From the November-December 2022 issue of News & Letters
by Franklin Dmitryev
In a year of climate disasters striking the world fast and furious, Pakistan’s devastation stands out. After a deadly heat wave hit South Asia for weeks in March and April and wildfires hit northwest Pakistan in May and June, the monsoon rains started early and strong, and kept coming. By August, one-third of Pakistan was under stagnant floodwaters, breeding disease, with full drainage expected to take six months.
Some 33 million people were affected, with over 1,700 killed and thousands more injured. Over 2 million lost their homes and 50 million are displaced, many camping by roadsides next to floodwaters. Over one million livestock died and 4 million acres of crops were destroyed. Flooded land calls into question planting for the next season and sharecropping farmers were thrust even deeper into debt.
Especially hard hit were the Baloch people, an oppressed minority in both Pakistan and Iran. The governments of both countries have left them at the mercy of climate-related damage, which is part of why they are in revolt.
Scientists said the flooding was made 50% worse by global heating. Its human effects were magnified by the domination of the country’s ruling class coalition of capitalists, landlords and the military, together with the global capitalist-imperialist structure in which the country is integrated.
As Pakistani woman student and writer Beenish Fatima wrote in The Express Tribune: “These floods that resulted because of two concomitant factors, mainly climate change at a global level and the political and institutional inability of Pakistan to manage the anticipatory crises, have wreaked havoc on the marginalised segments of society….Deep-rooted gender inequality, exacerbated by poverty and illiteracy, is making life more miserable for women after the catastrophe caused by floods.”
Pakistani artist and climate activist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto pointed to the extension of colonial “development” policies, such as building dams and highways that disrupted the country’s major river, the Indus, to divert agriculture into cash crops for export.
He speculated that the anger of the people is so deep that perhaps “A revolution is coming.”
Ibrahim Buriro wrote on the “dam-building frenzy” since the 1960s: “the magnitude of this disaster was made larger by Pakistan’s exploitation of nature in the name of ‘progress.’ My country needs to abandon its excessively industrial approach to water infrastructure, lest our ecological and economic situation becomes even more tenuous….The dams have radically increased our vulnerability to climate change, both because of the way they have caused the Indus River delta to recede and because of the way they can overflow when the monsoon is heavy, worsening floods.”
The effects on some areas displaced farming people to marginal lives in cities or hard labor in Persian Gulf countries. In many cases local people fought these plans but were defeated. Buriro added: “We Pakistanis cannot let our own government off the hook: we have to mobilize more effectively against new dam-building, and for policies that build our resilience to climate change and support its victims. But the world, too, needs to respond.”
FIGHT FOR A HUMAN FUTURE
Pakistan’s devastation shows what the climate crisis holds in store for most of humanity if capitalism keeps dictating the direction of society. Crucially, we must fight the assault by the powers that be on our minds, trying to convince us that there is no alternative, that a transformation as radical as what climate scientists call for would plunge us into poverty. The truth is that capitalism is driving humanity to destruction and impoverishing us economically, environmentally, culturally, socially.
The further truth is that the real alternative, a social revolution leading to a society on new human foundations, would unleash talents and potential human powers and enrich us in self-development, creativity and unalienated social relations—even if it did mean an end to production of nuclear weapons, advertising and superyachts for billionaires. That needed alternative is what must guide us in fighting the climate emergency and the powerful forces waging a war on our future.
Every year the weather disasters multiply. Destructive floods this year also hit Bangladesh, Nigeria, Sudan, Australia, Venezuela and more. Flooding contaminated the drinking water in Jackson, Miss.—a calamity perpetrated by the racist state establishment over years, as in Flint, Michigan. Extreme heat waves also hit the Middle East, North Africa, China, southern South America, Europe and the U.S., fueling wildfires from the Mediterranean to California to Mongolia. Severe drought disrupted farming in China, the U.S., and Europe, triggered famine in East Africa, and intensified sandstorms in Iraq.
Amid over 100 tropical cyclones in 2022, Hurricane Fiona wracked Puerto Rico, killing 25 and knocking out power to the main island for weeks—again a disaster set up by years of racist imperialism—and tore a path all the way to Canada. Hurricane Ian thrashed Cuba and Florida. Severe cyclones also took a toll on Mozambique, the Philippines, South Korea and other countries. A powerful windstorm tore up farms in the Midwestern U.S.
