Climate chaos and the capitalist system

Hurricane Irma barreled into Florida over the weekend as a Category 4 hurricane after leaving a trail of destruction on islands and island chains in the Atlantic. Less than two weeks before, Harvey caused a catastrophe in Houston and along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast.

In both cases, it’s obvious how the priorities of capitalism made these natural disasters so much worse. But what can be done about it? Below is a speech, edited for publication, by Paul Fleckenstein given last week–before Irma reached Florida–at a meeting of an International Socialist Organization chapter at the University of Vermont.

Hurricanes Katia (left), Irma (center) and Jose (right) all visible in a satellite image

Hurricanes Katia (left), Irma (center) and Jose (right) all visible in a satellite image

WE ALL witnessed two catastrophic storm events in the past two weeks, and a third, Hurricane Irma, is heading through the Caribbean toward southwestern Florida, where I used to live.

The weather catastrophe that got the least attention in the U.S. was the extreme rainfall in South Asia over the last several weeks as a result of the worst monsoons in decades. One-third of Bangladesh is underwater, and there are over 1,400 reported deaths in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. And this is just the beginning. Millions face a longer-term crisis of hunger and lack of access to drinkable water.

In the U.S., Hurricane Harvey produced record rainfall in Houston (50 inches), caused more than 60 deaths, flooded 100,000 homes and forced 100,000s of people to flee floodwaters.

As Houston resident and SW contributor Folko Mueller wrote, “It will take weeks, if not months, for the city to recover. We can only guess how long it may take individuals to heal from the emotional and psychological distress caused by having lost loved ones or their homes.”

The Houston area is home to 30 percent of the oil refinery capacity in U.S., along with a heavy concentration of chemical plants. There were massive toxic releases from industrial plants into air and water–even by the standards of industry self-reporting, which means systematic underreporting.

Explosions rocked the Arkema plant in the Houston suburbs that produces stock chemicals for manufacturing. It will be many years before we know the full magnitude and effects of this and other releases that took place during the disaster.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

TO UNDERSTAND and learn from this crisis in Houston, we need to begin with the fact that Houston is a prime example of capitalism in the 21st century.

It’s a city, like others, built around extreme wealth disparities–with immigrants, people of color and the working class as a whole often relegated to the most environmentally dangerous areas. It has its own cancer alley along the Houston Ship Channel, which was, of course, swamped by Harvey.

The area is home to oil refineries owned by all the giant energy firms, from ExxonMobil, Shell and Marathon on down. Houston was the global capital of the oil industry in the 20th century and is still that, which means its elite had an outsized responsibility for global warming.

A city without zoning, Houston has been left to real-estate capital as a super-profit center. Because of the unrestricted development, wetlands and prairie that provide natural storm buffers were paved over with impermeable surfaces. Quick profits were made from building in low-lying areas.

A similar dynamic took place in South Asia with “land reclamations”–filling in wetlands to build mega-cities. As SW contributor Navine Murshid pointed out, the word itself “speaks to the entitlement that capitalist developers feel with respect to the earth.”

Houston had an estimated 600,000 undocumented workers running key sectors of the city’s economy before Harvey, and immigrant labor will be critical to rebuilding. Yet Texas’ anti-immigrant law SB 4, which deputizes state, county, city and campus law enforcement officers as immigration agents, was supposed kick in during the middle of the disaster, scaring many immigrants away from seeking aid.

The city has been devastated by hurricanes before. A ProPublica article published last year found that it was a matter of time before disaster struck–meanwhile, 80 percent of homes flooded by Harvey don’t have flood insurance.

Even for capitalists, there is a carelessness about the making of Houston that is remarkable. One-third of U.S. oil-refining capacity was shut down during the Harvey crisis, and half of all capacity is located in this region that is vulnerable to storms. These are the plants and facilities that send fracked natural gas and refined oil products around the U.S. and the world.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE PHYSICS of severe weather today is pretty simple. A warmer atmosphere holds more water and more energy, providing the fuel for bigger and more intense storms. More severe storms are a certainty as a result of man-made climate change.

