Climate of Class Rule:  Common(s)er Revolt or Common Ruin

Photo Source r. nial bradshaw | CC BY 2.0

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

– Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, 1848

 “A Level of Criminality Almost Hard to Describe”

The great orange dumpster fire Donald J. Trump’s part in the reigning United States media-politics horror show is to distract the populace from the lethal pillaging of the commons behind the scenes. The leading left thinker Noam Chomsky put it very well in an interview last March:

“Trump’s role is to ensure that the media and that public attention are always concentrated on him. So every time you turn on a television set, it’s Trump; open the front page of the newspaper: Trump…. So every day there’s one insane thing after another and then, you know, he makes some crazy lie….and the media looks at it and says “No, [not true]’…But meanwhile he’s onto something else and then you go to that…”

“And while this show is going on in public, in the background the wrecking crew is working…systematically dismantling every aspect of government that works for the benefit of the population. …In the case of global warming, it’s almost indescribable. Not only has the U.S. pulled out – uniquely alone in the world – from the international efforts to do at least something about it. But, beyond that…the Trump Administration is going out of its way to increase the threat. Listen to his State of the Union Address, the only phrase about global climate was to talk about ‘our beautiful clean coal,’ the worst polluter there is…The new budget that’s coming out …sharply cuts research and support for any kind of renewable energy: more subsidies and support for the most polluting, destructive things.”

“And, it’s not just Trump, it’s the entire Republican leadership. So, if you look at the 2016 election, at the primaries, every single candidate, not a single exception, either denied that global warming is taking place or said ‘Maybe it is but we shouldn’t do anything about it,’ which I think is worse. They were called the moderates, like [John] Kasich. If you look at Trump himself, or say Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, they know perfectly well that humans are causing global warming. In fact, Trump has golf courses all over; he hasn’t built a wall in Mexico yet but he’s building walls around his golf courses to make sure that the sea level doesn’t destroy them.”

“Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil – since the 1970s scientists at ExxonMobil have been – we now know, they been made public, forced to be made public – they’ve been producing severe warnings to the leadership about the effect of the use of petroleum on destroying the environment. So they all know about it but they’re not doing anything about it, which is a level of criminality that is almost hard to find words to describe. I mean, here are, you know, educated well-off rich people, upper elite, who know that what they’re doing is destroying the prospects for human – organized human life – and do it anyway because they make more profits tomorrow. Can you think of an analog for that in human history? I really can’t” (emphasis added).

“Not a Wake-up Call Anymore”

Jump a half-year ahead to the late summer and early fall of 2018. Fully  17 of the 18 warmest years since modern record-keeping began have occurred since 2001. Numerous record-setting heat and related deadly weather (wildfires, droughts, rains, flood, mudslides etc.) events have occurred, as predicted in the (supposedly controversial) climate models produced by scientists  who have been trying to warn the world for many years about the eco-cidal consequences of burning fossil fuels on a mass scale. One headline I recall this summer announced that 2018 was the year in which global warming went from being a future “threat” to a lived “menace.”  As the New York Times’ climate correspondent Somini Sengupta wrote last August:

“This summer of fire and swelter looks a lot like the future that scientists have been warning about in the era of climate change… In California, firefighters are racing to control what has become the largest fire in state history. Harvests of staple grains like wheat and corn are expected to dip this year, in some cases sharply, in countries as different as Sweden and El Salvador. In Europe, nuclear power plants have had to shut down because the river water that cools the reactors was too warm. Heat waves on four continents have brought electricity grids crashing…And dozens of heat-related deaths in Japan this summer offered a foretaste of what researchers warn could be big increases in mortality from extreme heat.”

“ ‘It’s not a wake-up call anymore,’ Cynthia Rosenzweig, who runs the climate impacts group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said of global warming and its human toll. ‘It’s now absolutely happening to millions of people around the world.’”

