By Ben Ehrenreich
15 January 2019
(The Nation) – Welcome to the future. It feels like it, doesn’t it? Like we have reached the end of something—of the days when the Arctic was not actually in flames, when the permafrost was not a sodden mush, when the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets were not rushing to join the quickly rising seas. Perhaps we have also, finally, reached the end of the days when we could soothe ourselves with lies, or delusions at least; when we imagined that we were the only masters here, that we could keep taking what we wanted, and that no one would ever have to pay.
We are paying now. Twenty eighteen was the year that temperatures scraped 90 degrees in the Norwegian Arctic; that permafrost in northern Siberia failed to freeze at all; that wildfires burned on the taiga there, as well as above the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Sweden, in the moors of northern England, in Greece, and in California, where they showed no sense of poetic restraint whatsoever and reduced a place called Paradise to ash.
And where there wasn’t fire, there were floods: Hundreds died and millions were evacuated from rising waters in Japan, southern China, and the Indian state of Kerala. Venice flooded too, and Paris, where the Louvre had to close its Department of Islamic Arts, which it had consigned, ahem, to a basement. It was also the year the United Nations’ climate change body warned that, to avoid full-on cataclysm, we, the humans of planet Earth, would have just 12 years (11 now) to cut carbon emissions by 45 percent, and 32 years (31 and counting) to eliminate such emissions altogether.
Still, the weather may be the least of our problems. The fire that razed Paradise displaced 52,000 people overnight, forcing many into the ranks of California’s swelling homeless population and what passes for a safety net these days: free berths on the asphalt in a Walmart parking lot. Millions more of us will become refugees when a mega-storm drowns Miami or Manila, and when the Bay of Bengal rises high enough to swallow Bangladesh. Narendra Modi’s India is ready, and has nearly finished stretching barbed wire across the entire 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh. By conservative estimates, climate change will displace a quarter of a billion people over the next 31 years. Most will not be wealthy, and most will not be white.
We do know, at least, how we got here. It was all that oil and coal that we burned, that we’re still burning. But that “we” is misleading. It isn’t all of us, and never was. As the Swedish scholar Andreas Malm recounts in Fossil Capital, his exhaustive account of the rise of the coal-powered steam engine, coal was initially embraced by a tiny subclass of wealthy Englishmen, the ones who owned the mills. They came to favor steam over hydropower in large part because it allowed them to erect factories in cities and towns—rather than submitting to the dictates of distant rivers and streams—giving them access to what we would now call a flexible workforce: masses of hungry urbanites accustomed to the indignities of factory labor, willing to toil for less, easily replaceable if they refused. […]
From its inception, then, the carbon economy has been tied to the basic capitalist mandate to disempower workers, to squeeze the most sweat out of people for the least amount of money. For the last 200-odd years, the exploitation of the planet has been inseparable from the exploitation of living human beings. [more]
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