Empire Redux – Climate Catastrophe and Capitalism By William Bowles

13 February 2006

Awhile back I made reference to the idea that the two leading imperialist powers, the US and the UK had come to the conclusion that climate catastrophe was unavoidable and that steps needed to be taken for capitalism to survive the catastrophe essentially intact.

To some, maybe even to many, this may sound a far-fetched notion but I contend that the actions of the US and its faithful ally, the UK, support this idea, that their actions in Iraq and planned actions against Iran and elsewhere are part of the plan.

Firstly, it is now beyond doubt that regardless of what steps are taken to reduce greenhouse gases, we have destabilised the delicate balance that has maintained the biosphere for millions of years. In the short term then, there is no possibility of restoring the balance. No doubt that over a span of perhaps hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of years, a new equilibrium will be reached, a time-scale that is no more than a blink of the eyelid measured in geological time.

Species come and go but nature operates as a whole system. Even massive upheavals, for example volcanic eruptions, although they may have an immense impact on the planet leading to the destruction of entire ecosystems, overall, nature is able to absorb such catastrophes and eventually strike a new balance.

This is the concept behind Gaia, that the earth and near-Earth space are a single interacting system, with biological, chemical and geophysical processes interacting together in an infinitely complex web of relationships, that although we may have an understanding of the principles involved, such is the complexity, we can only guess at the outcome in very general terms.

So for example, we do know that an increase in CO2 beyond a certain level induces a runaway effect but we can only guess at the end-product. But for example, an overall rise in the temperature of the Earth leading to melting of the ice caps, leads to a rise in sea level (current predictions are in the order of seven metres over perhaps the next one hundred years). What the overall impact on the Earth will be is anyone’s guess.

For the Earth, this merely alters the size and shape of the land masses, species that depend on the ice caps will either die out or over time, adapt, but life will continue. Feeding grounds, breeding areas, migratory routes will disappear or relocate, entire species could die out but again, over time, Nature will adapt and new species will fill the niches, and eventually new ecosystems will be created from the interactions between life and the new environments.

The problem of course for humanity is that we measure the passage of time over perhaps one hundred years at most, say three generations, beyond that and it becomes an abstraction. So the fact that Gaia ‘cares’ little about the human species except how we came to be as part of an evolutionary process, is of no consolation to us.

It is within this reality that we have to view the actions of the leading imperialist nations, for whatever their public pronouncements, it is inconceivable that they are not aware of the consequences of global warming and obviously they intend to be around and in control when the dust has settled (if it does within our three generation timescale, and this is of course, the big gamble). The question is, what steps need to be taken now and in the near term to ensure the continuance of capitalism, assuming there is a world for it to inherit?

There are historical examples that can give us some insight into this, for example, the actions of the leading capitalist states after the two major wars of the 20th century, which although they led to ‘only’ minor destruction by comparison with what we are already experiencing as the current climate goes down the tubes, the major features can be ascertained:

* Following WWII, the US emerged not only the military victor, but also the economic top dog. Waging and financing war made US capitalism even richer and also spurred yet another revolution in production just as WWI had. Vast surpluses of capital were accumulated which enabled it to finance the reconstruction of Europe making it even richer.

* The ‘good times’ for post-war capitalism came to an end in the 1970s and with it came the necessity to sacrifice the poor of the planet and we saw food and trade being used as weapons even if it meant the deaths of millions of people and the destruction of entire cultures. The Vietnam war saw the US using weapons of mass environmental destruction on an unprecedented scale, destruction so great that even today, thirty years later, Vietnam has not recovered.

The use of chemical weapons on a mass scale in its ‘war on drugs’ has led to massive destruction, not only of the environment but also to the people who live and work on the land.

The export of lethal production processes to unregulated locations, for example those used in the electronics industry, has laid waste to locations in countries such as Mexico, polluting the water, land and air as well as having a disastrous impact on the people who live and work there.