“For many scientists, this is the year they started living climate change rather than just studying it.  ‘What we’re seeing today is making me, frankly, calibrate not only what my children will be living but what I will be living, what I am currently living,’ said Kim Cobb, a professor of earth and atmospheric science at the Georgia Institute of Technology…”

As I started writing this essay, Tropical Storm Gordon was gaining strength in the overheated Gulf of Mexico, where the temperature was 87 degrees Fahrenheit – too warm for a swimming pool.

Extreme weather and its collateral damage are only tips of the melting iceberg, semi-metaphorically speaking. The real climatological shit hits the eco-exterminist fan when we can’t grow enough food, find enough water, and keep ourselves cool enough to survive – and when global warming combines with collapsing social and technical infrastructure to bring pandemics that  wipe out much of an increasingly thirsty, under-nourished, and over-heated human race.

“Heat waves are bound to get more intense and more frequent as emissions rise… On the horizon,” Sengupta warns, “is a future of cascading system failures threatening basic necessities like food supply and electricity.”

The existential wall is already being hit in some countries.  El Salvador farmers suffered a disastrous corn harvest this summer as temperatures spiked to a record 107 degrees Fahrenheit. They went without rain for six weeks in some regions.

A hint of the dark future comes from northern Europe: “Wheat production in many countries of the European Union is set to decline this year. In Britain,” Sengupta reports, “wheat yields are projected to hit a five-year low. German farmers say their grain harvests are likely to be lower than normal. And in Sweden, record-high temperatures have left fields parched and farmers scrambling to find fodder for their livestock.”

Blaming Arrogant and Stupid Humanity

The culprit? A long and widely read New York Times Magazineessay written by Nathaniel Rich last July was titled “Losing Earth.” Rich blames the human species for its childish failure to properly heed the alarms of its intellectual adults – scientists. Rich indicts a “human nature” flawed by an inability to “sacrifice[e] present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.” He condemns homo sapiens’ tendency to “obsess over the present, worry about the medium-term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.” The offender, according to Nathaniel Rich, is We the People.  We simply aren’t wired to plan responsibly beyond the present moment of immediate gratification.

A recent Truthdig essay by the leading left thinker Chris Hedges is titled “Saying Goodbye to Planet Earth.” Surveying the damning evidence and likely future path of human-generated environmental ruin, Hedges concludes that “the refusal of our species to significantly curb the carbon emissions and pollutants that might cause human extinction” has brought “human-induced change to the ecosystem” that, “will probably make the biosphere inhospitable to most forms of life.” The enemy is arrogant humanity itself, perpetrator of “the Anthropocene” – the reckless alteration of Earth systems byhomo sapiensand its carbon-intensive industrialized lifestyle.

Humanity as a Whole or Capital?

Other thinkers of an eco-Marxian bent, myself included, narrow the diagnosis. They historicize the climate crisis, situating it in the specific historical context of capitalism. The concept of “the Anthropocene” has rich geological validity and holds welcome political relevance in countering the carbon-industrial complex’s denial of humanity’s responsibility for contemporary climate change, they note. Still, they counsel, we must guard against lapsing into the historically misleading, fatalistic, and often class-blind use of “Anthro,” projecting the currently and historically recent age of capital onto the broad 100,000-year swath of human activity on and in nature. As the Green Marxist environmental sociologist and geographer Jason Moore reminded radio interviewer Sasha Lilley last a few years ago, “It was not humanity as a whole that created …large-scale industry and the massive textile factories of Manchester in the 19th century or Detroit in the last century or Shenzen today. It was capital.”

Indeed, it was not humanity as a whole that built the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)in 2015 and 2016. It was capital, corralled in the accounts of Energy Transfer Partners, under the supervision of a reckless, eco-cidal and profit-mad billionaire named Kelcy Warren, who funded  the DAPL with billions of dollars from across the world’s leading financial institutions.

