By ERWIN FREED
“The development of culture and of industry in general has evinced itself in such energetic destruction of forest that everything done by it conversely for their preservation and restoration appears infinitesimal.” — Karl Marx, Capital Volume 2
As the decade comes to an end, the earth itself is making dramatic statements about the extreme destruction workers have to fight in the coming years. Over 300 years have passed since the first bourgeois revolution in England introduced the world to the rule of capital over land, labor, and all forms of life. Class exploitation, deforestation, pollution, and racism grew up alongside each other as the logic of capitalist accumulation and crisis became the motive forces of social decision-making. In 1938, the great revolutionary Leon Trotsky described the current epoch as capitalism’s death agony, and this year has given us a decisive, visceral verification of that classification.
The world is literally on fire. In Australia, capital’s destruction is being felt on an intercontinental scale. The year’s bushfires, still ongoing, are so extreme that they have created their own local weather patterns and turned glaciers all the way in New Zealand black. Climate change, drought, and the hottest days on record have created a situation that is referred to by New South Wales Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons as “catastrophic … [a] level … ‘off the conventional scale’ [where] even houses that were designed and built to withstand bushfires would not survive … ’ Catastrophic conditions are where people die.’”
Conditions have been so extreme that every news source is filled to the brim with stories of thousands of people being evacuated from cities and terrifying pictures of orange, smoke-filled landscapes. Farm vets are reporting that the level of injury to livestock has become so high that farmers are running out of bullets and have to resort to slitting their throats. The Daily Mail reports that 480 million animals have died from the bushfires. The normal fire season in Australia is December to February. In 2019 the burning began in September.
California has seen the largest fires since the 1910s, when the United States Forest Service first began its ill-fated policy of total fire suppression in the West, largely driven by the needs of timber capitalists to maximize the profitable use of the country’s forests. The years 2017 and 2018 brought with them fires covering hundreds of thousands of hectares of land. In comparison, 2019’s 81,000 hectares sounds mild, but the reality is that the year’s fires were a reprieve that is not likely to be repeated. Despite being a wetter year, especially high-speed winds meant that the lower number of hectares burned was due to truly extreme measures taken by the cartoonishly negligent private energy company PG&E as well as what the fire-fighting authorities describe as “pure luck.”
In the Amazon, especially the Brazilian section, the world was horrified as fires ate up the earth’s “lungs,” where a large amount of CO2 is sequestered and 10% of all species live. Unlike California, the Amazon does not see large fires as a “natural” occurrence, due to its wet and cool environment. Here the fires represent unquestionably the vicious reality of the capitalists’ blind drive for profits.
What sets the Amazon fires apart from those in California and Australia is that they were set largely intentionally in an effort by agribusinesses to clear land for large monocrop fields of products like soybeans for the global market. Destroying one of the most beautiful, dynamic, and ecologically necessary places in the world for the sake of profit is in line with President Jair Bolsonaro’s embodiment of the desires of the anti-environment and anti-Indigenous comprador capitalists in Brazil.
Although receiving less coverage and being generally less destructive due to a greater distance from more ecologically sensitive areas, fires blazed through sub-Saharan Africa in what could be a precursor to a much greater threat to come. Although to a lesser extent than the Amazonian fires, despite being much larger, the fires throughout Africa are part of a process of deforestation that is absolutely devastating by any measure. While parts of the Savannah ecosystem are dependent on an annual fire-cycle, the continent is being affected by the same external drivers as are destroying the Amazon.
Mozambique and Madagascar have been especially affected by slash and burn farming, annually losing 285,000 and 120,000 hectares respectively. Already at only 10% of its original forest coverage, Madagascar stands to be completely without forests within 40 years.
Another degradation of essential ecosystems has led to a multi-country area including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore dealing with plane-downing smoke and haze on a regular basis. The fires, also direct products of illegal but officially sanctioned slash-and-burn farming practices, not only degrade air quality regionally but also have been part of the destruction of peat fields, which are an incredibly important means of carbon sequestration. Historically, flame resistant peat fields, naturally a wet environment, are set on fire to clear the way for palm oil, rubber trees, and other mono-crop fields. CO2 emissions from the peat fires this year were almost double that from the burning in the Amazon.
In 2015, the worst year of forest fires in Indonesia’s recent history, daily CO2 emissions from the peat fires were greater than those produced by the entire US economy. The fires of September 2019 were of the same scale as those in September of 2015.
Alongside the peat destruction, logging for timber and paper pulp products has cleared a vast amount of rainforest and drastically threatened treasured species like the orangutan with extinction. Over 70 million hectares of an original 170 hectares of forest have been destroyed. While the rate of deforestation has dropped somewhat, it is still near that of a 2008 joint study by the Centre for International Forestry Research and the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy that suggested Indonesia’s natural forests would be completely wiped out within 10 years.
