Stop the War – on Livable Ecology

Photograph Source: Dumbassman – CC BY-SA 4.0

The war continues, putting humanity in peril.

You might think that statement refers to the war in Ukraine. That’s understandable: the Ukraine Crisis raises the specter of World War III more menacingly than any geopolitical conflict of the post-Cold War era.

Here, however, I’m writing about the capitalist war on livable ecology – still the biggest issue of our or any time.

There’s no war and peace, no social justice, no democracy, no demilitarization, on a dead planet, whether it is frozen in nuclear winter or melted by climate change.

Worse Than Expected: Beyond Our Capacity to Adapt

While news-watching eyeballs have been focused on Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” (Russian journalists are forbidden to call it a “war” or an “invasion”) in Ukraine and the US-Western-NATO response, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) released a new scientific report showing that (unmentionably capitalogenic) global warming is increasing so quickly as to overcome our ability to adapt unless we rapidly and massively reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Compiled by 270 researchers from 67 countries, the IPCC report is what UN Secretary General António Guterres calls “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.” It finds that nations aren’t coming close to what’s required to protect cities, crops, forests, water supplies, and coastlines from record droughts, massive storms, wildfires, rising seas, and blistering heat.

The environmental catastrophe resulting from the mass extraction and burning of fossil fuels is already underway. It’s not just a problem for “our children and grandchildren.” According to IPCC researcher and University of Texas ecologist Camille Parmesan, “one of the most striking conclusions in our report is that we’re seeing adverse impacts that are much more widespread and much more negative than expected.” Half of humanity already faces extreme water scarcity part of each year. Climate-fueled floods, storms, and droughts displaced at least 13 million people in Asia and Africa in 2019. Rising heat is wiping out harvests and trees, spreading famine and malnutrition and bringing mosquito-borne diseases into new regions. And this is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg of the existential menace facing all humanity if carbon emissions are not drastically slashed in coming years.

The worst initial effects are being suffered in the mostly nonwhite global South of the world capitalist periphery, but the rolling climate calamity will ultimately claim blue-eyed Swedes and Canadian truckers along with the rest of the species. There is no Planet B, white folks of the North.

Meeting the grave climate challenge, the IPCC says, requires “transformational change” in how human beings relate to each other and nature.

Many Wars to Resist

News coverage of this latest terrifying IPCC report, which likely understates the climate emergency, have been pushed to the margins by the Ukraine Crisis, which is itself intimately tied up with energy geopolitics. The conflict between white imperial powers and fighters in Ukraine[1] trumps and helps worsen all the other interrelated wars underway in the world: the war on Yemen, the war on Palestine, the war on Somalia, the war on women, the war on immigrants, the white racist war on people of color, the war on workers, the war on democracy, and of course the war on livable ecology. Where is the outrage about these ongoing onslaughts on the part of US liberals who (rightly) applaud Ukrainian citizens for standing in front of Russian tanks but won’t go into the streets and public squares of their own country to protect women’s right to an abortion or to confront the racist police state and corporations who invest in environmental ruin?

The Price of Fossil Fuels: Worse Than the Menace of Nuclear War

Talking heads and politicians are obsessed with the price of oil and gas in the immediate political sense of what ordinary consumers/voters are “paying at the pump” and in their home energy bills. The Ukraine Crisis promises to worsen the politically super-sensitive problem of inflation by constricting oil and gas supplies, leading Joe Biden to couple his denunciation of Putin’s invasion with a State of The Union announcement meant to calm consumer/voter fears: he will once again tap the nation’s strategic oil reserve to try to contain “pain at the pump.”

There’s another and bigger price of oil, gas, and coal: ecocide. And strange as it might seem to think, the climate crisis is in one sense a more urgent threat than nuclear war. With every passing great power “high alert” standoff that doesn’t go full thermonuclear winter, we’re just lucky. The risk of nuclear war doesn’t normally rise with each passing day. It lurks in the nightmarish and Strangelovian background, rearing its head in moments of geopolitical conflict and then receding for years.

