Climate catastrophe reckoning time

There is only one way out of the Climate Catastrophe

The addition of gang-gang cockatoos and koalas to the threatened species list is amongst the grim findings of the latest State of the Evironment report. Photo by Alison Thorne
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State of denial. On July 19, new Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek released the State of the Environment report, a five-yearly analysis of the continent’s ecological health. Her words and tone were grim. How could it be otherwise? The document’s description and analysis of Australia’s ecosystems were, if anything, grimmer still.

She said:

“…While it’s a confronting read, Australians deserve the truth.

We deserve to know that Australia has lost more mammal species to extinction than any other continent. We deserve to know that threatened communities have grown by 20 percent in the past five years, with places literally burned into endangerment by catastrophic fires. That the Murray Darling fell to its lowest water level on record in 2019. And that for the first time, Australia now has more foreign plant species than native ones.

Individually, each of these revelations is dreadful. But it’s only when you think about their cumulative impact that you begin to get the full picture of environmental decline. It’s right there on page one of the report — ‘Overall, the state and trend of the environment in Australia are poor and deteriorating with abrupt changes in ecological systems being recorded in the past five years.’”

Disgracefully, and for no other reason than political advantage, the previous government — with its many connections to the fossil fuel industry — hid the report. This was consistent with how Morrison and his gang ran the country. Corruption comes in many forms — including suppression of bad news.

Still, now we have it.

Unfortunately (but predictably), the new Labor Party government, with its own ties to the pollution industry, is taking a pragmatic, reformist approach. This, when it is clear to many that there is no longer any time for reform. The tipping points are here and now; indeed some are already in the past. Pragmatism is just a synonym for delay.

From the local to the global. I became an environmentalist early on, aware of and appalled by the ravages of industrialism on the environment. Now I would, of course, use the term “capitalism.”

In 1975, I stayed in the Victorian Goldfields town of Castlemaine. I was struck by the scarcity of shrubs and grasses. Gully erosion was everywhere. The landscape had been severely damaged by the nineteenth century gold rushes. I returned there recently. There is little obvious change. The forest is still in a bad way.

The mining activity — the plundering of the land — had severely altered the water table and devastated the soils, undoing in less than a decade 60,000+ years of Dja Dja Wurrung custodianship. It was a life-altering experience and a profound influence on my activism to this day. It inspired a final year science project on the continent’s drainage basins, which gave me a clear sense of the ephemeral character of many of them. And thus the effects of European colonisation, a rare term in the White Australia narrative of four decades ago. That led to me becoming an advocate for First Nations’ sovereignty. And the deep conviction that the degradation of the former was intimately linked to the absence of the latter. Something that is now, well, bleedingly obvious to the unprejudiced mind.

It’s a little banal, but I’ll note it anyway. The damage to the Central Victorian landscapes is typical of the ravages of European colonialism. First Nations peoples all over the planet have been subject to this piracy for six centuries. Karl Marx referred to it as “Primitive Accumulative of Capital.” In everyday language, it’s called “theft.”

At first, the depredations of early mercantile capitalism were devastating, but localised — like that witnessed by my teenage self. It was only after the Industrial Revolution that the European colonialist ransacking of other civilisations evolved into outright annexation and systematic genocide, not least through the destruction of local environments and the crushing of indigenous custodianship and management.

Like what was done to Dja Dja Wurrung country.

The world’s population and its ecosystems suffer under the global effects of decaying capitalism. We know it as “anthropomorphic climate change.” This is not inaccurate in general terms, but it glosses over one important fact. The economic system operates by its own rules — that’s the logic of “the market.” It is a consequence of the fetishism of competition and individualism over cooperation and community. Indeed, it’s arguable that no human is truly in control of it, though a tiny minority certainly benefit, and ruthlessly act to maintain that privilege.

The Climate Emergency presents itself to us as an overwhelming juggernaut — a runaway train. To continue the metaphor: someone needs to grab the controls.

