This year, the Arctic and the Amazon both caught fire. July was the hottest month ever recorded. The climate crisis is here. Without collective action to radically alter this trajectory, we are facing the endgame of human civilisation.
On Friday 20 September 2019, millions of people took part in a global climate strike, taking to the streets to protest against the inaction of their governments on global warming.
The Earth Strike, which is set to continue on 27 September, is the largest climate justice mobilisation in history. Strikingly, it is primarily being led by young people and schoolchildren who have an awareness of the bleak future of environmental collapse and social breakdown that they face.
As the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year, there is a small window of time to begin the rapid transition to renewable energy and to break our suicidal dependency on fossil fuels.
But if business-as-usual continues, the future will be a howling abyss of thirst, heat death, global famine and resource wars. The Earth will one day recover from climate breakdown and mass extinction, but our species may not be around to see it.
The dim future here
In Southern Africa, we have already seen the evisceration of Mozambique by Cyclone Idai. Cape Town almost became the first modern city to run out of water. These disasters are accompanied by the slower processes of drought and scarcity, which are already hitting the poor and marginalised.
In the 2020s, we can expect to see further social disintegration as food prices skyrocket, even for the middle classes, and our already broken infrastructures are inundated with extreme weather events. The climate migrants seeking refuge in South Africa will find themselves faced with a violent culture of xenophobia. In turn, South African citizens may soon be in the same position – desperately seeking a new life abroad as this country becomes ever hotter and more environmentally inhospitable. Ultimately, however, nowhere in the world will be safe from the ravages of climate breakdown. Despite the escape fantasies of people like Elon Musk, there is no Planet B to which to escape.
Capitalism to blame
The slow apocalypse falling into place around us is not the collective fault of humanity. It is a direct product of the sociopathic greed and myopia of the capitalist system. Corporations and governments have built their power and wealth on the basis of fossil fuels. Faced with a choice between disaster and a safer future for humanity, elites have chosen to throw the rest of us into the gaping maw of climate chaos.
This is especially evident in South Africa, whose highly unequal and stagnant economy is based on extractive mining. Government’s vacillation on renewables is exemplified by Eskom, a dysfunctional company which continues to run toxic coal while not being able to keep the lights on all the time. Eskom’s power stations in Mpumalanga have the highest level of air pollution in the world.
In South Africa, a delicate balance is needed to address the environmental, social and economic downsides of mining. There is, of course, the inescapable reality that mining provides thousands of jobs and supports hundreds of thousands of working-class people.
President Cyril Ramaphosa may make pretty speeches about the environment, but in practice his government continues to push fossil fuel expansion. The South African state has no credible response to the climate crisis, and this dismal reality will persist until it is forced to act by the citizenry. Corporate polluters will not stop ravaging our air and water until their operations are forced to a halt.
Faced with an unprecedented existential threat, humanity is locked into an economic system based on endless growth and consumption. Governments cynically claim there is a fundamental opposition between the environment and development. In reality, environmental collapse is already unraveling wealth creation. A report issued this year by Moody’s listed South Africa as one of the countries whose economies will be most blighted by climate collapse.
This puts the lie to the lazy stereotype that climate breakdown is the exclusive fixation of privileged hippies driving to protests in their Teslas. Global warming will kill the poor and crush the middle class.
But by embracing a renewed concept of modernity that focuses on human needs and environmental restoration, the Left has an unprecedented opportunity to confront the intersections of class, racial and gender domination that underlie environmental collapse.
The protesters at the Johannesburg climate strikes were impressively clear sighted about these linkages. They articulated how climate overlaps with the bloody history of colonial land theft, the growing global tide of hyper-nationalist, anti-migrant hysteria and the crisis of gender-based violence. The message was clear – our current socio-economic model is reproducing barely livable cities and rural ghost towns. Confronting the climate emergency is not only a question of survival, it is also an opportunity to renew South Africa’s democracy out of its mire of cynicism and authoritarianism and aggressively tackle our disastrous levels of economic inequality.
Today’s youth have grown up watching politicians sacrifice their future for the benefit of a rapacious and unhinged oligarch class. The neoliberal platitudes of Barack Obama or Ramaphosa are being supplanted by the climate nihilism of neofascists like US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who both deny the reality of global warming while doing everything in their power to accelerate it. By encouraging the burning of the Amazon, for instance, Bolsonaro is gleefully piling up the ashes of the future. Trump, meanwhile, has made sure to have seawalls built around one of his golf courses in Ireland. In a nutshell, this sums up the relationship between capital and climate chaos – our collective health and lives are being sacrificed so that the super-rich can add to their already grotesque fortunes.
The current tone of the climate protests is pacifist and reformist, aiming to shame the state into action. However, there is an undercurrent of anger and indignation, which has a profoundly anti-authoritarian, even revolutionary, potential. Many of the protesters’ signs and social media posts reveal a deep hostility towards capitalism and a profound sense of generational betrayal. As writer Joshua Clover has noted, we may soon see even more militant tactics, with the climate strikes being accompanied by occupations, blockades and barricades.
It’s possible that the climate crisis may also engender a broader cultural rejection of capitalism. We may find ourselves in a similar position to that of the 1960s and 1970s, when young people drove a vast range of political experimentation. As theorists like Mark Fisher have argued, global warming proves that capital no longer offers a viable future. Alienated, precarious consumerism today; immiseration and death tomorrow.
The end logic of capital is expressed in the enormous popularity of dystopian science fiction. Films from Blade Runner 2049 to Mad Max: Fury Road show a wrecked future where the planet has become a desert, with elites holed up in their luxury enclaves. But these fictions also reveal a yearning for resistance. In the popular Hunger Games series, a phrase used by rebels against a despotic government resonates with our heating planet: “Fire is catching, and if we burn, you burn with us.”
These climate strikes highlight the disturbing, immediate reality of climate breakdown and global heating. It reveals that a system set up to benefit a vampiric elite is incapable of offering a way out. The survival of humanity necessitates that ordinary people reject and refuse to go along with this miserable state of affairs and use collective power and creativity to assemble a future worth having.