A review of books by Elizabeth Kolbert and Holly Jean Buck. Buck will be speaking at Ideas for Freedom, 10-11 July.
Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book Under a White Sky describes a pattern in the relationship between human beings and our environment that we can observe being played out at different scales and on different terrains throughout recent history.
The reversing of the Chicago River to solve Chicago’s sewage problem was initially successful. A canal diverted Chicago’s waste into the Des Plaines river rather than Lake Michigan.
It had the unintended consequence of connecting two of the world’s largest river basins, “upending the hydrology of roughly two thirds of North America”. When one of those river basins became overrun by invasive species — Asian carp — the US Army Corps of Engineers was instructed to build a barrier of bubbles, bright lights and electricity. “First you reverse a river, then you electrify it”.
Kolbert tells a number of tales describing the same pattern. In Louisiana, they are building the 12th biggest river in America, a two and a half mile straight channel that will dump sediment in the Mississippi delta and halt land erosion accelerated by New Orleans flood defence system.
In Nevada they have created an artificial rock pool home for an endangered pupfish whose original home was destroyed by private enterprise draining the desert’s aquifer in the (failed) attempt to create viable farmland.
There is an ever-repeating pattern of human activity causing unintended harm to human and extra-human nature that then needs to be fixed by more aggressive intervention: “If there is to be an answer to the problem of control, it’s going to be more control. Only now what’s got to be managed is not a nature that exists — or is imagined to exist — apart from the human. Instead, the new effort begins with a planet remade and spirals back on itself — not so much the control of nature, but the control of the control of nature.”
It is true that the “control of nature” is out of control and that there is no going back to the world before humans became a geological force. However, Kolbert removes the class dynamics from her analysis, so the environmental chaos she describes appears to be the result of bumbling scientists who blindly plough ahead with ill-conceived projects, unleashing unforeseen consequences in their wake.
On the wrong footing
This picture is wrong on two levels. First as Professor David Keith is keen to stress, not all environmental modification goes wrong. ‘“To people who say most of our technological fixes go wrong, I say, “Okay, did agriculture go wrong?”’
Second, human work is currently organised according to the blind logic of unceasing profit-making. The capitalist organising principle lays waste to both human and non-human natures. Restrictions placed on it, and clean-up operations for it, have to be imposed by the state or organised by voluntary and not-for-profit organisations.
Karl Marx wrote about this process of laying waste to human and extra-human nature nearly 150 years ago. In 1860 a report on conditions in the lace industry found that: “Children of nine or ten years of age are dragged from their squalid beds at two, three, four o’clock in the morning and compelled to work for a bare subsistence until ten, eleven or twelve at night, their limbs wearing away, their frames dwindling, their faces whitening, and their humanity absolutely sinking into a stone-like torpor.”
In the potteries, children as young as seven years old would work 15 hour days. Unrestrained, the profit motive devoured the vital energy of the land and the people.
“[The English Factory Acts] curb capital’s drive towards a limitless draining away of labour-power by forcibly limiting the working day on the authority of the state, but a state ruled by capitalist and landlord. Apart from the daily more threatening advance of the working-class movement, the limiting of the factory labour was dictated by the same necessity as forced the manuring of English fields with guano.
“The same blind desire for profit that in the one case exhausted the soil had in the other case seized hold of the vital force of the nation at its roots. Periodical epidemics speak as clearly on this point as the diminishing military standard of height in France and Germany.”
The evolution of the capitalist state since this time has created a library’s worth of regulations that seek to protect human and environmental health from capital’s insatiable appetite for exploitation. Class struggle plays a part in winning this legislation, but it “sticks” because of the imperative to maintain stable conditions for capitalist growth. There is a tension here between the individual capitalist’s desire for unrestricted profit-making and the collective capitalist class interest in maintaining conditions for future growth.
Despite Tory agitation against “red tape”, all capitalist states oversee a huge edifice of rules and regulations and institutions designed to limit and direct individual capitals’ unremitting thirst for profit so as to sustain the general conditions for profit-making.
Writing around the same time as Marx, Engels describes the impetus that forced the state to intervene into the pestilence and filth of the Victorian slum: “Modern natural science has proved that the so-called ‘poor districts’ in which the workers are crowded together are the breeding places of all those epidemics which from time to time afflict our towns. Cholera, typhus, typhoid fever, small-pox and other ravaging diseases spread their germs in the pestilential air and the poisoned water of these working-class quarters.
“In these districts, the germs hardly ever die out completely, and as soon as circumstances permit it they develop into epidemics and then spread beyond their breeding places also into the more airy and healthy parts of the town inhabited by the capitalists. Capitalist rule cannot allow itself the pleasure of creating epidemic diseases among the working class with impunity; the consequences fall back on it and the angel of death rages in its ranks as ruthlessly as in the ranks of the workers...
“The philanthropic bourgeois began to compete with one another in noble efforts on behalf of the health of their workers. Societies were founded, books were written, proposals drawn up, laws debated and passed, in order to close the sources of the ever-recurring epidemics.”
The pattern that Kolbert identifies is here in Marx and Engels but with the addition of a class analysis: first capitalism lays waste to human and extra-human nature, then at the point it starts troubling the capitalist class, the state and/or voluntary organisations intervene to clean up the mess and regulate to limit further destruction. In the process new markets are created and new terrain of exploitations are crafted that can sustain long-term capitalist growth.
The coronavirus pandemic demonstrates this pattern. It imposed a new necessity on the state to limit social mixing. Science dictated that this could not be achieved solely through restrictions on social gatherings outside of working hours but would also require cessation of “inessential work” and where possible remote working. The state was forced to intervene in the holy of holies of capitalist society — the right of capitalists to exploit “their” workers.
