Capitalism is dragging humanity towards a planet-wide catastrophe

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In the space of a few weeks, all over the planet, climate catastrophes have followed each other at an alarming rate. In the USA, in Pakistan, in Spain or in Canada, temperatures have neared 50 degrees centigrade. In northern India, unbearable heat has caused thousands of deaths. 800,000 hectares of forest in Siberia, one of the coldest regions in the world, have already gone up in smoke. In North America, the now traditional season of huge forest fires has already begun: more than 150,000 hectares have been on fire in British Columbia alone. In the south of Madagascar, an unprecedented drought has plunged 1.5 million people into famine. Hundreds of thousands of children are dying because there is nothing to eat, nothing to drink, while the world looks on in almost unanimous indifference. Kenya and several other African countries are going through the same dramatic situation.

But while part of the world is suffocating, deluges of rain are hitting Japan, China and Europe, provoking unprecedented floods and deadly mud slides. At the centre of Europe, particularly in Germany and Belgium, these floods have, at the time of writing, led to over 200 deaths and thousands injured. Thousands of houses, streets, entire villages and conglomerations have been carried away by the floods. In the west of Germany, roads, electricity and gas networks, railways and communications have been devastated. A number of road and railway bridges have collapsed. Never before has this region been hit by flooding on such a scale.

In China, in the town of Zhenzhou, capital of the central province of Henan and inhabited by 10 million people, in three days there was the equivalent of a whole year’s rainfall. Streets turned into rushing torrents, with frightening scenes of destruction and chaos: road surfaces breaking up, vehicles submerged…thousands of metro passengers were trapped in stations or tunnels, often with water up to their necks. 33 deaths and many injured; 200,000 evacuated. Supplies of water, electricity and food have been brutally interrupted. Damage to crops has cost millions. In the south of Henan, the dam containing the Guojiaju reservoir gave way and two others are threatened with collapse at any moment.

The conclusions of the draft report of the International Panel on Climate Change which was “leaked” to the press are chilling: “Life on Earth could recover from major climate change by evolving towards new species and creating new ecosystems. Humanity cannot”. For decades, scientists have been warning of the dangers of climate disturbances. We are right there now! It’s not just a matter of some species disappearing or of localised disasters. Cataclysm has now become permanent, and there is worse to come.

The negligence of the bourgeoisie faced with catastrophes

For a number of years now, heatwaves, fires, hurricanes and other forms of destruction have been multiplying. But while the inefficiency and incompetence of the poorest states in managing such disasters unfortunately come as no surprise, the growing inability of the big powers to deal with the situation is particularly revealing of the level of crisis into which capitalism is sinking. Not only are climatic phenomena becoming more and more devastating, numerous and uncontrollable, but the states and emergency services, after decades of budget cuts, are shown to be more and more disorganised and failing in their role.

The situation in Germany is a very clear expression of this tendency. Even though the European flood-warning system (EFAS) anticipated the floods of 14 and 15 July, “the warnings were not taken seriously and the preparations were insufficient”, as the hydrologist Hannah Cloke put it[1]. The central state basically got rid of warning systems by offloading them to the federal states, or even to local councils, without any standardised procedures or the means to work effectively. Result: while the electronic and telephone networks collapsed, making it impossible to warn the population and proceed with evacuations, the emergency services were reduced to switching on their sirens – that is when they were still working. Before reunification, West and East Germany had about 80,000 sirens; now there are only 15,000 in working order[2]. Lacking means of communication and coordination, the operations of the emergency services took place in the greatest disorder. In other words, austerity and bureaucratic incompetence made a large contribution to the fiasco!

But the responsibility of the bourgeoisie isn’t limited to failures in the emergency services. In these densely populated urban regions, the permeability of the soil has been considerably reduced, increasing the risks of flooding. For decades, in order to concentrate labour power and get a quick return on investment, the authorities have not hesitated to build numerous homes in flood-risk areas.

The bourgeoisie is powerless in the face of the climate disaster

A large section of the bourgeoisie cannot avoid admitting the link between global heating and the multiplication of catastrophes. In the midst of the ruins, the German chancellor solemnly declared “we must hurry. We are going to go much faster in the fight against climate change[3]. Utter bullshit! Since the 1970s, international summits and conferences have been held nearly every year, with their lists of promises, objectives, commitments. Each time these “historic agreements” have proven to be pious wishes, while greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase year on year.

