The proliferation of these phenomena and their growing seriousness is not an accident or a tragic inevitability against which nothing can be done and for which no one is to blame. Capitalism and its laws bear a heavy responsibility in the gestation of these disasters.
Capitalism is destroying the planet
According to numerous scientists global warming plays an important part in the multiplication of extreme climatic phenomena such as torrential rain and hurricanes. In the words of Jean-Pascal Van Ypersele, Vice President of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “These are events that are known to recur and intensify in an environment disturbed by pollution from greenhouse gas emissions”. From 1997 to 2006, with the temperature of the planet continuing to increase, the number of more and more intense catastrophes grew by 60% compared to the previous decade. As a symbol of this global warming, at the beginning of August 2010 a gigantic iceberg of 250 km2 broke off into the Arctic Ocean, reducing the extent of the ice cap for the fourth consecutive year so that it is now less than 4 million km2. This summer many temperature records have been broken, like the staggering 53.5° on 26 May in Pakistan. “The mean temperature of the planet is growing, according to the records and analyses of James Hansen’s team at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (NASA), as the first six months of 2010 establish a record as the hottest in 130 years” (Libération, 12/8/10).
Scientists from oil companies, some politicians and TV pundits resist the idea that global warming is the result of a massive pollution of the atmosphere, but all serious scientific research shows a clear correlation between greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and the proliferation of natural disasters. However, scientists are mistaken when they say that a little political will from governments is the way to change things. Capitalism is incapable of limiting greenhouse gas emissions because that means going against the very basis of its mode of production: the pursuit of profit with its consequent competition and imperative to cut costs. It’s because of these laws that the bourgeoisie pollutes, with, among many examples, its heavy industry and the transport of commodities over thousands of kilometres.
The responsibility of capitalism in the spread of these catastrophes is not limited to atmospheric pollution and climate change. The methodical destruction of ecosystems through, for example, massive deforestation, waste disposal in areas of natural drainage, or urban sprawl - sometimes onto the beds of drained rivers or at the heart of particularly inflammable areas - forcefully aggravates the intensity of disasters.
In Pakistan millions of victims of imperialist conflicts
Since July torrential rain has battered Pakistan causing major flooding, landslides, thousands dead or injured, 20 million people affected, 11,000 schools damaged, 1.2 millions houses damaged, 3.6m hectares of crops destroyed, 1.2m livestock lost, 6m poultry lost and much other material damage. A fifth of the country is submerged in the worst floods in the region since the late 1920s. Officially, the number of people living below the poverty line has risen from 33% of the population prior to the floods to 40% now.
Famine and the spread of disease, particularly cholera, have worsened an already desperate situation. For more than a month, in the middle of this horrible tableau, the Pakistani bourgeoisie and its army have displayed a mind-blowing cynicism and incompetence, blaming the remorselessness of nature, when between unplanned urbanisation and impotent emergency services, the laws of capitalism appear as the essential element in understanding the magnitude of the disaster.
But a particularly nauseating aspect of this tragedy is the way in which the big imperialist powers try to benefit from the situation using the humanitarian operations as an alibi, to the detriment of the victims. The US supported the fragile government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and very rapidly profited from the events in deploying a significant military contingent, including helicopter carriers and amphibious assault vehicles. In the name of the war against terrorism the US has spread its net over Pakistan and checks all arrivals of ‘international aid’ coming from other countries. ‘Humanitarian aid’ is made up of soldiers, diplomats and unscrupulous investors.
As with every disaster of such a magnitude, all the resources that are sent by each country are made to serve their imperialist interests. This includes the promise of aid, which has become a systematic con trick. Each government officially announces substantial financial help, which is officiously granted according to the interests and ambitions of the donors. Take the example of Haiti where only 10 % of the international aid promised in January 2010 has actually been given to the Haitian bourgeoisie so far. Pakistan is not going to be an exception to this rule. $800m has been promised, but what will be handed over to the state will be for services rendered by the Pakistani bourgeoisie.
Fires in Russia show the contradictions of capitalism
From late July hundreds of fires raged throughout a large area around Moscow, burning hundreds of hectares of forest, peat bogs and agricultural and urban areas. The fires have killed dozens of people and left thousands homeless. For several days a thick cloud hung over the capital with devastating effects on health, to the extent that the usual mortality rate doubled. And, for good measure, significant nuclear and chemical risks threaten people beyond the Russian borders, in particular with fires on the land contaminated by the Chernobyl explosion, but also with nuclear sites and more or less forgotten stocks of arms and chemical products menaced by fire. Curiously enough this has not attracted much media attention.
These fires show the negligence of the bourgeoisie and the decay of capitalist society. One of the most striking aspects of these events was the incapacity of the Russian state to get the fires under control. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin can play the superhero in front of the TV cameras, piloting a fire-fighting plane, but this disaster is the result of several decades of typical bourgeois policies, cynical and blinded by profit.
An essential element in understanding the role of the bourgeoisie in the extent of the wildfires is the staggering neglect of the forests. Russia is an enormous country endowed with very significant and dense forestry, requiring particular care to promptly contain fires in their early stages and prevent them spreading and getting out of control. A lot of massive Russian forests don’t have access routes, so the fire service is incapable of getting to the heart of many fires. Russia has only 22,000 fire-fighters, less than many much smaller countries. Many particularly corrupt regional governments prefer to use limited resources intended to manage forests to buy luxury cars, as several scandals have revealed.
The same cynicism is shown with the impact of wildfire on peat bogs, areas where the soil is made of particularly inflammable decomposing organic matter. In abandoning the peat bogs the Russian bourgeoisie has favoured the construction of housing in those areas where fires were particularly rife in 1972. In these dangerous areas property speculators have been able to buy land – declared building land by law – at derisory prices. It is in such ways that capitalism transforms natural phenomena, controllable by humanity, into veritable disasters. Incidentally, the Russian authorities have been reduced to waiting for the winter freeze to put out the fires in the peat fields.
It is also, at this point, worth recalling the damage across the Gulf of Mexico from the oil slick caused by the explosion on the BP oil rig. The recklessness of capitalism in its search for materials that it can profitably sell has never known any limitations. To this it can be added that China, in addition to recent floods and landslides in several provinces, has also suffered its worst ever oil spill after a fire at an oil depot caused crude oil to leak into the sea for several days in the area around the important northern port of Dalian. Far from employing the latest cutting-edge technology there were poignant pictures of people on beaches trying to clean them up using only chopsticks and plastic bags. Elsewhere “Fishermen covered in oil, some of them working just in their underwear, scrape up the toxic sludge that spilled out of the jars they have brought back from the open sea. No one is wearing protective goggles, facemasks or even gloves to protect them from the hazardous chemicals in the oil.” (BBC 30/7/10).
Capitalism and its state are directly responsible for the multiplication and the deadly extent of the climatic catastrophes. The working class must not have any illusions in the capacity of the ruling class to protect humanity against devastating natural phenomena, no illusions in replacing the existing government cliques with more ‘green’ leaders and no hope for ecological reforms that will save the planet and humanity from environmental chaos. The basis of capitalism, with its drive for profit, competition and exploitation is at the heart of the problem at every level. We must destroy it. V 31/8/10