The time of monsters
Geographically distant, all of the above instances of wildfires are tied together by the global force of capitalism, which is in the first place an economic system and in the second a political system—or as Vladimir Lenin pithily put it, “politics is a concentrated expression of economics.” The politics of forest fires is first and foremost a question of the ruling class’s uncontested decision-making power over the natural world. The experience of our recently concluded decade proves that the specific representation of capital matters much less for the future of our planet than the fact that capital governs.
The personal predilections of capitalist politicians may be more or less friendly to the environment, but the undying pressure of capital to break into new markets and fully exploit all current investments always proves stronger than the individual will of its “green” representatives. Bolsonaro and Australia’s climate change-denying “leaders” are simply among the most brazen representatives of the self-destruction inherent in capitalism’s anarchy of production.
While widely considered a leading force for the global climate justice movement, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, driven out of office by an imperialist anti-worker and anti-Indigenous right-wing coup in November, also fell prey to the structural mandates of capitalist production. In order to gain the support of agribusiness and the cattle industry, Morales implemented a program of deforestation and support for slash and burn clearing which led to fires in the Bolivian Amazon alongside those in Brazil.
Some people, especially in university, government, or other institutional settings, recognize that these issues are both structural and international in nature; however, they are constrained from really finding a way out of the crisis by their class outlook. The only international solution they can see are through the already-existing modes of governance such as the United Nations, International Trade Organizations, and the cooperation of capitalist states. The call for ending the fires in the Amazon coming from this section of the population, which echoed throughout all the bourgeois and progressive press, was for “international fire fighters” when what is really necessary is a full program that can only be carried out by a government led by the working class.
Such a program could include nationalizing the land in order to divide up the big corporate estates and giving the land to the peasants through the leadership of councils of workers, small farmers and agricultural workers, and Indigenous communities that can restore the forest and natural lands. The minimal actions against deforestation by Brazil’s Workers Party, also ousted through a political maneuver by the right wing that some groups consider an “institutional coup,” meant that both fires and deforestation in the Brazilian section of the Amazon decreased dramatically before Bolsonaro stole power.
The social dimensions behind a decade of wildfires intertwine almost indistinguishably with the general movement of capital. In California, real estate speculation and fossil fuel production have come together to create the deadliest conditions in over 100 years. Wildfires are a natural and necessary part of the Californian ecosystem, and even if the promises PG&E is making to update and maintain its infrastructure were carried out, something that is in itself very unlikely, the fact is that the electrical companies are just one source that sparks the flames. As the world warms and dries and development continues into California’s fire-prone zones, including Las Angeles and Malibu, the human impact of wildfires will continue.
There is no single forest policy that can end the crisis. The rich have the ability to quickly evacuate, hire private fire-fighting teams, and construct homes out of fire retardant materials. While none of these measures will necessarily save either them or their property, they do point to the inequalities within our world on fire. As acclaimed Marxist author and environmental historian Mike Davis said in an interview with New York magazine, “even fires gentrify.”
The struggle to be born
There is only one human force that can properly situate society within a world of climate change and a “new normal” of extreme weather conditions—the international working class. An endless number of examples prove that the technical conditions for people to live in industrialized society with a healthy relationship to nature exist. We have the ability to produce everything that we need, including many so-called luxury items, in a sustainable way. The question is not one of how to implement the means to do so but what the political group is that can actually implement them.
Who is capable of minimizing the damage caused by capitalist modernity and safely continuing the existence of the human race is answered by the other fire set in this last decade—the global upsurge of working-class-led mass movements. Beginning in December 2010 with the start of the Arab Spring uprising and closing out the decade with general strikes and national days, weeks, and months of protest in Chile, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Columbia, and France, etc., the world’s laborers are once again starting to understand and use their own power. There are always ebbs and flows in the class struggle, but the lessons learned this decade, especially in 2018 and 2019, are essential for re-founding the international class struggle as well as the international party that can bring them all together.
We have seen concretely the betrayals of the popular front strategy by the Stalinists and Social Democrats in their compromises and conciliations with Piñera in Chile. The thesis that the decisive ingredient is not who governs but what class governs was confirmed for the umpteenth time with the continued hyper-exploitation of Puerto Rico, Sudan, and Algeria even after the fall of their decrepit governments. Likewise, reliance on national capitalists in semi-colonial countries has meant being led totally astray for those who see the anti-worker Iranian government as a progressive force in world history.
The class line is being drawn in flames. Every day, we are forced to decide which side to stand on. In a short amount of time, there will be no turning back.
Photo of Australian fires: Instagram / via @GretaThunberg