Bush-fires in Australia: a harbinger of capitalism’s future

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In his 1957 novel "On the beach", made into a film a couple of years later, Nevil Shute imagined Australia as the last place on Earth where humans survived after a nuclear war had destroyed the northern hemisphere. It was a brief respite as the deadly radioactivity blew towards the south and the story describes how the various characters approached the demise of the planet as well as their own impending doom. Today, rather than being the last knockings of civilisation described by Shute, the continent of Australia is a harbinger and a microcosm - a particularly significant microcosm being as large as the whole of Europe or the United States - of the Earth being turned into a desert through the rapacious and unquenchable thirst of capitalism for profit. Everything about man-made climate change, global warming and capitalism's absolute inability to even begin to deal with this mortal threat to humanity, as well as the phoney solutions proposed by the likes of the Greens, is here in "Oz" today.

The desertification of Australia

We could go into lots of detailed figures about graphs, increasing temperatures, scales,  the scope and breadth of the fires currently raging across Australia; details about the numbers of homes lost, deaths and illnesses caused but it's sufficient here to say that they are at record levels and rising every day across increasing parts of the continent, where in some places air pollution levels are higher than those of Beijing or Delhi. And, in the New South Wales capital, they are 11 times higher than normal. In populous Sydney fire alarms are going off, ferries and other transportation systems are grounded and schools closed. People with severe respiratory illnesses are clogging up hospitals and doctor's surgeries and no-one is warned that the Beijing-style face masks that are making an appearance are worse than useless. Even inside their homes people are reporting smoke finding its way in and they are rightly scared for their immediate and longer-term health. Conditions are becoming more and more hazardous for fire-fighters, 85% of whom are volunteers (after the latest round of full-time fire jobs cut), and with little break in activity they are falling into fatigue, smoke-poisoning and danger of death from accidents.

Of course there have always been bush fires in Australia but the scope, duration and intensity of these latest developments take them to a new, dangerous level. Like "there's always been bush fires", there's always been climatic changes and fluctuations in the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) event which affects Australian and larger weather patterns, in this case heating up the south-east while dumping record levels of rainfall on Africa. But like other weather patterns globally (El Nino, e.g.) they are being bent out of shape and intensified to "unprecedented" levels according to experts; and this is caused by the increase in global warming brought about by the effects of increasing carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere.

And, as bad as they are, it's not only bush fires and water shortages that are expressions of the long-term and short-term dangers to the population of Australia and beyond; de-forestation is creating more and more dustbowls. Australia is right up there with all the complicit Brazilian (and other) regimes in the scale and ruthlessness of the exploitation of the land. Vast areas, as far as the eye can see, have been uprooted of every form of vegetation - the iconic koala bears were already being wiped out long before these fires. The massive flatlands created for intensive agriculture demand vast volumes of water and tonnes of fertilizer.  They are denuded of all organic growth, leaving little moisture in the ground which further reduces the cloud formations above them. As these plains dry out in the heat what's left is barren dirt decomposing into dust, taken on the wind and laced with pesticides - an additional concern for neighbouring communities. Like Bolsanoro's Brazil, illegal land-clearances and deforestation have been tolerated, even encouraged by the various Australian authorities. All this for the sake of capitalism and its ineluctable drive for greater profits; and given the warnings of experts on future climatic developments, and that nothing is going to change about capitalism's need for profit, it makes you wonder just how long vast swathes of Australia can remain habitable for future generations.

The response of the government...

The Coalition Government of "man of the people", Prime Minister Scott Morrison, unlike his predecessor Tony Abbot, has accepted that "global warming" exists but it's "under control"[1] (like it is in Australia at the moment!). His and his government's position is essentially no different from Abbot who said that global warming "was probably doing good", that it was "greening the planet and increasing plant yields making life safer and more pleasant" and there wasn't much chance of stopping it anyway. Morrison won the election on the basis of not being afraid of coal, saying that he wouldn't put climate change before jobs; that it did exist "along with many other factors" but was a "side issue" in relation to the bush fires and "nothing to worry about" more generally. The government and its energy sector have no coherent climate change policies and here they are no different from the vast majority of the major powers. They are currently using carbon credits linked to creative accounting in order to say that they are doing something towards the Australian government's promised emissions reduction. The Federal Government deflects the problem onto the local authorities, state and territorial, "devolving" the question and thus avoiding and undermining any form of responsibility or coherent approach. This "devolution" tactic is an old trick of the democratic state that also facilitates divide and rule. Meanwhile the New South Wales parliament is trying to push through legislation that will weaken any climatic considerations in the production of coal; Australia has very lucrative coal exports totalling £36 billion per annum according to some reports. Seven new open cast mines have been started in Queensland. Fundamentally, like all governments of all hues, the response of the Australian government has been to deny, deflect and obscure the question of climate change while carrying on apace with the despoliation of the territory in the name of the national interest of making profits.

