Fires in Canada, drought in India inspire creative revolt

July 3, 2016

From the July-August 2016 issue of News & Letters

by Franklin Dmitryev

Throughout May, a wildfire raged in Alberta, Canada, spreading to Saskatchewan. On May 3 it swept through the city of Fort McMurray, forcing the evacuation of all 88,000 people, some of whom are still unable to return. At press time, it was still burning, having covered about 1.5 million acres. Most of that is forest, producing emissions of greenhouse gases equivalent to 100 million tons. That is just a rough estimate, but it compares to the yearly emissions of about 40 of the poorest countries, or six times what is emitted by 20 island nations at risk of losing much or all of their land to rising seas.

The Women’s Warrior Song being sung outside of the Imperial Metals Office in Vancouver on Jan. 23, 2016 protesting fracking and oil pipelines. Photo by nathanmac87.

The Women’s Warrior Song being sung outside of the Imperial Metals Office in Vancouver on Jan. 23, 2016 protesting fracking and oil pipelines. Photo by nathanmac87.

The Fort McMurray area had been the permanent or temporary home for many workers in the Athabasca Tar Sands, where the world’s biggest industrial operation extracts bitumen to produce heavy crude oil. Some of it is piped into the U.S. to refineries such as the BP plant on the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan. Dozens of people were arrested in May protesting that plant’s expansion to handle more tar sands oil. Some of that bitumen spilled near Battle Creek, Mich., in 2010 and may never be fully cleaned up, turning some of the neighbors into self-described “accidental activists.” The extraction and refining processes are so energy-intensive that, combined with the vast size of the tar sands deposit, leading climatologist James Hansen called it “game over for the climate” if the tar sands get fully exploited.


Meanwhile, First Nations around Canada are fighting the poisoning of downstream communities to the north and the push to pipe the bitumen across their lands to the south, west and east. Indigenous groups from across the U.S. and Canada have pledged to use direct action to resist the Keystone XL pipeline into the U.S. if it is approved. In 2010, 61 First Nations from British Columbia, Alberta and the Northwest Territories issued the Save the Fraser Declaration:

This project which would link the Tar Sands to Asia through our territories and the headwaters of this great river, and the federal process to approve it, violate our laws, traditions, values and our inherent rights as Indigenous Peoples under international law….We will not allow the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, or similar Tar Sands projects, to cross our lands, territories and watersheds, or the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon.”[1]

Since 2012 the Unist’ot’en resistance camp in Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia has blocked pipelines from crossing their territory, whether carrying tar sands oil or fracked natural gas to Pacific ports.

In the “Chemical Valley” area of Ontario, the Aamjiwnaang people have been at the forefront of resistance to Enbridge’s project to reverse its Line 9 pipeline to carry tar sands bitumen, as well as Bakken oil from North Dakota, east to Quebec. That resistance builds on earlier marches and blockades in the area against the poisoning of residents and workers by local petrochemical industries, and Idle No More actions for Indigenous sovereignty. In short, wherever pipelines are planned to ramp up transportation of bitumen from the tar sands, there is a movement in opposition.


Alberta’s tar sands operation offers a microcosm of capitalism at work. Huge international oil corporations have reaped a bonanza. Some of the Indigenous people from the area found no alternative but to take jobs with an industry they hate. After Dr. John O’Connor studied the very high cancer rate in downstream Fort Chipewyan—populated mainly by Indigenous and Métis people—Health Canada charged him with “raising undue alarm,” threatening his medical license.

Fort McMurray has grown into a typical boomtown. Many of the workers came from as far away as Newfoundland to get jobs they could not find at home. Social disruption due to climate change is one factor driving international migration, and many of the 84,000 temporary foreign workers in Alberta work in the tar sands, filing hundreds of complaints each year about the abusive conditions most prominently seen in a 2007 incident that killed two migrant workers.