And the trend of superstorms, extreme heat events and droughts–of extreme weather events in general–is going in the wrong direction, toward greater instability and extremes. Harvey, therefore, gives us a sobering glimpse of the future.

Naomi Klein, the left-wing author, is right that now is the time to talk about climate change–and after Harvey and Houston, it is necessarily a time to talk about capitalism.

I want to sketch out a basic Marxist understanding of the capitalist roots of the climate crisis. For everyone dedicated to fighting against climate change, Marxism is a great starting point, beginning with the contributions of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the 19th century.

As Marx observed in the mid-19th century: “Man lives on nature–means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”

Marx and Engels noted that this unity with nature is ripped apart by capitalism through a “metabolic rift”–a separation that deepened and further developed under capitalism, where a small minority of the population controls all major aspects of the economy.

Capitalists are driven by competition to single-mindedly seek more profits. The free market imposes the drive to accumulate on individual capitalists, which results in a focus on short-term gains that ignores long-term effects of production. As Engels wrote:

As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers…

The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees–what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!”

At the heart of capitalism is wage labor. Workers are compelled by the need for work to survive to carry out the labor that drives the system–including its most destructive operations, like the drilling platforms or the chemical factories.

In fact, the workers who do this particular work often best recognize the ecological consequences involved–and, unfortunately, experience many of the most dangerous ones. It makes perfect sense that the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union spawned a radical labor leader like the late Tony Mazzocchi.

For Marx, the alternative to capitalism’s destructive system was a democratically planned economy: socialism–by which he meant “the associated producers rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”

Capitalism is driven by the perpetual need to produce more profit, or it snowballs into recession and crisis. So it isn’t enough for scientists to develop new technologies that could create a sustainable world. They have to be put to use, and under capitalism, they won’t be unless it is profitable to do so.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IF WE need a radical reorganization of society, then environmentalists must set their sights not just on changes within the capitalist system, but ultimately on the abolition of capitalism itself. To avoid ecological catastrophe, we need a society based not on competition and undirected growth, but on cooperation, economic democracy and long-term sustainability.

Marx offers a compelling vision of such a society in the final pages of his three volume work Capital: “Even an entire society, a nation or all simultaneously existing societies taken together are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.”

Is it possible to reform the current system to achieve this goal? Why can’t oil and chemical corporations at least be regulated so they are not toxic polluters? They should be regulated–but environmentalist and author Fred Magdoff explained why we can’t count on this under the existing system in an interview with SW:

The companies fight against regulations, and if they see that they’re going to pass, they try to get them watered down. And then, if they actually go into effect, the companies try to make sure they aren’t very well enforced. So even if the regulations exist and are meaningful–which is rare–the industry finds ways to get around them.

Often, the fines for violations aren’t very much. You could have a good regulation, and a company violates the regulation, and they pay a thousand-dollar fine or a ten-thousand-dollar fine. For them, what’s the difference?

This is part of why reforms can’t be counted on to save the planet: At the end of the day, capitalist corporations and the pro-business parties running the government will prioritize profits over anything that would reduce them, even by a small amount.

This isn’t only true about the U.S. government under Trump. Barack Obama came into office in 2009 promising radical steps to address climate change. Instead, under his presidency, the U.S. ramped up fossil fuel extraction and processing to deliver cheap energy to U.S. manufacturing so it could better compete globally–and to turn the U.S. into a net oil and gas exporter.

Obama helped undermined the Copenhagen climate change summit less than a year into office, ran cover for BP after the company’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and bragged to oil company executives about laying enough pipelines to ring the planet.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

FOR SOCIALISTS, there are at least two sides of this fight that we have to take up.

One is the struggle for justice in the aftermath of “natural” disasters. The establishment will take advantage of every crisis to further its agenda of privatization, accumulation and gentrification, furthering the oppression of people of color and the working class.

Naomi Klein called this the “Shock Doctrine,” and it played out in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with mass permanent displacement of African American workers–many of whom ended up in Houston–privatization of the schools and the abolition of the teachers union, although unions are reorganizing today.

We want rebuilding to guard against future floods and disasters–and to take place on the basis of racial justice and equal rights for all, including for all immigrants, regardless of legal status.