By contrast, the planet fills up with ever more carbon with each passing insane fossil-capitalist second, minute, hour and day, setting off natural system permafrost and clathrate methane releases, and melting polar ice caps. Global fossil capitalism is turning the entire planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber – a crime on a scale that makes Adolph Hitler look like a small-time gangster. Every day lived under the reign of fossil capitalism is an escalation of the war on livable ecology. Has there ever been a greater transgression against humanity and life itself than the U.S.-led oil and gas industry’s determination to grind ahead with massive Greenhouse Gassing despite its own knowledge of the danger to life inherent in that project since at least the 1960s?

I should amend “every day lived under fossil capitalism” (in the last paragraph) to “every day lived under capitalism.” The capitalist system is by its very nature too anarchic, chaotic, and dependent on constant growth and expansion to ever be brought to environmentally sustainable heel. And it is hopelessly and irretrievably addicted to fossil fuels. As Simon Pirani explained in a talk given at the University of Durham on the eve of the COVID-19 shutdown in January of 2020:

Possibilities for decarbonisation will be constantly frustrated and limited under capitalism; effective moves towards decarbonisation will inevitably conflict with structures of power and wealth…some limited progress towards decarbonisation can be made under capitalism…[but the] most deep-going changes in technological systems [required to avert calamity] can[not] be made without deep-going social changes, that is, transitioning to a post-capitalist society.’

The Ukraine Crisis as Pretext for Upping the Eco-cidal Ante

Fossil capital’s friends on the fossil fascist Amerikaner right are using the Ukraine Crisis to advance the Greenhouse Gassing Project for the Extermination of Human and Other Species. They claim that the petroligarch Putin’s invasion is the result of the West’s weakening dependence on Russian oil and gas resulting from – get this – “the left’s” attachment to “the climate religion.” By “climate religion,” the fossil fascists mean the overwhelming consensus of climate science, supposedly being used by supposed “socialists” (like the corporatist Joe Biden) to supposedly block the extraction and burning of North American fossil fuels. The solution, climate-denialist and white nationalist Fatherland (FOX) News wants its millions of viewers to know, is to increase the pace of fossil fuel extraction and burning. And also, by the way, to ramp up nuclear energy, whose grave menaces to a livable ecology and human survival are also routinely denied on the right. As the economic historian Adam Tooze recently told Ezra Klein, the Ukraine crisis “opens [a] door for the creeping influence of a rearguard action of fossil fuel” (though it also being used by Greens to argue for “go[ing] big on renewables,” with even some German liberals “declar[ing] that renewable energy is freedom energy”).

Meanwhile, white-skinned North American frackers have been having a nice week, licking their planet-cooking chops over rising demand for their lethal black fuel resulting from anticipated disruptions in Russian oil and gas supplies. They don’t need FOX News to make their case to cash in: the facts on the geopolitical ground suffice.

Nukes in the War Zone

Did I just mention nuclear power, an industry whose worst single incident before Fukushima took place in Ukraine, where Russian troops are currently being exposed to heightened radioactive leakage as they “guard” the infamously melted-down Chernobyl plant. As CounterPuncher Robert Hunziker reports:

‘A complicating/dangerous aspect of Russia’s invasion is the status of Chernobyl’s sister reactors, 15 reactors at four nuclear power plants exposed in a war zone of bombing, missile attacks and rampant gunfire or perhaps a breakdown of crucial infrastructure that keeps super-hot atom-splitting vessel containers and spent fuel rods in open pools of water cool enough to prevent a massive zirconium fire or hydrogen explosion that spews radiation across the countryside.’

What could go wrong? People calling for the imposition by NATO of a no-fly zone and the further escalation of war in Ukraine might want to think about the fifteen vulnerable nuclear reactors on the ground.