... and the Greens

The response of the Greens is to make more noise about climate change, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty they belong squarely in the same sack as the government and its politicians. The "Green movement" is very much like the pacifist movement; in fact in Australia, as in all the other major democracies, the two movements, their structures and personnel, are interchangeable and do interchange at certain points of history. The main similarity in the two movements is that they exist to publicise and plead for what capitalism cannot provide - a system without profit, competition and war. They are not just diversions from the necessity for the proletariat to take on capitalism root and branch; they are important props for the perpetuation of the system and are thus partly responsible for the accumulating effects of its decomposition. For the Greens the struggle of labour against capital is to be avoided in order for their "reforms" to succeed, reforms which have no chance of succeeding as long as capitalism exists.

For the Greens generally the situation "requires government attention" and "intervention" in the "banking" industry[2]. State intervention is also required for "new jobs from carbon neutral energy sources", and parliament (the Greens like the pacifists are very strong on parliament and democracy) should "save the people": that is the same parliament which, in reality, represents the interests of capital against "the people" in general and the working class in particular. For the Greens, the working class should support its enemy, make sacrifices for it and forego its struggle for power.

For some Greens in Australia, and elsewhere no doubt, the fires have been welcomed as "a final wake-up call"(in a long-line of "final wake-up calls"). The idea of these activists is that given the increasing damage from fires and floods, insurance companies will refuse to underwrite these and other critical risks associated with global warming and, consequently, the banks will no longer lend to fossil fuel companies, investing instead in "green outcomes". The fundamental problem with this approach is that it is based on the assumption that capitalism is essentially a system that is "open to reason" and will take a logical approach and do what's best for the world. The weight of evidence that we have from the beginning of last century is that this is not the case, as illustrated by two world wars and numerous irrational and illogical wars since as capitalism sinks into further decay. No matter how "radical" these Greens appear to be, their whole purpose is an attempt to reform the system through banking, insurance companies and "green exploitation". But the main function of the Green ideology, like its pacifist twin, is to confuse and demobilise the working class, to turn it away from its struggle against capital and back into the "national interest".

What really exposes the Green movement (and causes a great deal of infighting within the groups) is capitalism's development of militarism and war. When the Greens are not directly pacifist how do they approach the question of imperialist war? The likely approach, given the Greens support for the national interest of capitalism, is that of the influential Greens in Germany who supported their state's "war on terror" in Afghanistan and its overseas military "expeditions". The Greens in general are going to leave the military/repressive apparatus of the state not only intact but expanding, aggressive and running on fossil fuel.

"Capitalism" is not a political policy but a blind, irrational system taking us to destruction and ruin

The Australian bush fires and all the political shenanigans around them are just one more example of capitalism's drive to destruction on a global level. Aside from the frenetic and ultimately complicit response of the Green movement in the descending spiral of decay of this system in the last hundred years or more, there's also the hope, more like a pious dream, that something will turn up to halt this slide, some magic that will reverse the destructive effects of capitalism on the  planet and its populations. It isn't going to happen. Capitalism doesn't act for the good of humanity but for the accumulation of capital and military conquest; reason doesn't come into it:

"Capital is a world-wide relation between classes, based on the exploitation of wage labour and production for sale in order to realise profit. The constant search for outlets for its commodities calls forth ruthless competition between nation states for domination of the world market. And this competition demands that every national capital must expand or die. A capitalism that no longer seeks to penetrate the last corner of the planet and grow without limit cannot exist.  By the same token, capitalism is utterly incapable of cooperating on a global scale to respond to the ecological crisis, as the abject failure of all the various climate summits and protocols have already proved"[3].

On the "other side" of capital stands labour and this latter has already stormed the heavens once and will be required to do so again as the only force able to provide a fighting alternative to the grim future that capitalism has in store for us.

Baboon. 28.12.2019


[1]  All quotes from The Guardian, Australia.

[2]  We've seen what "intervention in the banking industry" means following the nationalisation of all the major banks after the "crash" of 2008. For the working class it has meant years of back-breaking austerity in order to pay for it.

[3]  "Only the international class struggle can end capitalism's drive towards destruction". ICC leaflet: https://en.internationalism.org/content/16724/only-international-class-s...