So too, forcing poor countries to adopt export-oriented production has led to the degradation and pollution of water supplies (to which we need to add the privatisation of resources previously held in the public domain and the devastating impact this had on the health and well-being of entire communities).

* And finally of course, the unrestrained consumption of natural resources in order to keep the capitalist economic order going.

The point I want to make here and a point that is reinforced by the way the US and its allies have used environmental destruction in Iraq and in the former Yugoslavia-the deliberate destruction of essential water and electricity supplies; radioactive pollution through the use of depleted uranium weapons-illustrates that it cares little for the either the immediate or long term consequences.

And although the results of such policies may be viewed as ‘local’, overall they illustrate a system which thinks nothing of wreaking destruction on a global scale in the pursuit of profit regardless of the consequences.

There are a number of indicators that point to the ruling elites of the capitalist world calculating that they can survive essentially intact in a post-apocalyptic world.

First of all, given the revolution in production that enables industrial production on an increasing scale without the need of a vast army of labour, means that even if millions die due to climate catastrophe, such losses will not impact adversely on the ability of leading capitalist states.

Indeed, given the resurgence of the Malthusian view of life, large scale reduction of labour would ‘kill two birds with one stone’, solving in one fell swoop the pressure on capitalism to share its ill-gotten gains with the planet.

Meanwhile, even if climate catastrophe also impacts adversely on the metropolitan centres, the experience of the way the ruling class of the US dealt with Hurricane Katrina is an augur of the way it will deal with even worse disasters. It was after all, the poor, the ‘surplus to requirement’ who suffered. The well-off had their well-heeled lives disrupted but nothing that they couldn’t survive relatively intact.

We should not forget that not only do the ruling elites have the resources of the state, they have capital in the form of savings to stave them over even the worst economic meltdown. This was the experience not only of the effects of the two world wars of the 20th century but also of the biggest disaster to befall capitalism, the Crash of ‘29.

Furthermore, we have the experience of the millions of the formerly middle class who were reabsorbed into the poor following the adoption of ‘neo-liberal’ economics adopted in the 1970s. Hence sacrificing entire communities is not new and whether they live or die as a result is not of any real concern.

Next we need to view the current expansionist policies of the US and the UK in the context of the immanent climate catastrophe; policies which we might term as advantageous ‘positioning’ for a post-catastrophe world, of which ensuring energy supplies obviously comes top of the list.

It also explains why, in spite of all the evidence and even public posturing by Blair for example, about ‘doing something’ about climate change, the ruling elites don’t seem unduly perturbed by the idea. They clearly forsee a situation which perhaps with some disruption, but disruption which will impact most severely on the poor, is a situation that they will survive.

A reduction in populations, will as I pointed out above, actually benefit the ruling elites-’more for us’. There is a second advantage to be gained from climate catastrophe; it will impact adversely on its major competitors of the future, China and India.

The gamble is in reality, no such thing, as there is nothing that can be done to avert climate change and I think we can safely assume that the worst effects will take at least fifty years to come to fruition, hence in the short term, most of the negative effects of climate change will take place in areas of the planet that will not impact on the US or even on Europe, whose wealth and technological superiority will enable them to ‘weather the storm’.

Given the massive environmental damage that will be caused by climate change, even ‘localised’ nuclear war really does seem from the US perspective, a small risk to take.

In summation then, the scenario I have outlined explains much about the actions of the imperium. They clearly think the risks involved are worth the result and, as the history of imperialism illustrates, sacrificing millions, even billions of lives, means nothing to them, the rewards far outweigh the bad publicity as the occupation of Iraq demonstrates as well as the threats of dire consequences if Iran, Syria et al, don’t also toe the line.

So what if the rest of the world is outraged? They calculate that over the coming decades the bulk of the planet’s population will be otherwise occupied.

As Robert Newman’s excellent essay so aptly puts it, ‘It’s capitalism or a habitable planet – you can’t have both.’


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