In the past, the bourgeoisie has been able to mobilise around immediate problems that have impacted on its economy. For example, it was able to drastically reduce the CFC gases responsible for the hole in the ozone layer. These gases were used in air conditioning systems, fridges and aerosols. This was indeed an important effort faced with the threat posed by the degradation of the ozone layer, but it never required a dramatic transformation of the apparatus of capitalist production. Carbon dioxide emissions pose an altogether different kind of problem.

Greenhouse gases are used to transport workers and commodities, to power factories. They are also made up of the methane produced by intensive farming, which also involves the widescale destruction of forests. In short, carbon dioxide emissions are at the heart of capitalist production: the concentration of labour power in immense cities, the anarchy of production, the exchange of commodities on a planetary scale, heavy industry…these are the reasons why the bourgeoisie is incapable of finding real solutions to the climate crisis. The search for profit, the massive overproduction of commodities, the pillage of natural resources – these are not an “option” for capitalism: they are the sine qua non of its existence. The bourgeoisie can only promote the growth of production with the aim of increasing the accumulation of capital, otherwise it would endanger its own interests and its profits faced with the exacerbation of globalised competition. The basis of this logic is “after me, the deluge!”. Extreme climate phenomena are no longer just impacting the populations of the poorest countries. They are now directly disrupting the apparatus of industrial and agricultural production in the central countries. The bourgeoisie is caught in the grip of insoluble contradictions.

No state is capable of radically transforming its apparatus of production without being driven back by competition from other countries. Chancellor Merkel may claim that it’s time to “hurry up”, but in truth the German government has never wanted to impose the strict environmental rules that get in the way of protecting strategic sectors like steel, chemicals or automobiles. Merkel has also succeeded in delaying the abandonment of coal production: the open cast exploitation of coal in the Rhineland and east Germany remains one of the biggest sources of pollution in Europe. In other words, the price for the strong competitive edge of the German economy is the unlimited destruction of the environment! The same implacable logic applies all over the planet: giving up carbon dioxide emissions or destroying its forests would be, for China or for any of the industrialised countries, shooting itself in the foot.

The “green economy” is an ideological mystification

Faced with this crying expression of the impasse of capitalism, the bourgeoisie is instrumentalising catastrophes the better to defend its system. In Germany, where the electoral campaign for the federal elections in September is at its height, the candidates vie with each other with proposals for fighting against climate disturbances. But all this is an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes! The “green economy”, which is supposed to create millions of jobs and allow for a “green growth”, in no way represents a way out for capital, either on the economic or the ecological level. For the bourgeoisie, the “green economy” above all has an ideological value, by spreading the idea that capitalism can be reformed. If new “ecological” sectors are emerging, such as solar panels, biofuels or electric vehicles, not only can they not serve as a locomotive for the whole economy given the limits on solvent markets, but their disastrous impact on the environment has already been shown: massive destruction of forests to extract rare minerals, deplorable state of recycling of batteries, intensive agriculture in the production of rapeseed, etc.

The “green economy” is also a favourite weapon against the working class, justifying lay-offs and the closure of factories, as we can see from the declaration of the green candidate Baerbock in the German elections: “We can only progressively eliminate fossil fuels (and the workers who go with them) if we have at our disposal one hundred percent renewable energy[4]. It should be said that when it comes to lay-offs and the exploitation of labour power, the Greens already have plenty of experience, since for seven years they played an active part in the ignoble reforms of the Schröder government

The impotence of the bourgeoisie faced with the increasingly devastating impact of global heating at the human, social and economic level should not however lead us to fatalism. Certainly, caught in the contradictions of its own system, the bourgeoisie can only lead humanity to disaster. But the working class, through its struggle against exploitation and for the overthrow of capitalism, holds the solution to this obvious contradiction between, on the one hand the obsolescence of capitalist methods of production, the complete anarchy of the system resulting in generalised overproduction and the insane pillage of natural resources; and, on the other hand, the need for a rational method of production based on the needs of humanity and not the needs of the market. By freeing humanity from capitalist exploitation and the demands of profit, the proletariat will have the material possibility of carrying out a radical programme for the protection of the environment. The road is a very long one, but communism is more than ever a necessity!

EG, 23.7.21


[3] « Choquée par les dégâts “surréalistes”, Angela Merkel promet de reconstruire », (18 July 2021).


Heatwaves and floods