Anarchism against climate-barbarism

NB: Published in the current issue of Dysophia (Anarchist Reflections on Migration, Population and Climate Change) on the occasion of the 2010 London Anarchist Bookfair

In his rather terrifying 2008 book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, British environmental journalist Mark Lynas—a writer whose works and findings would surely tie him to some sort of eco-socialist politics, were he not presumably to be ideologically and materially tied to the hegemonic state of affairs—reflects on the present climate catastrophe by asserting that humans are “indescribably privileged” to be born into the only planet on which life is known to exist in the universe1. In a sense, of course, Lynas here has a point: human existence and consciousness in theory and in practice allow for wonderful possibilities. Nonetheless, his assertion here by itself could well be taken as legitimating the various injustices and horrors of existing society—or can it be said that a comfortable Western journalist and a starving Nigerien child are similarly privileged in life-circumstances?

What can be said is that human existence potentially permits for the creation of specific social conditions that could perhaps justify Lynas’ claims regarding the privilege of experiencing human life—that is to say, a classless global society governed by principles of liberty, equality, justice, and solidarity. Clearly, present society is rather far-removed from such ends; more worrying than this consideration is the fact that the spectre of catastrophic climate change promised by the perpetuation of prevailing social relations threatens forever to make impossible the realization of such a society, let alone the existence of any society at all.

The present state of the Earth’s climate systems is not likely terminal as regards the human prospect; it is, for all that, surely urgent. Some 20 million Pakistanis were displaced this summer by unprecedented floods resulting from unprecedented rains—one of the many effects of the higher average global temperatures provoked to date by anthropogenic climate change, since warmer air holds more moisture. Some 10 million residents of the Sahelian countries of Niger, Chad, and Mali were reported in late June to be at serious risk of dying of starvation as crops failed for the second consecutive year—likely to be due to increased average temperatures. The most severe rains in living memory have pummelled the lands of southern Mexico and Guatemala in recent weeks, flooding homes, inundating crops, and provoking landslides. The minimum summer extent of the Arctic’s sea-ice was this year the third-lowest since records began; in August, an ice-island with an area of 100 miles broke off Greenland’s Petermann glacier—the most momentous of such developments in the region in nearly 50 years. These effects are being felt with the 0.8ºC increase in average global temperatures beyond those that prevailed inpre-industrial times; were such temperature increases to reach 2ºC, though, the totality of the Andes glaciers that presently provide water to millions in South America would no longer exist, and the Greenland ice sheet would be in terminal decline. With a 3ºC increase, the Kalahari Desert can be expected to expand considerably, dispatching millions through famine, and the Amazon rainforest will likely collapse in a giant self-conflagration. At increases of 4ºC and beyond, the viability of human society itself is placed into question.

Among many other effects, then—other, that is, than dramatically increasing starvation rates among the world’s peoples, radically diminishing available fresh-water supplies, and rendering uninhabitable low-lying coastal zones the world over—climate change will provoke mass human migration movements. One group of such migrants are those coming to be known as climate refugees – individuals forced to abandon or flee their places of residence due to the various consequences of anthropogenic climate change. (As far as one understands, the concept of climate refugees carries with it no distinction between refugees and internally displaced people; international law considers refugees to be those who cross state boundaries following their displacement, while the internally displaced remain within the same country.) The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), responsible in the past 20 years for releasing a series of reports on climatology and global warming, estimates in its latest report (2007) that some 200 million individuals will be forced into exile by climate change before the end of the current century. Such an estimate, like much else to be found in the IPCC’s 2007 report, is undoubtedly a conservative under-estimate: if average global temperatures increase by 6ºC relative to pre-industrial levels during the twenty-first century—as climatologists are warning could well occur, given the grossly inadequate response presented by constituted power to the various threats posed by climate change—the number of persons displaced will certainly be in the billions, not hundreds of millions; it is to imagined that the number killed will be of a similar amount.