Beyond these disasters, the less visible toll of the climate crisis is mounting: deterioration of farming conditions, spread of diseases including pandemics, and extinctions of more and more species.
Reactionary and centrist politicians play on a desire to return to normal, but the snowballing disasters expose that illusion, and show that we have not even reached a “new normal.” And while fossil fuel flunkies were busy casting doubt, actual conditions have time and again worsened far faster than climate scientists expected.
Capital continues to sabotage sufficient actions to mitigate climate change and to adapt to its consequences.
It continues to sacrifice the well-being of the vast majority for the benefit of the rich and powerful and their illusions that they can protect themselves from the ravages they refuse to halt.
As disasters accumulate, they have mostly turned from outright denial to greenwashing and false solutions that are Trojan horses for continuing to extract fossil fuels and destroy ecosystems. Many of these false solutions displace or poison marginalized people (Indigenous, Black, ethnic minorities, workers, people who have disabilities or are homeless or low-income).
- Carbon capture and storage never captures all the carbon. Because it takes a tremendous amount of energy, it translates to burning more coal or natural gas, so it increases the toxic pollution assaulting nearby communities, the majority of which are people of color, but it is enshrined as a climate solution. It would also require thousands of miles of pipelines to be built. Climate justice struggles have already begun against the oil and agribusiness interests pushing these pipelines.
- Timber companies and governments created the fiction that burning wood is a clean alternative to coal, oil and gas. In reality it releases climate-heating carbon dioxide and fine particulates that harm people. Yet the European Union and the UK enshrined it as subsidized “renewable” energy, leading to predatory logging in old-growth forests of Europe as well as in the Southeast U.S., exacerbating environmental racism and sparking environmental justice struggles.
- Indonesia’s program to mix wood pellets with coal has the same drawbacks, threatening a massive increase in deforestation, while serving as an excuse to build more coal-burning power plants.
The crying need is quite the opposite: to halt deforestation, destruction of ecosystems, and any new oil, gas and coal projects. Heading off that urgent need is the point of these false solutions.
Governments camouflage themselves in green while they open new drilling in the North Sea, new coal mines in China, new pipelines in Africa, new natural gas export and import facilities in the U.S. and Europe. They boast about protecting nature while the Amazon is pushed toward the point of no return by burning and logging. Multinationals based in the North are profiting from it—while disregarding the rampant violence against resistance from Indigenous peoples and environmentalists.
ATTITUDES TO TECHNOLOGY
One false solution after another is presented, not only by fossil fuel companies and their pet politicians but by others who are looking for technological solutions without social transformation because their imaginations cannot escape the social relations of the status quo. Today’s divide in attitudes to technology and climate solutions is more than a political question. It is a deep divide in philosophy that harks back to the attitudes to automation theorized by the Marxist-Humanist revolutionary Raya Dunayevskaya in Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today.
This divide reaches within the environmental movement. As crucial and urgent as are science, technological advances and the “energy transition,” they are liable to turn into their opposite if they are the focus instead of struggles from below of people trying to take control over their own lives. Those struggles for self-determination must be understood as a revolt against alienation and part of the quest for universality.
A division has erupted in the movement between those who are focused on technical and administrative demands of the buildout of renewable energy and those rooted in local struggles resisting projects imposed on them from above, whether oil and gas pipelines or lithium mines.
Mining for lithium, copper and other metals used in batteries, wind turbines and solar cells uses tons of water, despoils the landscape and leaves toxic pollution. It is booming, from Chile to China, Congo to the Southwest U.S. As High Country News reported, “It’s not just new projects that are getting a boost; decades-old proposals that withered in the face of environmental opposition are now being dusted off and given a new green sheen. What were once just gaping global corporate-profit machines are being reborn as essential to the push to decarbonize.”
The technical needs of energy transition are enough to convince some environmentalists to overlook opposition from Indigenous and other marginalized communities. So a David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, joined the crowd resigning themselves to Senator Joe Manchin’s “permitting reform” bill, which is now stalled. He opined about the need for a “permitting reform bill, focused on building more electric transmission lines and streamlining regulatory approval for clean energy projects” in “Progressives Should Rally Around a Clean Energy Construction Boom” (Oct. 5, 2022, New York Times).
Of course, he is against “the stampeding of frontline communities,” but that is an afterthought not likely to be enforced even if such a law managed to give it lip service. He deplores the “perception, however inaccurate, that the climate left values conservation above clean energy.” But why shouldn’t we value human living conditions, which his duality omits, above energy production?