Second, we have to fight against fossil fuel extraction and for renewable energy alternatives–which means both protesting pipeline construction and joining with struggles that improve and expand public transportation.

But as we struggle for these short-term measures now, we have to raise the question of capitalism and need for socialism at the same time with everyone we organize with. Our project is for reform and revolution.

If we are organizing with institutions and people where raising the need for a socialist alternative can’t be done, then we are probably organizing in the wrong place–and likely an ineffective place as well.

Meetings and campaigns involving Democratic Party politicians are a prime example. Another is the behind-the-scenes strategies to persuade university committees that claim to be considering fossil-fuel divestment. Their loyalty, at the end of the day, is to business interests–unless they feel the pressure of a struggle that will expose them.

There is certainly no simple answer here. But a socialist strategy that prioritizes mass, democratic organizing; free and open discussion and debate on the way forward; and dedicated struggle for immediate gains, without sacrificing a commitment to the bigger goals, has the most promise.

And if we can build up the politics of socialism and socialist organization among wider layers of people involved in these struggles, that will open the possibility of the system change that we need to find our way out of climate disasters.

There is widespread understanding of the urgency for action now to stop climate change. We don’t have endless generations. CO2 levels will continue to climb despite the scientific consensus that this will have catastrophic consequences for the planet.

But the technology does exist to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as does the science that can be put to use in mitigating the impacts of past carbon emissions–if the system’s priorities were radically changed.

Anyone who thinks we need system change needs to be dedicated to all the struggles for change today–and to arm themselves with the contributions of Marxism toward understanding the roots of the crisis and the alternative to it.

Our struggle for socialism is literally a struggle for the future of the planet.

https://socialistworker.org/2017/09/11/climate-chaos-and-the-capitalist-system

Advertisements

Why was American capitalism unable to prepare for Hurricane Irma?

11 September 2017

After devastating islands in the Caribbean, Irma made landfall Sunday in the United States as a Category 4 hurricane, pummeling the Florida Keys with 130 mph winds and inundating the low-lying islands with up to 10 feet of storm surge.

The 400-mile-wide storm has engulfed the entire state as it makes its way up Florida’s western coast, slamming into the Tampa area as a Category 2 hurricane around midnight. Miami, in the southeast, saw unprecedented flooding as the storm brought major storm surges to both sides of the peninsula.

As of this writing, at least 26 people have been killed by the storm, with four fatalities already recorded in Florida. The total is expected to rise as the scope of the damage left in Irma’s wake is surveyed. Initial estimates indicate that Irma could leave behind $200 billion in damage, greater than that done by Harvey.

Hurricane Irma is a mass event. The storm will eventually impact the lives of tens of millions, including the friends and family of those directly impacted. More than 6.5 million people are under evacuation orders in Florida and another 570,000 in Georgia. Approximately 116,000 people are waiting out the storm in emergency shelters. Thousands of hotel rooms have been booked up in inland Florida and for hundreds of miles north of evacuation zones.

Such major calamities expose the basic structures of social and political life in a particularly stark form. Both Irma and Harvey before it have revealed a country riven by social inequality, plagued by decaying infrastructure and presided over by a ruling elite that acts with criminal indifference when confronted with the basic needs of society.

Even as workers in Houston and the surrounding area confront the task of rebuilding with the most minimal assistance and no insurance, many of those facing Irma’s rain and winds have not been able to leave. While issuing evacuation orders, government officials offered little or nothing in the form of aid. How many people have stayed behind because they were unable to afford the cost of gasoline or plane tickets, or could not get a seat on the severely limited number of buses and trains?

For those with automobiles, their exodus from the storm has been hampered by an absence of a plan for evacuation, with no effort made to efficiently mobilize crucial resources, including gasoline, or arrange places for people to stay. Many have been forced to seek out shelter wherever they eventually ran out of gas along the two highways north.

The abysmal state of infrastructure and rapid urban development have raised concerns about the potential for historic flooding and the integrity of public water systems. At least two million are currently without power, a byproduct of the fact that the US still uses overland power lines. Hundreds of thousands are expected to be without power for weeks.