The policy recommendations that follow from consideration of the “problem” of climate refugees range from institutional-reformist to totally revolutionary. Former approaches seem to call for the codification of the concept of ‘environmental persecution’ into international law and the global institution of national climate-refugee immigration quotas proportional to the greenhouse-gas emissions historically produced by the state in question, whereas the latter see in the devastation likely to be produced by climate-displacement yet another reason to fundamentally re-order existing society. Of course, neither reformism nor radicalism should be expected from the world’s states on this question, as on a myriad of others; the same entities that today deport thousands of members of ‘lesser peoples’ (France), criminalize unauthorized immigration (Arizona), suspend refugee applications for those fleeing the war-zones of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan (Australia), and construct large separation-barriers to cut-off populations vulnerable to climate change (India, following Israel’s example) cannot reasonably be considered actors that will treat the problem of climate-displacement in rational or humane fashion. Indeed, one need only consider the likelihood that the Republican Party will make significant electoral gains in the U.S. Congress this November to know that no progress will be made in the foreseeable future on official global climate-change policy, especially given that the oppositional Democrat-majority Congress has itself failed to pass legislation aimed at mitigating U.S. contributions to the catastrophe presently being enacted. Were a Republican controlled government to work toward the chilling future Gwynne Dyer sees for the U.S.-Mexico border on a climate devastated Earth—mined areas leading up to dauntingly-sized walls armed with auto-targeting machine guns2—it would, for all its horror, be nonetheless unsurprising. The current president, a Democrat, has already authorized Predator-drone overflights on the U.S.-Mexico border in addition to the deployment National Guard troops.

The urgency of the intersection between looming climate catastrophe and the world-historical failure of hegemonic politics on this question potentially opens space for a radical eco-liberatory politics—anarchism. Anarchism’s central tenets, of course, are an opposition to capitalism, and to the State: these institutions are principally responsible for anthropogenic climate change, the former by means of its inherent need for growth (profits), the latter through its protection and advancement of such. Many thinkers associated with libertarian socialism, moreover—for example, Murray Bookchin, Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Cornelius Castoriadis—have developed rigorous critiques of the domination of nature demanded by liberalism, Marxism, and, it would seem, Karl Marx himself3— espite the recent efforts made by John Bellamy Foster to rehabilitate him on these grounds. Importantly, furthermore, anarchism does not share orthodox Marxism’s belief that capitalism will necessarily and inevitably be abolished; in this sense, perhaps, anarchism is more sensitive to the threat of relapse and regression into barbarism promised by climate change and can hence contribute to the displacement of theories and practices that defend the status quo and its likely futures better than can celebratory theories. Similarly, anarchism has rightly long expressed concern about the place of Marxist-Leninist politics in contemporary society; a brief review of the various negations overseen by Lenin and Trotsky before the formers death in 1924—the destruction of worker- and soldier-run soviets, the mass-imprisonment of anarchist critics, the suppression of the 1921 Kronstadt Commune as well as of the libertarian efforts of Nestor Makhno’s Cossack bands in Ukraine—is instructive in this sense.

Anarchism, in short, has a great deal to contribute to political reflection and action in light of the threat of climate catastrophe. Its stress on autonomy (literally, ‘self-legislation’) is crucially important at present, given the entirely barbarous approaches to climate change advanced to date by the State in its defense of capital. Bookchin’s concept of libertarian municipalism and Hannah Arendt’s advocacy of the council system, if somehow realized in history somewhere in the near future, could theoretically allow for the development of a counter-power to the climate-barbarism presently being promoted by State and capital, were such participatory institutions to be governed by both reason and compassion. Recent efforts made by leftist political organizations in Montréal to close off certain areas of the city to car-traffic represent an example of what can be achieved in this sense, as does Ernest Callenbach’s portrayal of what a participatory-ecological society could amount to in his 1975 novel Ecotopia: though the society he there describes is not anarchist, the work’s importance as testimony to the necessity of throwing off the yoke of liberal-capitalist society as a precondition for ecological rationality is not to be underestimated. Moreover, the emphasis made by Peter Kropotkin, among other anarchist theorists, on the need for expropriating capital as a means by which to advance the project of anarchism is also direly crucial today: the resources presently afforded to capital and the State could of course much more reasonably be employed toward the development of a post-carbon global society in which people are afforded the material conditions needed to lead decent lives, free from the regressions of catastrophic climate change, than is the case with presently hegemonic consumerist and militaristic tendencies. In addition, Kropotkin’s stress on mutual aid and solidarity should not readily be dismissed, in light of the various horrors to which climate change will subject humanity—and, it should be added, the non-human world—until and unless that which Adorno calls a “global self-conscious subject”4 intervenes to overthrow prevailing barbarism.

If allowed to continue, capitalism will induce climatic changes that threaten the world with mass-extinction of life and the collective suicide of humanity; such a monstrous system must undoubtedly, then, be suppressed, with socialism making a dramatic encore into history. It would be better that such socialism, in place of emulating the authoritarianism advanced by Lenin and Trotsky after October 1917, be libertarian, and follow fromthe examples of Catalunya 1936, Paris 1968, and Chiapas from 1994 to the present.


1(Washington, D.C.: National Geographic), p. 302

2Climate Wars (Scribe, 2008)

3In Collected Works, vol. 12, p. 132, Marx asserts “man” to be “the sovereign of nature.”

4Theodor W. Adorno, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History , ed. Gary Smith, trans. Eric Krakauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 85

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