It was not humanity as whole that hid evidence of Greenhouse Gassing’s deadly impact on human prospects.  It was capital on various levels but most particularly in the form of Exxon-Mobil, who (in the greatest climate and environmental crime in history) buried the findings of its very own cutting-edge scientists in the 1970s and 1980s— an offence that that, as Chomsky says, “is almost hard to find words to describe.”

Moore and other left analysts argue with good reason that it is more appropriate to understand humanity’s Earth-altering assault on livable ecology as the “Capitalocene.” It is just a  relatively small slice of human history – roughly the last half-millennium give or take a century or so – during which human society has been socially and institutionally wired by a specific form of class rule to relentlessly assault on an ultimately geocidal scale.

It is only during the relatively brief period of history when capitalism has ruled the world system (since 1600 or thereabouts by some calculations, earlier and later by others) that human social organization has developed the inner, accumulation-, commodification-, “productivity”-, and growth-mad compulsion to transform Earth systems – with profitability and “productivity” dependent upon on the relentless appropriation of  “cheap nature” (cheap food, cheap energy, cheap raw materials and cheap human labor power)  Moore maintains that “humanity’s”  destruction of livable ecology is explained by changes that capitalism’s addictive and interrelated pursuits of profit and empire imposed on its behavior within “the web of life.”

It is capitalism and its quarterly earnings obsession with short-term profits, not Rich’s “human nature,” that constantly plunders and poisons the commons and trumps long-term planning for the common good.

In terms of measurable material consequences, it is true, the real destructive and Earth-altering impact of capitalism dates not from the beginning of capitalism but from more recent history.  The original “Anthropocene” argument pegged the major changes with the onset of the Industrial Revolution around 1800 but recent Earth science findings point to 1945 and the post-WWII era of US-led global monopoly-capitalist economic expansion as the real material onset of the Anthropocene/ Capitalocene.  That is something to keep in mind when reading the often brilliant left-environmentalist Naomi Klein, who tends, as Sam Gindin has noted, to hedge her descriptions of “capitalism’s” disastrous environmental impact by particularly criticizing the profits system of the post-1970s neoliberal era and not capitalism per se.

Still, the social, historical, political and class-historical DNA of the eco-cidal capitalist disease crystalized during Europe’s transition from feudalism to capitalism in the wake of the Black Death.

This matters for those who want to avert catastrophe. There is no desirable remedy without a proper historical diagnosis. Those who want to avert a new Black Death on a planetary scale need to confront the imperial world system that emerged in feudalism’s aftermath – capitalism as such.

We cannot afford denial and evasion about eco-exterminist systems of class rule any more than we can afford denial and evasion of human beings’ impact (under the command of capital) on life systems.

“We Think We’re Not Part of the Biosphere”

These differences aside, there’s a wonderful line in Chris Hedges’ “Goodbye Earth” essay. Hedges features the chilling (no irony intended) insight of astrophysics professor Adam Frank, who theorizes that “If you develop an industrial civilization like ours, the route is going to be the same,” Frank says.“You’re going to have a hard time not triggering climate change” (Frank mind-expansively guesses that this drama has already been played out on other planets in a universe that is now known to include millions of potentially life-supporting worlds).

“We think we’re not a part of the biosphere—that we’re above it—that we’re special,” Frank told Hedges. But “We’re not special. We’re the experiment that the biosphere is running now.”

That’s exactly right, however one understands and periodizes “the Anthropocene.” Perhaps the greatest mistake privileged humans ever made was to follow Descartes and other leading Western thinkers (none more stridently perhaps than Sir Francis Bacon) in advocating the species’ supposedly noble mission of becoming “like masters and owners of nature.”

We are no such thing.  Pretending that we are somehow above “Nature” is species suicide.

Think of the title of Nathaniel Rich’s article: “Losing Earth.”  Does it not remind one of the old global McCarthyite charges that “We [the United States] Lost China” (and/or North Korea and Cuba and Vietnam)?

