Revenge of nature: did the rain spoil your grand prix?

The irony of the Imola Grand Prix being cancelled last weekend because of the huge inundation in the west of Emilia-Romagna cannot have been lost on many. After six-months rain fall fell in 36 hours, over 20 rivers burst their banks, producing 280 landslides, killing at least 13 people and forcing over 13,000 inhabitants to leave their homes and flooded the area around the Imola circuit. The Mayor of Ravenna described it as the worst disaster in a century for the region.

With almost perfect timing the climate disaster in one of the wealthiest regions of Europe followed on from the latest climate warning from scientific experts, global temperatures and likely to reach record levels in the next five years.

On May 17, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) published its Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update. i

Reporting the publication, the BBC did not mince its words, “For decades [scientists] believed that if the world warmed by around 2C that would be the threshold of dangerous impacts – but in 2018 they significantly revised this estimate, showing that going past 1.5C would be calamitous for the world.” ii

Calamitous for the world

A calamitous outcome is now more than ever on the horizon – it is beginning to loom large. The one-page Executive Summary of the WMO findings is worth reading. It notes:

1) The chance of global near-surface temperature exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels for at least one year between 2023 and 2027 is more likely than not (66%).

2) The chance of at least one year between 2023 and 2027 exceeding the warmest year on record, 2016, is highly likely (98%).

3) The chance of the five-year mean for 2023-2027 being higher than the last five years (2018-2022) is also highly likely (98%).

It points to the combination of a natural feature, the extra heat that El Niño will bring to the surface in the Pacific in the next few years together with the continuing high and rising levels of carbon emissions from human activities, pushing temperatures to a new high by 2027.

A week after the WMO report, Professors David King and Johan Rockstrom, opening the Innovation Zero Congress, said failing to limit global temperatures to 1.5C could trigger tipping points creating global temperatures of 2.5C higher than pre-industrial levels by 2100, so within one lifetime, destroying marine life and rain forests and making huge areas of the tropics uninhabitable. iii

Capital can’t help itself

Capital has an ineluctable logic which requires year on year growth – which is why economic growth is the focus of bourgeois politics. The different capitals that make up the global system compete for resources to maintain an advantage over competitors. As a total and anarchic system, left to its own devices, untrammeled capitalism promises to hollow out and desolate entire areas of planet.

The problem we face is not a simple question of morality but one of confronting the dull compulsion of economic growth necessary to keep the free market economy in motion. Neither banning the grand prix nor, for example, the banning of petrol vehicles, are the core issues – they are simply epiphenomena of the overall structural process of the global capitalist economy.

For example, electric vehicles require Lithium batteries because they are lightweight, can store lots of energy and can be recharged repeatedly. It is estimated that demand for Lithium is going to increase tenfold before the end of the 2020s. If every petrol car is to be replaced by an electric this will require destroying yet more of natural environment and moving local populations, as shown by the battle over Lithium reserves in the United States. Meanwhile, the impact of the climate crisis will grow ever more intense. iv

Andreas Malm’s most recent book Fighting in a World on Fire argues that the climate crises are “unfolding within a series of interlocked absurdities”. That it is easier to imagine the ending of the world than the end of capitalism and, for at least some, to imagine learning to die than learning to fight and, also to resign oneself to the end of everything one holds dear, than it is to imagine considering militant acts and resistance.

The scope of the environmental crisis humanity faces can seem overwhelming. One founder of the Green Party, Michael Benfield, became party pooper in chief at a 50th anniversary celebration of the Green Party foundation in March 2023 by announcing the “battle for the world’s environmental survival” was “at this moment, lost” because the type and scale of the necessary solutions are too unpalatable for any political party to adopt. v

Environmental barbarism, passive revolution, or socialism?

While being taken to task for this climate fatalism by a younger climate scientist and others, Benfield is just one representative of a mind-set which, bereft of a socialist imagination, is unable to see any way forward other than to mitigate the worst effects. vi

There are, of course, various routes through the global environmental crisis. One may be a form of global environmental barbarism produced by a combination of inter-imperialist conflict preventing the necessary global collaboration and more rapid than expected climate and environmental change, a tipping point reached, creating conditions making the planet unlivable for billions of people. Despite decades of political lobbying, it is clearly not impossible that the anarchy of global capitalism may deliver this result. What was once a science fiction does now seem imaginable.

Passive revolution

Another outcome may be a continuation of capitalism with mitigations. While capital has its own logic, some capitalists are unlikely to sit idly by while the world goes up in smoke – they may institute what Gramsci described as a passive revolution: a gradual but continuous reorganisation of the state and economy to preserve ruling class power and its share of the surplus through neutralising or incorporating adversaries by transforming them into partners, while leaving the fundamental class contradictions untouched.

Two recent examples of this process from the opposite end of the spectrum are the transformation of the German Greens in government into an advocate of inter-imperialist war while at the same time advocating for an environmental transition, and the French government banning domestic short-haul flights where the same journey could be made by train in under two-and-a-half hours –  there will be more measures like this to come.

Is it not entirely possible that some capitalists will attempt to reign-in unfettered capitalism to maintain control of the process of accumulation for the medium term? Hundreds of millions will die as a result of such a strategy. However, this would be business as usual for a system that murdered tens of millions through the environmental disaster that was colonialism and is imperialism as detailed in Mike Davis’ revelatory book Late Victorian Holocausts. The assumptions underlying such a strategy are, however, not guaranteed: a gradual but manageable evolution of the ecological crisis in the century ahead and a series of techical fixes which Andreas Malm argues is another absurd thought.

Socialist transformation

Is it easier for billions of people to imagine the ending of the world than the end of capitalism? At present it may be the dominant thought in the popular imagination for the lack of a viable alternative.

Following the defeat in Vietnam in 1973 it was claimed by some that the United States was afflicted by the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, referring to a public aversion to US military interventions overseas. This aversion lasted less than a decade, ended by an imperialist toe in the water invasion of the tiny island of Grenada in 1982, heralding a huge Reaganite ideological offensive against communism, and overthrow of the revolutionary government.

Many Socialists, on the other hand, are still living under a ‘Stalinism Syndrome’, more than three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and still do not have ideological apparatus nor the mass mobilised class movement to bring capitalism down imminently.

Some in Britain decided long ago to rebrand themselves eco-socialists to what appears to have been no good effect.  The Green New Deal which emanated from the left Democrats in the United States and was adopted by the Corbyn movement is, in effect, another version of the mitigation strategy proposed by Michael Benfield – social democratic and thus non-transformative – it would dovetail with a passive revolution.

It is not that opportunities have been unavailable for socialists to make their point. The recent profit gouging by the energy companies were an open goal for Marxist arguments and, more importantly, concrete actions for a socialist alternative – yet nothing of substance issued from socialist organisations to take up cudgels for a society that puts people before profit as part of a different social order. No sustainable organised public counter-offensive against capitalism appeared and no ideological gains were made in the public sphere.

The question for Marxists is what is our strategy in response to these failures? How do we articulate a programme of social change that persuades those who are resigning themselves to the end of everything they hold dear, rather than considering militant acts and resistance as the way forward?

In July 2023 Talking About Socialism will be holding an online event to discuss what socialist strategy should be in the face of the growing climate crisis. Please join us.


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