For many workers the pay is relatively high, or was until layoffs due to falling oil prices in recent years, but prices for food and supplies are also high. Housing is outrageously expensive,

Aamjiwnaang First Nation protest against pollution by Clean Harbors in Chemical Valley area of Ontario, Sept. 6, 2015.

and many lived in work camps. While investment in industrial infrastructure boomed, social services and infrastructure could not keep up with population growth. As in every capitalist boomtown, living in a pressure cooker gets stressful, leading to violence and many addictions to alcohol and drugs. Now most of the workers are wondering if they will be able to return to work, while others have already given up. At the same time, the social and environmental devastation generates resistance.

The fires sweeping Alberta, like those that have plagued much of Russia—70 million acres in 2012—are made stronger and more frequent by the climate change accelerated by the tar sands operations that were temporarily interrupted. Hotter summers have also led to interruptions of coal-fired and other power plants because the cooling water they use is too hot. But the bankruptcy of this system is expressed as much in how it responds to climate-related disasters, as in the murderous racist and militarized response to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans. And the Pentagon is the U.S. institution most seriously planning responses to future climate events.


Those disasters are not limited to wildfires, though they are serious enough and have sharply increased in places like the Western U.S.

Extreme storms, floods and drought are increasing. Floods in France this spring were in some areas the worst in a century, and scientists quickly pronounced them linked to climate change. Paraguay had its worst flooding in 50 years last December, as 150,000 South Americans had to flee their homes. Record-breaking rain in Houston in April brought floods that killed eight people in Texas and flushed oil and chemicals from fracking sites and oil wells into rivers. Worldwide, over one billion people are projected to be at risk of coastal flooding by 2060.

Drought has cut farm yields, causing food and water shortfalls from California to Southern Africa to the Philippines to India, where monsoon rains have been minimal for two years in a row. Already 400 farmers have killed themselves this year in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra state. Tens of thousands of people have had to move to slums in bigger cities just to live. As this pattern intensifies globally, more and more climate refugees will be created, though they will likely be officially classified as “economic migrants,” without the rights refugees are legally supposed to have.


Child walking in dried up lake bed in Marathwada region of Maharashtra state, India. Photo: India Mission

Child walking in dried up lake bed in Marathwada region of Maharashtra state, India.
Photo: India Mission

While future food production is in jeopardy, enough food is still produced to feed everyone, but little is available to people with the least money.[2]

In general, production is not, as the ruling ideology would have it, production for the needs of people but for the needs of capital, for its accumulation and the reproduction of capitalist social relations, regardless of the consequences for human well-being and for the environment on which production depends.

In the same way, the most advanced science is applied to the productive process and to military and corporate planning, but science is at the same time attacked in the political sphere in the service of the most retrogressive, even fascistic, ideology. Congress and state legislatures have even used laws, budgets and investigations to muzzle climate science and the communication of its results.

Instead of an energy or climate plan, presidential candidate Donald Trump spews lies and delusions, such as the claim that global warming is a “hoax” that was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” His administration “will focus on real environmental challenges, not the phony ones we’ve been looking at.” First he promises to open more land for oil and natural gas drilling and deregulate fossil fuel companies in the name of “energy independence” (a term also used by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to justify continued oil, gas and coal production). So deluded is Trump that he told Californians, “There is no drought”! Yet he speaks for millions whose paranoia has been cultivated by both right-wing extremists and oil companies like Exxon Mobil.


While that ideology holds in thrall most Trump supporters, the public at large does realize that climate change is happening and is harming people now, threatening even greater catastrophe if left unchecked. The movement to take action is growing. This May saw dramatic coordinated “Break Free from Fossil Fuels” actions around the world:

• 10,000 people marched in the Philippines opposing a new coal-fired power plant in Batangas City and demanding an end to coal use. “Batangas and the rest of the Philippines will not bow to those who think of nothing but profit instead of people and plunder instead of protecting the environment,” said Naderev “Yeb” Saño, the government’s former climate negotiator.

• 150 people camped on railroad tracks used by oil refineries near Anacortes, Wash., blocking trains for two days.

• Hundreds of kayaks and boats blockaded the entrance to Newcastle harbor in Australia, the world’s biggest coal port, while others blocked nearby train tracks used for transporting coal. “The risk we face by not taking action on climate change is far greater than the risk of sitting on train tracks,” said Jesse Kalic, a student studying climate change.