Similarly, The Atlantic’s climate specialist, Robinson Meyer, speculated about how Manchin’s bill would speed up the needed buildout of the electric grid. Those dazzled by technology fail to realize that, unless projects begin and end with the self-determination of the people in their path, their “progress” will turn into more disasters.
POST-MARX MARXIST ECOMODERNISM
Post-Marx Marxism is not immune to this tendency. “Ecomodernists” like Matt Huber, author of Climate Change as Class War and a contributor to Jacobin, argue that “A socialist eco-modernism should make the transformation of production and the productive forces the fulcrum of any new relation to the planet.”
As David Camfield points out, “Ecomodernist socialism perpetuates a longstanding idea within the marxist tradition that the productive forces themselves are neutral; the problem is the social relations that hinder their deployment for progressive ends. This also tends to involve a narrow conception of what productive forces are—as just technology, and not also forms of social cooperation—and to see them as wholly distinct from the relations of production. However, if we follow Marx in understanding the productive forces as the productive powers of human labour, then when thinking about these as they exist today we must recognize them as the productive powers of alienated human labour as developed by capital. This is not just a matter of the purposes to which they are put, but also about which technologies and forms of cooperation are developed and in what ways….
“In this way, ecomodernist socialism brings to mind Raya Dunayevskaya’s observation about the marxism of Second International figures like Kautsky and Hilferding: ‘there is no longer any sense of breaking the chains of the ubiquitous capitalist machine, nor [of]…the total reorganization of the relations of men at the point of production by the men themselves.’ Any hint of the critique of technology fetishism also found within the marxist tradition is altogether absent. The very embrace of the ecomodernist label by a marxist is itself remarkable, given that ecomodernism is so clearly a case of bourgeois ideology.”
Or, as Dunayevskaya emphasized, “The Marxist truth, the plain truth, is that just as economic reality is not mere statistics, but is the base of existence, and just as the greatest productive force is not the machine, but the human being, so the human being is not only muscle, but also brain, not only energy but emotion, passion and force—in a word, the whole human being. This, just this, was of course Marx’s greatest contribution to ‘economics,’ or more precisely, to revolutionizing economics, to unearthing the whole human dimension….
“[Marx’s] world-historic view [was] not only an analysis of the existing society, but a conception of a new society based on expanding human forces, during a century in which the whole cultivated world thought of expanding material forces as the condition, activity, and purpose of all liberation.”
FUNDAMENTAL DIVIDE IN THOUGHT
On this basis, she could grasp the divide in attitudes to automation as a divide between “two fundamental ways of thinking,” reflecting the class division between capitalists and workers. The intellectual Planners who became part of the New Deal state, even when they were Communists, fell on the same side of the divide as the capitalists, as did union bureaucrats:
“The sharp division between the rank and file worker and the labor bureaucrat is seen nowhere so clearly as in the different attitudes each has toward Automation. Where the auto worker, for example, deals with it as it affects his daily life, [UAW President Walter] Reuther speaks of the future and ‘the promise’ Automation holds for a ‘vast improvement in living conditions,’ and ‘leisure’” (Marxism and Freedom, p. 268).
Armed with Marx’s Humanism and dialectic, it was possible for Dunayevskaya to hear the new question arising from the workers battling the introduction of automation into the coal mines: what kind of labor should a human being do? What would end the division between thinking and doing?
In so doing, she asserted, they “made concrete and thereby extended Marx’s most abstract theories of alienated labor and the quest for universality,” and pointing to what was needed as the foundation for a new society. The climate emergency makes her conclusion about attitudes to technology even more urgent and no less true:
“[A] new society is THE human endeavor, or it is nothing. It cannot be brought in behind the backs of the people, neither by the ‘vanguard’ nor by the ‘scientific individuals.’ The working people will build it, or it will not be built. There is a crying need for a new unity of theory and practice which begins with where the working people are—their thoughts, their struggles, their aspirations.
“The challenge of our times is not to machines, but to humanity….The creation of a new society remains the human endeavor. The totality of the crisis demands, and will create, a total solution. It can be nothing short of a New Humanism.”
. Marxism and Freedom, p. 163, where Dunayevskaya also points out: “It could not have been otherwise for what was missing from the ‘trustified’ concept of ‘socialization of production’ was the fragmentation of the worker to a cog in a machine, the actuality of capitalist progress as dehumanization.”