“Kolbert removes the class dynamics from her analysis, so environmental chaos appears to be the result of bumbling scientists”
But: “a state ruled by capitalist and landlord”; so in the UK the government has spent around £140 billion of public money on business support and furlough: ensuring businesses could continue debts and ensuring furloughed workers remained dependent on the good graces of their employers and continued to generate trade for supermarkets, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Zoom, etc. This “socialism for the rich” involved one of the biggest ever transfers of public money to rich people. Thanks also to the pumping-up of financial markets by government easy-money policies, the latest Sunday Times Rich List shows 171 billionaires increasing their wealth by £106.4 billion while millions of zero-hours and insecure workers were pauperised.
At the same time, a study from the International Trade Union Confederation found that just 2% of countries gave adequate support for workers to isolate. Enhancing sick pay would not just cost in the short-term, but tilt the balance of workplace power towards workers in the longer term.
Similarly vaccine nationalism and the defence of Big Pharma’s intellectual property titles mean that the world’s state-sponsored vaccine programs are failing to deliver global herd immunity, consequently increasing the risk that more deadly variants will evolve. Moreover, the underlying cause of the pandemic and future pandemics continues unabated. The rate of deforestation increased by 20% during 2020.
A vicious cycle
The capitalist mode of production is extraordinarily destructive of human and extra-human natures; and its reactive efforts to restrict this destruction and organise clean-up operations are further hampered by the priorities of the capitalist state.
Kolbert’s book argues that the repeated pattern of environmental degradation leading to crisis leading to increased intervention means that solar geoengineering is inevitable. The title of her book, Under a White Sky, refers to the way in which spraying sulphur in the stratosphere will turn the sky from blue to white. This Solar Radiation Management has the advantage over all other climate interventions of being both cheap and quick.
Kolbert cites research that suggests development of a global SRM system would cost just $2.5 billion and involve running costs of $20 billion or so per decade. That’s around 300 times less than the world currently spends each year on fossil fuel subsidies and well within the budget and technological capacity of dozens of countries and even private individuals.
Such a program would cool the planet within a few months, though with some known harmful effects, e.g. acid rain, and no doubt many unknown consequences.
This established pattern of retroactively fixing environmental problems rather than taking proactive measures in response to scientific warnings is not the only basis for expecting geoengineering will be part of the response to climate change. All the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and almost all the scenarios for limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, require massive roll-out of technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as well as massive reductions in CO2 emissions.
Even with steep emissions reductions, we still need a carbon drawdown infrastructure that is comparable in size and scale to the multi-trillion dollar infrastructure currently employed to extract fossil fuels. To make the sums add up, we require a global carbon-capture and storage system capable of drawing down 15 billion tons of CO2 a year. At the moment we have capacity to drawdown 0.028 billion tons a year and only a fraction of that is verifiable.
BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) is the technology of choice for the IPCC. It involves growing plants and then burning them for energy, capturing the CO2 emissions and storing them underground. There are also a number of other technologies that could be used for carbon drawdown.
In her book After Geoengineering Holly Jean Buck explores these technologies, many of which are in development stage. This drawdown technology will be especially important in any future that involves SRM as a stopgap.
“If a regime begins solar geoengineering, it needs to keep putting those particles up there year after year, until carbon emissions are brought down. Thus, the hard thing isn’t beginning the project, but ending it: ensuring that what comes after geoengineering is liveable. This is the battleground that’s currently obscured in most discussions on geoengineering.”
Buck takes the view that geoengineering will almost certainly be part of the way we respond to climate change and that the left needs to engage seriously in this debate rather than hoping that it can be avoided.
“Solar geoengineering is not actually ‘a technology’ — indeed most of these socio-technical systems aren’t. The planes and nozzles, and the software that drives and creates solar geoengineering would be technologies, as are the computer models that indicate it would cool the planet. But while solar geoengineering relies on such technology, it would be more than that... Solar geoengineering and carbon removal would be practices that have aspects of infrastructure and social intervention. They must be wrested from the realm of technology — where only experts are permitted — and seen through the prism of projects, programs, and practices if civil society is going to attempt to shape them in a meaningfully democratic way.”
“Buck takes the view that geoengineering will be part of the way we respond to climate change and the left needs to engage in this debate”
Buck’s book combines accessible discussion of various carbon drawdown technologies with imaginative sci-fi short stories exploring the types of society where these technologies might be deployed. Interestingly she argues that the knowledge and skills needed for many carbon capture technologies are similar to the skills and knowledge currently held by fossil fuel workers, opening possibilities for a credible worker-led just transition for the 1.7 million fossil fuel industry workers.
Buck explores enhanced weathering, ocean sequestration, regenerative agriculture, and various forms of Carbon Capture and Storage. None of those technologies are easy to roll out at scale within a system of competing capitalist states. Carbon removal and solar geoengineering create no new wealth and no commodities. They are the type of ameliorative clean up operations that are usually organised by capitalist states, and a world state does not exist.
It is possible that in the heat of crisis, the capitalist class may well take the revolutionary action necessary to create the institutions and organise this work. But the pattern of reactive state intervention suggests that the impetus for this revolution-from-above will only come when the climate crisis is well underway. All too likely, by the time the capitalist class acts, we will have passed several key tipping points such as the melting of the polar ice caps or the savannahisation of the Amazon.
The world working-class is the only force able to proactively respond to the warnings of scientists before it is too late. Only by workers organising and becoming an independent force can we hope to start the work of a transition from fossil fuels, organise the massive carbon drawdown operation, salvage as much of the earth’s ecosystems as possible and ensure we can maintain basic living standards for the world population.
A proper discussion and understanding of SRM and carbon drawdown technology is necessary to prepare the left and workers’ movement for the battles ahead.