Universal peril but not universal doom. Australia has had devastating wildfires and floods with awful regularity for the past twenty years; continuously for the past three. Fires devastated 250,000 square kilometres (an area larger than Victoria) in the summer of 2019-20, causing nearly five hundred human deaths and killing or displacing three billion animals. The floods of 2022 devastated communities from north of Brisbane to south of Sydney with rainfall volumes well beyond any recorded since colonisation.

Thousands of people, in some cases whole communities, are homeless as a result of these disasters. For some time there has been discussion of climate refugees — in the abstract. Yet they are here, now: all along the east coast of the continent, living in tents and sheds. Just like the clear and present danger of the Climate Emergency.

Advocating ecosocialism at the United Climate Rally in Melbourne, 30 July 2022. Photo by Alison Thorne.

At the time of writing, there are devastating fires in the northern hemisphere, spanning every continent there. Heatwaves are beyond parallel. It looks awful because it is awful. It certainly gives the lie to the deranged, corrupt rantings of the climate change deniers universally bankrolled or encouraged by the fossil fuel cartels.

Yet that doesn’t make the doomsayers right: “the planet” is not at stake. There is no evidence that human beings are facing imminent extinction. And there is good news: in June, a Yale University study of 110 regions showed that in 108 of them, a majority of respondents are either “somewhat” or “very” concerned about climate change.

It’s no surprise, really. There is a famous quip, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, which goes: “you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Indeed!

The task ahead seems obvious; to turn the majority’s opinion to majority action. And that’s not a small assignment! But the appetite for change is clearly here.

Your gut perception that the climate has changed in your lifetime is confirmed. You are correct, and on the right side of history! There is no basis for doubt, none at all.

The question is, what to do now?

Non-solutions versus real solutions. The scientifically confirmed climate crisis cannot be resolved through the capitalist system, which triggered it. That should be a given, but sadly it is not. Imperialism is a predatory, toxic and destructive means to operate our global society — our civilisations. There is no reform, no tweaking, that will halt — let alone repair — the massive damage that it has caused to life on this planet. Still less the human misery it has wrought. One thing is obvious: a system built around competition and the cult of the individual cannot be repaired through individual solutions.

There is nothing wrong with recycling and reuse.Yet in a system based on limitless production they will do nothing to end the waste and devastation required by the capitalist economic system. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with switching to a vegan diet. The treatment of animals under capitalism is clearly cruel. Yet switching diets will do nothing to feed the billions of people who live hand to mouth, selling what produce they can glean from degraded soils for a few coins, and then using those to buy whatever leftovers the capitalist market tosses their way. Lifestyle choices are not available to those whose struggle is simply to exist. Moreover, capitalism has shown that it can adapt to such choices.

The real solution to the crisis can only be collective. This requires a clear understanding of the class nature of capitalist society — of who benefits from the current system and who does not. No surprises — it’s the vast majority of us, the rural poor, the wage slaves, the small business operators who have no stake in maintaining the status quo. The beneficiaries, together with their apologists and hangers-on, need to be swept aside.

So we must organise on a global basis: think globally and act globally. Act to take control of the economy, turning it to our use; to mitigate the effects of centuries of degradation and to repair the damage. Not an easy task, but a necessary one. What needs to be organised is nothing less than a planet-wide ecosocialist political movement. One that has, as its first task, to wrench power from those who benefit from global exploitation and ruin.

Be very sure that they will not cede control voluntarily. But we are the majority. Our numbers, our resolve and our organisation will overcome their money and armies, if our goal is clear and our commitment to the future of our society and life on earth is strong.

There is no other way out! Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky left what came to be known as his “Testament.” His health was poor, yet he did not let that dim his optimism for the future of humanity. The last sentence reads: “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”

In light of the climate crisis, we should not lose hope. At the onset of the last Ice Age sequence, it is estimated that Homo sapiens was reduced to 600 or so breeding individuals in Southern Africa.

It will not get that bad this time because, I am convinced, we will not let it go that far. But the crisis is here and now. Trotsky’s fine words need a little revision — but not much, because it’s up to us, those alive now:

Life is beautiful. Let the current generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it to the full.