• Protests in different areas of Nigeria highlighted the legacy of pollution left to peoples like the Ogoni in oil-rich zones, and of “fossil colonialism.”

Brazil, South Africa, Germany, Indonesia, Canada, and a number of other countries were all part of the “Break Free” actions. This was the peak intensity so far of a movement that has been going on for years.[3]


An important element of the movement relates it to struggles against environmental racism, a term coined by Black Americans fighting against the poisoning of their communities. They gave rise to the environmental justice movement, along with Latinos and other oppressed groups. This movement’s breadth is reflected in statements like this one by Sâkihitowin Awâsis, a Didikai Métis activist in Ontario:

“There are links between the presence of the tar sands industry and heightened rates of missing and murdered Indigenous two-spirits, women, and girls….A pipeline campaign rooted in an anti-colonial framework brings together converging anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-colonial, and environmental struggles. This means that the strategies of our grassroots anti-tar sands movements entail leadership from Native peoples defending the sacred land. This work is already being led by women, girls, and two-spirits….”[4]

Indigenous activists have raised the question of what kind of development humanity should pursue. The answers, when one is given, are varied and usually partial. But it is a question the movement needs to tackle if the often-stated opposition to capitalism is to be fully realized.

Today the question of an alternative path of development has become overwhelmingly urgent because being trapped in the confines of capitalist development and its thought leaves only two choices: condemning billions in the so-called developing countries to increasing poverty and precarious existence, or bowing to capital accumulation in countries like China, India, and Brazil that pump more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, making catastrophic climate chaos a certainty. The need to break out of these false alternatives is felt by activists and theoreticians, and—along with the experience of the past five years’ revolutionary upsurge—is one reason why capitalism is increasingly labeled the enemy by those who are not tied to the bureaucracies of states, corporations, foundations, and NGOs.


This calls for greater clarity on what capitalism is, what is to replace it, and how to get there. The ever-growing extraction of resources is obvious. That is not a policy choice or a result of unenlightened attitudes. Extractivism flows from capitalism’s basic nature, in which the human being exists to serve the process of production, and machinery, as capital, is designed to extract the most labor from the worker. This is what Karl Marx called the dialectical inversion where capital or dead labor acts as the subject and the human being is made into an object. Its inner motion and fuel is the extraction of labor, which is objectified in an alienated manner into value. The transcendence of this alienated inversion is needed in order to fundamentally alter the law of motion of modern society and, with it, mentalities hostile to both nature and humanity.[5]

Whereas posing the question as a “growth paradigm” or “extractivism” paints a picture of wrongheaded ideas leading society astray, the concept of the dialectical inversion shows not only the objectivity of the distorted relationship between human beings and the objective world, but the way the subjectivity of individuals is at the heart of the contradiction—not only as victims of extracted labor but as Subjects capable of inverting the inversion. That is, workers taking control of production is the necessary basis of establishing a rational, sustainable relationship of society to nature.

Toward the end of his life, Marx extended his concepts, showing that not all nations need follow that path of capitalist accumulation as a law of development. The communal forms that remain, particularly in Indigenous societies today, can provide an element of regeneration. They would still need to develop through revolution, and in relationship to proletarian revolutions in the West.

This is what Marxist-Humanism singled out as the “new moments” of Marx’s last decade, which open a far deeper view of what kind of development is the needed alternative to today’s suicidal path of so-called development.

[1] See the whole declaration at

[2] See “World food crisis stirs revolt,” June-July 2008 N&L.

[3] See, for example, “Canada’s First Nations against fracking,” Nov.-Dec. 2013 N&L, and “Tar sands pipeline vs. human future,” Nov.-Dec. 2011 N&L.

[4] “Pipelines and Resistance across Turtle Island,” in A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice, ed. Toban Black, Stephen D’Arcy, Tony Weis and Joshua Kahn Russell (PM Press, 2014), pp. 255-56, 261.

[5] See “Ecosocialism and Marx’s Humanism,” Aug.-Sept. 2009 N&L, page 5.

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