The Fire Down Below
What if we had an apocalypse and no one noticed?
Over the last weeks Australia has been burning. According to scientists from the Bureau of Metreology the first two weeks of January 2013 now hold the records for the hottest Australian day on record, the hottest two-day period on record, the hottest three-day period, the hottest four-day period and, well, every sequential-days record stretching from one to 14 days for daily mean temperatures.
That heat, combined with months of low rainfall, produced – entirely predictably — major bushfires across Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales.
Of course, as Scott Power from the BOM noted, fires are nothing new in this country: they ‘are all part and parcel about living in Australia over summer.’
But Power also explained that climate change ‘increases the likelihood of such events, and also increases [their] intensity.’
Yet there’s no way to attribute any particular fire directly to carbon emissions, any more than it’s possible to prove a link between the right-wing gun culture and a particular school massacre. Scientists speak of tendencies but life presents itself as a series of individual events, each emerging from its own causal nexus. As an abstraction from the immediate, climate change (by definition) must be understood rather than experienced: you can’t feel statistical trends.
A run of sweltering days might provoke a conversation about climate change, just like repeated shootings spur questions about the baleful influence of the NRA. But there’s nothing inevitable about that process. Repetition can just as equally mean normalization, an acceptance of previously extreme events as simply the way things now are.
After decades of international inaction on climate, it’s comforting to believe that politicians will soon have no choice but to take note, that, as weather events grow more destructive, action will become a political necessity, forced upon legislators by the inexorable unfolding of reality.
But that’s a delusion. In reality, there’s nothing easier to ignore than cataclysm.
For a start, disasters rarely inflict their pain equally.
In Australia, for instance, bushfires generally burn regions distant from where the prosperous population lives. For the most part, bushfires, no matter how severe, visit ruination on rural, poor communities – and leave wealthy Australians largely unaffected.
In that sense, ‘natural’ disasters don’t exist and haven’t for a long, long time. One’s chances of being killed by floods, fires or famine owe little to nature and a great deal to civilization. Think of the 2004 tsunami, a catastrophe that killed a mindboggling 250 000 people across
southern Asia. That wall of water might have been an Act of God but the distribution of misery was largely down to Mammon, for those who died were overwhelmingly poor: the impoverished inhabitants of flimsy houses in rural fishing villages.
Poverty doesn’t only exacerbate suffering, it also renders that suffering politically invisible. Symptomatically (and grotesquely), when the Naomi Watts and Ewan Mcgregor movie The Impossible represents the deaths of a quarter of a million Asians, tragedy can only be conveyed to the film’s intended audience via a narrative focus on the travails of a European couple – and the dark-haired Spanish family of the source material must be transformed into a household provided over by a blonde English couple.
Back in 1991, almost a geological age ago in debates about the environment, Lawrence Summers, the chief economist of the World Bank sent a memo to some of his subordinates.
‘Just between you and me,’ he wrote, ‘shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the [Less Developed Countries] … I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.’
When the memo leaked, Summers issued a shame-faced apology. Yet, as the Economist later acknowledged, while his phraseology might have been indelicate but ‘his economics was hard to answer.’
In part, that’s because the World Bank, like all the other institutions of its ilk, knows full well that, politically, brown people in the South don’t matter as much as white people in the North. More importantly, Summers’ memo encapsulates the marketised understanding of the environment as a commodity: essentially, if you want an unpolluted atmosphere, you should be paying for it – and those in the Third World are too poor to do so.
Again, climate change isn’t a natural crisis but an economic one. And that means it barely rates as a crisis at all, since, on the one hand, a changing climate doesn’t impede capital accumulation and, on the other, misery and devastation are already so much part of the economic landscape that we barely notice them.
Oxfam recently pointed out that the hundred richest people in the world earned enough last year to end extreme poverty suffered by the poorest on the planet four times over. If a disparity that obscene becomes entirely unexceptionable we’d be foolish indeed to think that extreme weather events will, in and of themselves, spur change.
Yes, the scientific predictions about what climate change means sound increasingly apocalyptic. But it’s quite wrong to think of climatic disaster as a future that will suddenly manifest itself with the thunder of a Last Judgement.
Actually, it’s not coming so much as it’s already here. In the ordinary inequalities around us, in the gulf between the people who matter and the people who don’t, we can glimpse what climate change will mean: an everyday apocalypse, a gradual worsening of the lives of the poorest and most oppressed, hidden amongst the sports pages and the banalities of parliamentary politics.
As far back as 1907, James Connolly explained that the labour movement’s demands were eminently moderate. ‘We only want the Earth,’ he said.
More recently, the British Marxist critic Terry Eagleton noted that merely providing access to clean drinking water for the world’s population would require a transformation of the political economy of the planet. Climate change might raise the stakes but, in some senses, the problem remains what it always has been, no more and no less.
Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of “Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship.“