There is a shift in the consciousness of broad sections of the population, which extends beyond the immediate issues at stake. Significantly, a WSWS article published on Saturday, “Why aren’t trains evacuating people from the path of Hurricane Irma?,” has been shared tens of thousands of times on social media. It has been circulated widely because it asks a basic question that is not addressed anywhere in the media or political establishment.

Why shouldn’t the resources of society be mobilized in a rational and organized way to meet a threat like Irma? To the use of train transport could be added the mass organization of bus and ferry transport, not to speak of the requisitioning of hotels and other accommodations to provide housing for those in need. It is not a question of a lack of resources, or to the extent that these resources are lacking, it is because they have been diverted to other aims.

For decades, the ruling elite has pursued a policy of social counterrevolution, looting public funds and clawing back all the gains made by working class over the last 100 years. Money that could have been allocated to develop infrastructure to counteract the impact of increasingly powerful and predictable storms has been funneled into the pockets of the rich at the expense of the working class and poor.

The American ruling class is incapable of planning anything, except the transfer of wealth and the buildup of a military that has been used to destroy one country after the next.

The response of the political establishment to Irma and Harvey has been to use them as a means of escalating the transfer of wealth. President Donald Trump used his weekly address on Saturday to connect storm recovery to the push to slash corporate taxes. The Democrats, meanwhile, have moved to form an alliance with Trump, the least popular president in history, to bolster an administration that has stumbled from crisis to crisis.

Whatever their differences, the political establishment is united on basic strategic issues. The ruling class is terrified of political instability sparking an economic crisis. Above all they fear of the emergence of an independent working-class movement and will do everything they can to prevent this.

However, a mood of deep anger and opposition has been developing for some time. It needs to be given political form. As the impact of these hurricanes has demonstrated, socialism emerges not as a utopian scheme, but the only way to meet the concrete needs of the working class, and of social development as a whole.

Certain basic actions must be taken. Those who have been impacted by Harvey and now Irma must be made whole through a massive social effort to rebuild quality and safe housing. Everyone has a right to a secure home, not open to the elements like those currently suffering in Florida in mobile structures.

A multi-trillion-dollar public works program is necessary to modernize and develop social infrastructure, including water systems, power grids, bridges, roads and transportation networks. High-quality public transportation is needed not only for the every-day requirements of modern life, but is critical in emergency situations. Plans must be developed in all disaster-prone areas to provide free transportation and emergency housing to all who need it.

Immediate measures, moreover, must be taken on a global scale to halt and reverse the impact of global warming, which contributes to the size and intensity of hurricanes. This requires a coordinated, international program to develop alternative sources of energy.

Such basic tasks, however, are incompatible with a social system, capitalism, in which a tiny layer of financial speculators and corporate executives control the political system and dictate policy. To break the stranglehold of this aristocracy, and to free up resources for critical social needs, the major banks and corporations must be placed under public ownership and democratic control, in the United States and internationally. The wealth of the ruling elite must be requisitioned by those who create all the wealth of society, the working class.

Niles Niemuth

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/09/11/pers-s11.html

Hurricanes Irma and Harvey: Natural disaster and political breakdown

9 September 2017

The catastrophic impact of Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas and the unfolding disaster of Hurricane Irma in south Florida are ruthlessly objective tests of the ability of America’s ruling elite to manage the affairs of society. By any reasonable standard, the capitalist class has failed, and failed miserably.

Two weeks after the Texas Gulf Coast was devastated by Harvey, millions of people are seeking to rebuild their lives with minimal social assistance. Hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, one million cars rendered inoperable, countless schools and other public facilities flooded and likely ruined beyond repair. At least twenty-two people are missing, most now presumed dead, on top of the more than 70 deaths officially acknowledged.

To address the costliest natural disaster in American history—at least until the toll of Hurricane Irma is tallied—with damage estimates approaching $200 billion, the Trump administration and Congress have approved a derisory $15 billion in federal assistance, ratified by the House of Representatives Friday.

The bulk of this money goes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which doles out funds limited to $30,000 per family, through a nearly impenetrable bureaucratic process in which the victims of the storm will be treated like criminals or con-men. Other funding is routed through the Small Business Administration, in the form of loans that those driven from their homes by the hurricane will be hard-pressed to repay.