Nuclear danger and fossil danger are intertwined in more ways than one.

White Empathy and Worthy vs. Unworthy Victims

Notice the disparity between the extreme Western concern over Russia’s attack on the Ukrainian people and deafening Western silence over Israel’s continuing horrific U.S.-backed war on the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia’s continuing horrific US-backed war on Yemen, and the continuing horrific US war on Somalia. The standard response from a Western liberal confronted with this contrast is of course that the Ukraine Crisis involves a major nuclear weapons power, Russia, and therefore raises the specter of a Superpower conflict that could lead to global nuclear winter – World War III. But, with all due respect, it’s not clear that Putin and/or the US see much profit or imperial gain in ending all life on Earth, and it is important to note the racial dimension of how Western media-politics culture distinguishes “worthy” from “unworthy” victims. The majority white and white-ruled West is shocked at the sight of white people being menaced with imperial invasion. The pain and suffering experienced by nonwhite people being killed and maimed by US and US-allied militaries, invaders, and occupiers – or for that matter by Russian or Chinese forces – do not evoke remotely comparable empathy despite the far greater casualties and devastation experienced by the brown and Black victims. Ukrainian refugees will of course find far less resistance to settlement in Europe and North America than their Arab, Pashtun, African, and Latin American counterparts. Why? Because of their whiteness.

Yes, whiteness, that powerful drug that contributes so strongly to Western fossil-capitalist and fossil-fascist climate denial by reassuring Europeans and North Americans that they don’t need to get all crazy about climate change because global warming’s nastiest initial impacts fall first on the majority nonwhite global periphery – this even while the white majority core states are the main generators of the climate plague.

A Minimum of Decency

So far, the IPCC reports, nations’ mitigation and adaptation efforts – flood barriers, automobile electrification, early warning systems for storms, partial shifts to renewable energy and the like – have been hopelessly incremental. They don’t remotely match the scale of the “transformational” change required to meet the threats and save prospects for a decent human future. That’s true but incomplete. What the IPCC can never change but at least a few environmental scientists know very well is that (as suggested above) the fundamental “transformational” change required is nothing less than “the radical reconstitution of society itself” that young Karl Marx and his brilliant future financial planner Frederick Engels called for as the only alternative to “common ruin” at the end of The Communist Manifesto.

Socialist revolution is a matter of human survival at this point. Find this “unlikely,” armchair left Mandarins who like to cite Gramsci’s self-cancelling maxim “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”? Well, then, keep quiet, and fade away: the struggle is challenging enough without the advance defeatism. It isn’t about the crystal ball and the betting odds. As Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective write at the very end of their remarkable book White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism:

‘…Why trust an order that cannot stop itself from erasing the foundations for advanced life on earth….As it goes into overdrive, the destructiveness of the dominant ideology becomes plain to see. Rebellion against it really becomes one of and for life itself. Given how powerful the forces of destruction are, the order is tall: can it be accomplished? “Any doubt,” in the words of Daniel Bensaid, “bears on the possibility of succeeding, not on the necessity of trying.” Such is now the imperative of a minimum of decency.’

Truer words have rarely if ever been said.


+1. After noticing that numerous online “friends” were tribalizing quite viciously over the Ukraine conflict (with preposterous accusations of NATO-love and racism being hurled at leftists who refuse to defend Putin’s invasion being met by refusals to acknowledge NATO aggression on the part of pro-Ukraine commenters), I posted the following counsel on Facebook and Twitter: “Resist the temptation to get excessively sucked into inter-imperialist conflicts and keep your focus on the need for people’s revolution. You know who most and best needs to defeat and overthrow Putin? The Russian people. Guess who most and best needs to defeat and overthrow the US-American Empire? The US-American people. Who needs to defeat the ecocidal world capitalist-imperialist system: the people of the world. ‘The working people,’ Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in 1848, ‘have no country…Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.”

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