This means that the key lesson of the pandemic for environmental movements is that crises — health, climate, financial — unfold along the existing fault lines of inequality, just as they further fracture society. Indeed, many of the same groups are on the frontlines of both the pandemic and the climate crisis.
And the two emergencies intersect: environmental racism — the fact that toxic power plants and factories are disproportionately sited where people of color live — is the cause of underlying health conditions such as asthma that result in more serious cases of COVID-19. Meanwhile, from Bangladesh and India to Ecuador, communities confront cyclones and flooding in the midst of the pandemic.
These dynamics are visible in the unfolding eruption of protests across the United States. The uprising — which encompasses all fifty states, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, along with coordinated actions reverberating across the world — was triggered by the brutal police murder of George Floyd.
To understand the depth of righteous anger and the radical scope of demands, it is important to situate the brutality in the context of the multiple crises confronting Black communities. As one community organizer in Minneapolis put it, “I’m just as likely to die from a cop as I am from COVID” and, in the midst of economic devastation hitting these same communities hard, an activist in Baltimore noted, “Folks who don’t have much else to lose — they understand that this system isn’t built for black people.”
When oppression is layered atop exploitation, when communities are this vulnerable to precarity, harm and violence, catalyzing events that expose so many injustices at once can rapidly galvanize protest.
For many, the rupture of eventfulness has pierced through the dreary temporality of quarantine. In the words of a protester in New York City, “I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time.” In the streets, the effervescent energy is palpable: it’s the frisson of collectivity after months of isolation.
But while the current uprising has an important spontaneous element, we should not forget that it also builds on years of organizing, as exemplified by groups such as the Black Visions Collective or the worker center Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha. It is impossible to imagine the sudden salience of defunding police, of demands oriented towards a horizon of abolition, absent the Movement for Black Lives 2016 platform, among other visionary efforts.
Global capital’s contradictions mean that crisis is a given. This includes, of course, the accelerating climate crisis. The hope is that the social response to these emergencies leads in an emancipatory rather than exclusionary direction. To ensure that, we must connect the dots between the crisis and the underlying system that produces it. Whatever happens next, our actions in the present should aim to strengthen the organizational infrastructure that supports enduring and transformative struggle.
Thea Riofrancos is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Providence College, author of Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador (Duke University Press), and co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (Verso Books). She serves on the steering committee of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Ecosocialist Working Group.
International Solidarity Gets the Goods
For the planet, its many ecosystems and all earthlings to survive and flourish, environmental movements have to be bold and push for a transformation of power. Otherwise, capitalist, colonial and patriarchal powers will continue to dominate, exploit and oppress anything and anyone for private profit.
These intimately related powers have actually turned every available life-source into objects and commodities, which are silently sacrificed to the extraction of value. This mechanism has enabled, centuries of the systemic enslavement, the exploitation of care and other forms of un(der)paid work, and the destruction of the biosphere and the many life-support systems on which all beings depend. In other words, these parasites of profit have tried to suck dry everything that is essential to living well, collectively.
But the exercise of power can also be a whole other game. History has taught us that a “power over” others can be resisted and overturned by a “power to” create more just and livable societies. From winning suffrage for women of all colors, to the eight-hour workday and other types of labor protection, to gaining independence from colonial empires; time and again, social majorities have liberated themselves and emancipated their institutions, if not the privileged minority that had held them down.
The pandemic shows us that governments have the power to shut down some parts of the economy and save — some — lives, even if it is goal is to rescue that same economy in the long term. It has also made it crystal clear that care work, food systems, public goods and services, and responsive administrations, as well as millions of frontline workers, are the backbone of our societies.
What if the environmental movements would build “power with” the many feminist, anti-racist, trade unionist and post-capitalist forces to shape an economy that is centered around this foundation? What if we would call for degrowing all that is extractive, from destructive mining, speculative finance and mass tourism to fossil fueled agriculture and non-essential consumerism?
What if we would work together to really organize the communities we are part of, as well as stand with those we have fed off from afar, in order to collectively defend and deepen the democratic fabric of our societies? And what if our energy systems would underpin this democratic fabric by being publicly-owned in order to replace profit, competition and accumulation as the principles of organization with sufficiency, solidarity and collaboration?
In particular, Northern environmental movements have to use their power to demand that their governments hold themselves and corporate powers accountable in order to pay historic reparations – in part by channeling sufficient, unconditional climate finance to pillaged countries and communities in the so-called Global South. This way, the Mapuche people in Chile and the Ogoni people in Nigeria, among many other oppressed Indigenous communities, can finally rebuild and develop democratic provisioning systems on their own terms.
To survive and flourish, politics urgently need to stop fixating on so-called free markets and technologies. Instead, we have to coordinate a shift away from a socio-economy that depletes and over-produces, and towards one that globally redistributes power and wealth in order to achieve universal well-being.