Hurricane Irma is even more powerful than Harvey. The storm has already laid waste to several of the Lesser Antilles and to the Turks and Caicos Islands, as well as battering Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba. Irma began passing the Bahamas on Friday and is scheduled to make landfall somewhere in south Florida on Sunday afternoon.

Hurricane Irma is the most powerful storm ever recorded on this planet, with the most “accumulated cyclone energy,” one measure of overall intensity. It has sustained maximum wind speeds of at least 180 miles per hour for 37 hours, longer than any previous storm. Its size is vast: twice the extent of Hurricane Andrew, which devastated south Florida in 1992. The storm is so large that it is wider than the Florida peninsula itself, raising the possibility of simultaneous storm surges on both the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Coast, an unheard-of phenomenon.

A lethal threat faces one of the most densely populated areas in the United States. But the response of local, state and federal officials has been to tell the potential victims of Irma: “You’re on your own.” This was the theme of several press conferences and briefings on Friday, as government officials told some six million people in south Florida to leave the region if possible, or else go to hurricane shelters.

These shelters are entirely inadequate—some sizeable cities, like Ft. Myers on the Gulf coast, have none. They are unavailable to many poor and working-class residents. The Coalition for Racial Justice complained that Miami-Dade’s shelters are open only in wealthy areas, a more than 30-minute drive from the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for the Florida Keys, for Miami Beach and much of Miami-Dade, the state’s largest metropolitan area, as well as portions of Broward and Palm Beach counties and much of the southwestern corner of the state as well. Combined, they are the largest mandatory evacuation in US history, leaving all highways north completely jammed with traffic. Most gas stations have run out of supplies, leaving many residents stranded in their cars as the hurricane approaches.

The most basic measures to ensure that people can leave have not been taken, such as a mass coordination of free rail, bus and airplane transportation. Many of those leaving have no idea where they will stay, as hundreds of thousands attempt to find accommodations on the route north. Many are stuck at the airport, with no open flights and all shelters filled.

The Trump administration “prepared” for the one-two punch of Harvey and Irma by proposing to slash spending on FEMA and other relief and disaster management agencies, to say nothing of its war against climate science, waged on behalf of the oil, gas and coal producers and other big industrial polluters.

Even the succession of hurricanes—with Jose and Katia lined up to follow Harvey and Irma, four giant storms in only three weeks, fueled by ocean waters now at an unprecedented temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit—has not produced any rethinking by the know-nothings of the Trump administration. The unending stream of disasters proves the reality of climate change—to which one must add the fires raging on the US West Coast and the floods that have devastated South Asia—demonstrating the inability of the ruling classes of all countries to take any serious measures to address the growing threat.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, a notorious global warming denier, denounced any discussion of climate change as “very, very insensitive” to the people of Florida. “To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm, versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced,” he argued.

By the same logic, any discussion of plate tectonics or seismic faults should be banned during an earthquake, nor should there be any analysis of El Nino wind effects during wildfire season. Nuclear physics would be off-limits during a reactor meltdown. And, we might add, there could be no discussion of the economic laws of capitalism during a meltdown of the financial markets.

There is a distinct class content to this rejection of science, or, indeed, any serious thought. The US ruling elite, at every level, refused to plan seriously for natural disasters which were both predictable and inevitable. Once the disasters unfolded, the representatives of big business could barely conceal their indifference and annoyance at the plight of what one of Trump’s real estate colleagues, Leona Helmsley, sneered at as “the little people.”

Natural disasters have a way of exposing social and political reality. The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which destroyed much of the Portuguese city, was a significant event in the development of Enlightenment thought in Europe, in the decades that preceded the French Revolution. It was proof, Voltaire noted in his Candide, of the absurdity of the claim of the philosopher Leibniz that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Who could follow Leibniz in making such an argument today? American and world capitalism is rotten to the core. The ruling class presides over unprecedented social inequality and unending war, in which resources are dedicated to greed and plunder, but the most basic requirements of modern society go unmet and ignored.

Patrick Martin

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/09/09/pers-s09.html