I can lose my cell phone or my fountain pen.  You can lose your thermos.  But we can’t “lose Earth” or “China,” because they were never ours to possess in the first placeWho in the name of God (or whatever other higher power one wants to cite) told Nathaniel Rich that “Earth” was “ours” to “lose”? Was Rich’s title not the height of anthro-centric arrogance?

Super-Rich Folks Looking to Escape “The Event”

How do the “masters of the universe” – the members of the world’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s excellent phrase) – feel about the dire threats posed to human existence by the system that has generated their outsized opulence and power? Perhaps they fantasize that their fortunes will permit them to somehow escape to other worlds or (less fantastically) to insulate themselves with armed guards and special resource stockpiles on this one.

In an essay bearing the suitably appropriate title “Survival of the Richest,” the leading academic “media theorist” and “digital economics” professor, lecturer, and documentarian Douglas Rushkoff tells of an invitation he accepted last year to “a super-deluxe private resort to deliver a keynote speech to what I assumed would be a hundred or so investment bankers. It was,” Rushkoff writes. “by far the largest fee I had ever been offered for a talk — about half my annual professor’s salary — all to deliver some insight on the subject of ‘the future of technology.’” When Rushkoff arrived he found that his real assignment was to help five ultra-rich financial parasites figure out how they and their families might survive the coming collapse of a world they themselves had (quite unmentionably) helped wire for disaster:

“…I was ushered into what I thought was the green room. But instead of being wired with a microphone or taken to a stage, I just sat there at a plain round table as my audience was brought to me: five super-wealthy guys — yes, all men — from the upper echelon of the hedge fund world. After a bit of small talk, I realized they had no interest in the information I had prepared about the future of technology. They had come with questions of their own.”

“They started out innocuously enough. Ethereum or bitcoin? Is quantum computing a real thing? Slowly but surely, however, they edged into their real topics of concern…Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, ‘How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?’”

“‘The Event.’ That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.”

“This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.”

“That’s when it hit me: At least as far as these gentlemen were concerned, this was a talk about the future of technology. Taking their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the aging process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape.”

The Deadly “Buffer of Wealth

It is important I think, to note that the climate crisis hits disadvantaged populations first and the rich and powerful last. One problem “our species” faces is that class rule tends to delay a civilization’s capacity to perceive threats to its continued existence until the full consequences of the civilization’s deadly practices are felt by those who have been protected by class privilege from environmental harm. By the time the ruling class gets it, things have gone too far.

This in one of the timeworn paths to societal ruin discussed in a paper published five years ago by mathematician Safa Motesharrei, atmospheric scientist Eugenia Kalnay and political scientist Jorge Rivas in the journal Ecological Economics. Reviewing past societal collapses, they reflected on a potential current global scenario in which:

“[T]he Elites—due to their wealth—do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners. This buffer of wealth allows Elites to continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe. It … explain[s] how historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases). This buffer effect is further reinforced by the long, apparently sustainable trajectory prior to the beginning of the collapse. While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.”

Is this not the state of “humanity” under the command of capital today, with many millions of disproportionately poor and powerless people already suffering from climate disruption while the wealthy few continue to enjoy lives of unimaginable, environmentally shielded opulence atop a recklessly fossil-fueled planet so vastly unequal that the world’s eight richest people possess as much wealth between them as the bottom half of the species?

It’s “the rich,” not humanity in general, that “are destroying the Earth,” as Herve Kempf noted in the title and text of an important book eleven years ago. At the same time however, it is in fact up to “our species,” yes, humanity, to save itself and other Earthly life forms by engaging in a great mass uprising against those who have plundered and poisoned the commons for private profit. (If there’s another intelligent life form out there that survived the transition to high-tech modernity and developed the capacity to save other species in the galaxy, now would be the time for them to travel through tie and space to lend us a hand.  I’m not holding my breath for that!)   The best bet we have, my fellow world citizens and common(s)ers, is is eco-socialist people’s revolution here on the planet itself.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).