Lavinia Steinfort is a researcher at the Transnational Institute (TNI). She co-implements the mPOWER project and has co-edited the reports The Future is Public: Towards Democratic Ownership of Public Services (2020), Public Finance for the Future We Want (2019) and One Treaty to rule them all (2018) about the Energy Charter Treaty.
Finding Hope Without Optimism
The main lesson that environmental movements should learn is that circumstances can change dramatically at any time, for better and for worse. History never stops, and what often feels like a mountain before us, can quickly collapse into ashes. The coronavirus pandemic revealed the fragility of the capitalist system, with its prioritization of growth and profits.
The speed and scope of this contagion followed the airplane and ship routes of a hyper-accelerated global economy. The world’s richest and most militarily powerful countries failed to protect their populations from disease, while modest ones, like Vietnam or Kerala, managed their way through it unscathed. Decades of budget cuts to public health and to social and civil security infrastructures, enacted in the name of GDP growth, eroded the capacities of Western states to respond.
Like on the issue of climate change, the initial instinct was to do nothing so as not to scare “the economy” — we paid for this with the lives of loved ones and the collapse of the economy itself. This is what environmentalists had warned all along would be the cost of inaction.
Environmental movements can take courage in the fact that when push comes to shove, people put life above profit. Politicians — with exceptions, hesitations, and at least for the time being — are forced to obey. In a heartbeat we adapted to new life patterns — if some of us could not sustain them longer, it is not our fault, but of governments that do not guarantee our livelihoods and push us back to work. Is this not similar to what is going on with climate change?
Surveys tell us the majority of people want decisive action. They are willing to change their lives — in ways much more pleasant than the physical distancing a virus demands — but they want to trust that this can happen in a way that will be just, organized and not against the many to protect the few.
We should not expect that if and once this pandemic has been contained, everyone will come together to flatten the curve of climate. But politics, Hannah Arendt has taught us, initiates the unexpected, the unprecedented. We live in unprecedented times that open up possibilities for unexpected politics. We have to believe that we can organize and muscle the power to start building a different world, one that gets slower by muddle-through design, not disaster.
“Belief,” Susan Paulson said in a recent conference, “is different [to optimism], you believe in what you’re struggling for even if there’s not a chance you’re gonna win.” Even better, there might be a slim chance.
Giorgos Kallis is an ecological economist, political ecologist, and Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) Professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona. He is the author of Limits (Stanford University Press, 2019) and Degrowth (Agenda Publishing, 2018).
Three Requirements for a Just Transition
Amidst and after COVID-19, three core points regarding an ecological just transition should be much clearer. One, more urgently than ever, we need transformed agricultural systems. Two, the state may not be the route to socialism, but it is an indispensable cocoon for the long transition. Three, we can see clearly the need for ecological reparations to enable states in the South to do what is needed.
First, agriculture. It is by now well-known that industrialized capitalist agriculture is an incubator for deadly viruses. Industrial farming is discredited, and agro-ecological movements should press their advantage. Across the world, ecological peasant movements, farmers’ movements, permaculture initiatives braided with de-commodification of farmland, are building up the physical production systems for a resilient and non-capitalist world food system.
Peasant movements are not distinct but are part-and-parcel of the ecological movement and the movement of the laboring classes. They are therefore a sterling example of the environmentalism of the poor. Such movements are the basis for global just transitions, as they can build up food production systems which feed the poor, restore the health of the planet, and are excellent prophylaxis against viruses.
Second, we need the state. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the state fell into disrepute in many circles as the guarantor of social production and popular development. That idea is now buried in the graveyard. It is the state which can coordinate region-wide or nation-wide testing. It is the state which can manage counter-cyclical stimulus.
It is the state which can coordinate great transitions towards socialist horizons, allocating social resources towards green or greener sectors, and manage the degrowth of luxury consumption and excess energy use. And if it the state which ought to do so in the North, ecological movements ought to be consistent and accept the state role in so doing in the South rather than dismiss national-popular states using the paint brush of extractivism.
Third, ecological reparations. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, across Africa there are widespread demands for debt cancellation, which are now being echoed by social-democratic movements in the North. Debt cancellation to give states space for stimulus is a must. However, monetary debt jubilees are insufficient. The lens of ecological debt, based on usurpation of atmospheric space and reparations for current and future environmental and social damages from climate change, is central.
If we agree that the state is a necessary but insufficient institutional architecture for just transitions, we should agree that the state must have the resources in order to carry out its tasks. Reparations also sets the stage for developmental convergence between South and North. The pandemic makes clear that more than ever, the world is connected. The terms of those connections ought to be just.
Max Ajl is an associated researcher at the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment and writes on agrarian development, especially in the Arab region. His book, A People’s Green New Deal, is forthcoming from Pluto in 2021. He is on twitter @maxajl
Radical Democracy Vs. Fossil Capitalism
We are living in unimaginable times. It started, perhaps, with the worldwide pro-democracy protests that swarmed the streets of cities from Hong Kong to Santiago, Chile just last year. The protests were all shut down by the pandemic, as a largely unprepared world was forced to resort to the crudest of disease mitigation measures: the virtual lockdown of public spaces.
