“The concept of progress is to be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things just go on is the catastrophe” (Walter Benjamin).
In recent weeks, unprecedented deluges have provoked mass-flooding that has proven catastrophic for the peoples of Pakistan and Niger. In the former country, as of 30 August, an unimaginably severe monsoon season has set in motion floods that have displaced some 20 million people, destroyed 1.2 million homes, killed 1,600 people, and injured over 2,300.1 A few days earlier, a reported published on the World Socialist Web Site claimed flooding in Pakistan to have submerged about 30 percent of the state’s cultivated farmland, wrecking some 17 million such acres.2 Among the millions displaced by inundation, an estimated 8 percent have access to clean water.3 An estimated 70,000 children in Pakistan are at threat of dying from severe acute malnutrition in the coming weeks.4 In Niger, torrential rains in August wiped out grand swathes of the domestic road system, causing the River Niger to reach its highest level for 80 years5—this comes months after the announcement that around 7 million people in Niger and 2 million in Chad were at risk of starvation as crops failed en masse following a second year of failed rains, as examined on these pages in late June. An estimated 400,000 children were pronounced in June as being at risk of death by starvation; it is unknown how many have in fact perished since then. As of late August, approximately $800 million had been raised internationally for flood relief in Pakistan6—this against the total of $43 billion Pakistan’s High Commissioner recently claimed could well be necessary for the reconstruction of Pakistan.7 The present author is unaware of any serious effort to raise funds for starving Nigeriens.
Financially speaking, the relief effort in Pakistan is being led by the U.S., which last week offered a pathetic $200 million for relief, up from a previous $150-million pledge: this amounts to 0.03 percent of the total budget requested by U.S. President Obama for ‘defense’ this year.8 The $200 million contrasts rather starkly with the more than $40 billion made available by the U.S. Congress this July to finance U.S. military operations in Afghanistan,9 or the countless billions currently being spent on the development of such weapons-systems as the X-37B or the Conventional Prompt Global Strike system.10 This $200 million has been supplemented by the even more absurd $5 million proferred by Pakistan’s south-eastern neighbor and sometimes-enemy, India. It is said that accepting even this paltry sum created controversy among the Pakistani ruling class.11 Clearly, Indian society—like U.S. society, or world society—could be aiding the peoples of Pakistan in dramatically more substantial ways; ideology—nationalism—blocks this possibility. History and physical realities, of course, also play their part: principally, the distressingly violent partition of the former British colony in South Asia into two states in 1947 as well as the various wars prosecuted by the rulers of the two countries born through this partition. It was widely feared that the most recent shooting-war engaged in by India and Pakistan (1999) would at some point involve the use of nuclear weapons. Horrifyingly enough, this possibility seems rather not to be an implausible eventuality within the near term.
Recent memory has also seen catastrophic fires grip much of central Russia; 15,000 people are said to have lost their lives because of them.12 The fires have conflagrated so much of the grain-crop produced in Russia—a third of cultivable land in the country has been reported as destroyed—that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would no longer be exporting grain until at least December13—assuming, rather in bourgeois-optimistic terms, that next year’s grain-crop will not be subject to similar or even more severe fires. In similar terms, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari reportedly claims it feasible that Pakistan can be rebuilt within three years’ time, though consideration of the present climatic situation in South Asia—dramatically receding glaciers in the Tibetan plateau14 and reduced levels of snow at high elevations15 coupled with changing precipitation patterns and more extreme weather-events—suggests highly-destructive flooding-events will be increasingly common events; their intensity, indeed, can be expected to increase violently as humanity descends falls into the climate inferno.
