Recent reports such as the harrowing “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C” by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) bluntly underscore that unless we’re able to make systematic changes, we face an unimaginably grim near future. The oceans will swallow major coastal cities; food and water will be scarce; there will be fatal fires, heatwaves and increasingly ferocious natural disasters; hundreds of millions of people will be displaced as large parts of the globe become uninhabitable; animals will become extinct on a scale not known in human history; the oceans will become acid; disease will become rampant. Economies and food production will shrink. Countries could find themselves using the most advanced technology to fight over basic resources. To paraphrase the author William Gibson, the conditions are in place “for things to get worse and never better”.
This is not an abstract threat for future generations. We are starting to see the serious effects of climate change already – raging infernos and hurricanes in North America, brutal heatwaves in East Asia, and Cape Town almost running out of water. In a country where too many are already struggling just to survive, the ongoing drought has ravaged maize and livestock. A sobering piece by environmental journalist Sipho Kings outlines what can be expected for our part of the world – cities that are too hot to live in, droughts followed by unpredictably violent rain storms, and widespread hunger, thirst and illness.
The political effects of climate change on our already dysfunctional and callous society are terrifying. The coming stresses can only exacerbate hunger and social violence, and fuel the anti-migrant sentiments that politicians are cynically courting. Although the impoverished and landless bear the initial brunt, no one is truly safe. That Cape Town barely managed to avert Day Zero, the marker for when it would run out of water, shows the fragility of the basic utilities we take for granted, and offers a glimpse of an entire city drying up and dying.
Powerful militaries in the Global North have long been preparing for such social collapse. Pentagon videos depict an “unavoidably dystopian” future where much of the world has descended into chaos. Significant chunks of the globe are already being written off as sacrifice zones. But no number of guns, drones and walls can protect even the wealthiest country from a planet that has become fundamentally hostile to human life. The summary of the latest IPCC report brings to mind a line from American director Paul Schrader’s acclaimed new drama, First Reformed: “The bad times, they will begin. And from that point, everything moves very quickly. This social structure can’t bear the stress of multiple crises. And this isn’t in some, like, distant future. You will live to see this … this unlivability.”
This is not the collective fault of humanity. What has driven us to the precipice is not working-class coal miners digging underground, or even middle-class consumers leaving on the lights, but class power. The terrifying reality is that, for the most part, political and economic elites have shown little interest in saving the world from destruction. The breakdown of the web of life we are seeing has its roots in industrial capitalism and an ideology that views the natural world as a commodity to be endlessly exploited, in the same way human labour is used and discarded.
We have been dragged to the climate cliff by the inability of the ruling class to deal with a historically unprecedented existential threat. The most powerful polluters, particularly the United States, have not acted. They are supported by fossil fuel and extractive industries, which have lobbied for business as usual and limited a sense of urgency by supporting global warming denialists. Our government, too, enables the most destructive behaviour of the South African mineral-industrial complex.
Time for a just transition
Despite the bleak reality we face, there is still time for a global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, to engineer sustainable food systems and to build less resource-intensive lifestyles. A wealth of knowledge from climate justice activists, popular movements and trade unions offers cogent, practical plans for a just transition to salvage the natural world, and with it human life. In the face of millenarian despair, we must remember that the technology exists to not only survive, but to solve many of our most glaring ills by building a society that puts people and the planet ahead of the fanatical worship of profit.
In South Africa, we are often presented with an apparent dichotomy between human development and the environment, reflected in the often hostile relationship between environmentalists and trade unions. But it is not necessary for workers, their families and communities to pay the price for a shift away from polluting industries. If taken seriously, the concept of a just transition can be the bridge that links the urgent need to mitigate and adapt to climate change with the urgent need for social justice.
Building socially owned energy systems will reinvigorate the economy and create opportunities for decent jobs and workers’ self-management. Reorganising our food and water systems will empower and raise the standard of living for battered communities. Our rotten transport infrastructure and housing systems can be overhauled, breaking out of the apartheid planning that fragments our living spaces. We could revel in what urban theorist Mike Davis calls the “public affluence of great urban parks, free museums, libraries and infinite possibilities for human interaction” rather than the ultimately suicidal path of endless growth and greed in which we seem to be mired.
Confronted with the choice between destroying the Earth or systemic change, the world’s most powerful people are determined to ride this death spiral for as long as they can hold on. As Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein put it, their response to the disasters of tomorrow will be to continue business as usual, “only with more brutality and barbarism”. Such a feral approach is favoured by the neo-fascist movements emerging all over the world. Vicious and cretinous demagogues such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro gloat about stripping the Arctic and Amazon, which will drastically escalate the pace of warming. Their threats of social “purification” are laying the groundwork for a genocidal logic against future climate refugees, threatening mass murder on a scale that could dwarf the state terrorism of the previous century.
A world historical choice
In 2014, geographer David Harvey elegantly captured the direction we seem to be heading in, imagining “a capitalist, oligarchic elite supervising vast artificial gated communities to protect against the ravages of an external nature run toxic, barren and ruinously wild. Such a society could exist only on the basis of fascistic mind control and the continuous daily exercise of daily police surveillance and violence accompanied by periodic militarised repressions. Anyone who does not see elements of such a dystopian world is deceiving himself most cruelly.”
Climate change is not just an issue, it’s the issue, the background against which all future struggles for social justice will take place. Writing during World War I, philosopher Rosa Luxemburg famously described a society hovering over “the collapse of all civilisation as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery”. We now face this at a global level.
We face a choice between building political movements that change our relationship with the Earth and one another, or succumbing to a howling vortex of destruction that will ultimately overwhelm even the kleptocratic class that is gleefully burning through all our futures. The corporations, militaries and neo-fascists who hope to profit from chaos need to be politically confronted and stripped of their power to do more damage. We are not yet at Zero Hour. Rather than cowering behind seawalls and bunkers, in the futile hope of being spared, we need to embrace the democratic, the egalitarian and even the utopian, and fight not just for survival, but for a world worth living in.