Then, here in the US, we witnessed several of the most blatant acts of police brutality and white supremacist violence in some time and a public outpouring of frustration and outrage — compounded by over two months of lockdown — led to what has become a nationwide and even global uprising against an increasingly brash and authoritarian social order.
For climate justice activists, the pandemic lockdown felt almost like a compression in time of some potential consequences of the accelerating global climate crisis, including the exhaustion of hospital capacity in many cities and the shutdown of much of the global economy. Hyper-militarized policing in the US reflects a long legacy of racism and echoes decades-old warnings of what a military state unprepared for climate-related disruptions could resort to.
But the air and water around major cities were also suddenly cleaner during the lockdown, climate-altering emissions were down by as much as 17 percent in April, and people experienced the sudden miracle of major urban thoroughfares no longer dominated by cars.
Wholesale oil prices even went negative for a couple of days, as consumption fell so dramatically that producers were running out of space to store excess output and their May futures contracts became less than worthless. The price of oil remained so low that the bottom began to fall out from under the US fracking industry and other once-lucrative modes of fossil fuel extraction. Some cities greatly expanded the number of car-free streets to allow for more socially-distanced pedestrian spaces and a more lasting makeover of our urban centers started to appear possible.
One overarching lesson of the pandemic is that once unimaginable changes in the social order are indeed possible. As the pioneering energy economist Charles Komanoff recently wrote, “we may be shaking loose the defeatism that nothing can be done quickly.” We have seen new community-based forms of social solidarity and mutual aid appear all around the world.
But as the most acute phase of the pandemic — hopefully — subsides, more sustained forms of organization, solidarity and lasting grassroots alliances will be needed if any of the more hopeful signs that emerged this spring are to be sustained over the longer term.
We will need more coordination from below to continue to satisfy people’s basic needs where statist institutions are failing, and will need to overturn the profit-driven model of the pharmaceutical industry that threatens to continue undermining the public health response, especially in the US. We will need unprecedented bottom-up coordination of efforts on the ground, and a resurgence of radical democracy in the face of rising authoritarianism.
Murray Bookchin wrote nearly forty years ago that “[i]f we don’t do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable.” In our time, this is not only prophetic, but it has become a near certainty.
Brian Tokar’s most recent book is Climate Justice and Community Renewal: Resistance and Grassroots Solutions, co-edited with Tamra Gilbertson (Routledge 2020). A 50% discount on online orders is available through August (Code CJCR20).
Get Out of the Way or Join, Unapologetically.
More and more white environmental and climate activists are beginning to make the connections People of Color and the Global South have made for decades: we cannot save the earth without centering the work of racial justice. As a movement, our history is, let us say, troubling. In the 1980s, maybe our approach was anything but anti-racist — let us not get into the 100 years before that. In the 1990s, chances are we claimed victories that were not our own. In the 2010s, we probably began sprinkling our organizations with a few Black people and maybe one or two Indigenous people or People of Color in staff, some working tirelessly to move us, some leaving because our organization’s culture was bunk. In 2012, we felt pressured to speak out against Trayvon’s murder and in 2016, we took a stand against the low-hanging-fruit white nationalist in the White House.
My point? We are late to the game. We have dragged our heels, sometimes kicking and screaming, as a few brave souls have worked to show us what justice means.
My advice to the environmental movement in the US is blunt: get out of the way of struggles for justice — or join, unapologetically. If we are not willing to reorganize ourselves — making significant changes to our boards, directors, managers, programs, campaigns, fundraising development, strategies (yes, all of it) — then, well… we are irrelevant.
Now is a good time to let ourselves be moved. The COVID-19 pandemic and the popular uprisings in defense of Black lives around the world are laying bare how quickly movements are moving, who has the most at stake, and who sees the path forward. Our standard-issue glacial pace is untenable. And we are still white-knuckling a version of white environmentalism — conservation and protection — that is currently peddled by white nationalists and right-wing populists, in the States and across Europe, to actually roll back social gains.
What would “getting out of the way” look like? Let ourselves be organized by the people on the frontlines. Literally. Move money to support these fights. Reorganize our campaigns to amplify the demands of people fighting for environmental justice and climate justice, here and in the Global South.
We may lose swaths of white people. That is okay, some folks are not coming with. But here is my promise: if we call them in, many will stay and change with us. Better yet, waves of new white people will be compelled to join us in response to this moment, ones desperately seeking a political home where justice actually lives.
N.B. Collaborate with Showing Up for Racial Justice on organizing and look to Catalyst Project for organizational support in bringing a racial justice lens to all the work we do.
Hilary Moore is an anti-racist political educator and freelance author. She works for Showing Up for Racial Justice and lives in Berlin, Germany. She most recently authored Burning Earth, Changing Europe: How the Racist Right Exploits the Climate Crisis–And What We Can Do About It (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2020).
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