It should be mentioned furthermore that the cut-off in Russian grain exports has brought about rather serious human suffering in those societies that normally import Russian grain, as should be expected. A 19 August Guardian piece notes that the societies that have placed at “extreme risk” because of the effects of fires in Russia and flooding in Pakistan have been Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Eritrea, Sudan, and Ethiopia.16
In addition, an island made of ice nearly 100 miles square broke off Greenland’s Petermann Glacier a month ago. The calving of this island, 600 feet thick, constitutes the most-significant such event in Greenland since 1962, with the Petermann Glacier having produced ice islands ranging from 10 to 34 square miles in size—in 2008 and 2001, respectively—during the past decade.17 This development came just days before a panel of climatologists announced to the U.S. House of Representatives that a global average-temperature increase of 2°C would cause the entirety of the Greenland ice sheet to disappear, and hence for sea levels to rise at least 7 meters.18 A global-average temperature increase of 2°C, of course, represents the “safe limit” for which most hegemonic global institutions are presently committed to achieving—if, that is, they are aiming at all, as the criminal U.S. government decidedly is not, given the Senate’s tabling of climate legislation this July.19
All of these happenings, distressing and alarming as they are, follow from physical reality—specifically, from the unprecedented temperatures experienced on planet Earth that in turn stem from the workings of global capitalist society. The year 2010 has been declared as constituting the hottest year for Earth since global-temperature records have been kept (over a century).20 Whether these unprecedented temperatures find their basis in the currently-ongoing El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climatic phenomenon or in anthropogenic climate change—or a combination of the two, as seems most likely—matters less when the catastrophes such chaos induces represent future-images of the world toward which climate catastrophe is driving humanity and life itself. More severe deluges, as seen presently in Pakistan, follow from increased average global temperatures, for warmer air holds greater amounts of water vapor than does cooler air.21 Naturally, dispossession is brutally advanced by life-negating climatic developments, as evidenced inter alia in Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts, in which is examined the world-historical famines experienced in South Asia, East Africa, and East Asia when ENSO conditions synergized with the onset in such regions of capitalist imperialism to produce conditions that killed some 60 million people.22 It is worth noting, furthermore, that the negating climatic effects presently seen are occurring in a world that has experienced just 0.8°C of increase in average global temperatures. Some 5°C of additional warming were found by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) to be plausibly achievable by the end of the twenty-first century—though warming on such a scale is surely the IPCC’s worst-case scenario. According to studies released last November by scientists with the Global Carbon Report, humanity is at present on course for such catastrophic changes;23 an April 2009 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found there to be a 90 percent chance that the average-global temperature increase to be expected this century be between 3.5° and 7.4° C.24
The need for the association of social forces termed by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri the multitude25—a “global self-conscious subject,” in Adorno’s words26—to intervene radically in the present catastrophe toward affording humanity and life itself a chance is perhaps greater now than at other point in human history.
2Ali Ismail, “Pakistan floods unleash desperate economic crisis,” World Socialist Web Site, 26 August 2010
4Ali Ismail, “Pakistan floods exacerbate child hunger and malnutrition,” World Socialist Web Site, 2 September 2010
7Ismail, op. cit. (26 August)
9Pat Martin, “Congress ratifies Obama escalation of Afghanistan war,” World Socialist Web Site, 28 July 2010
10Bill Van Auken, “Obama administration spending billions on new global strike weapons,” World Socialist Web Site, 24 April 2010
11“Pakistan’s floods, partition, and imperialist oppression,” World Socialist Web Site, 30 August 2010
12Johann Hari, “How much proof do the global warming deniers need?” The Independent, 27 August 2010
13Tom Parfitt, “Vladimir Putin bans grain exports as drought and wildfires ravage crops,” The Guardian, 5 August 2010
16Katie Allen, “Afghanistan and African nations at greatest risk from world food shortages,” The Guardian, 19 August 2010
17Damien Pearse, “Biggest ice island for 48 years breaks off Greenland glacier,” The Guardian, 7 August 2010
18Suzanne Goldenberg, “Greenland ice sheet faces ‘tipping point in 10 years,’” The Guardian, 10 August 2010
20Juliette Jowit, “Global warming pushes 2010 temperatures to record highs,” The Guardian, 28 July 2010
21Bill McKibben, “Why has extreme weather failed to heat up climate debate?” The Guardian, 18 August 2010
22 (London: Verso, 2002), p 7
23Steve Connor and Michael McCarthy, “World on course for catastrophic 6° rise, reveal scientists,” The Independent, 18 November 2009
25Empire (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001) and Multitude (London: Penguin, 2005)
26“Progress,” In Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith, trans. Eric Krakauer (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 85