Reading on environment emergencies

Submitted by AWL on 8 December, 2021 - 9:20 Author: Stuart Jordan
Climate struggle = class struggle

In his thought-provoking book on the pandemic, The Revenge of the Real, Benjamin Bratton argues that human society has a “sensing layer”: an infrastructure of technology and a knowledge base that allows us to know what is going on with increasing accuracy

Effective socialist organisations and the workers movement in general also need a “sensing layer”. Our efficacy is based in part on our ability to describe reality squarely. With this in mind, and with the prospect of long winter nights ahead and Christmas stockings that need to be filled, I want to suggest a few books of popular science writing that should be on every socialist’s bookshelf.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s work The Sixth Extinction describes how in recent decades scientists began to realise that we are living through one of planet Earth’s great mass extinctions: times when the evolutionary tree is collapses in on itself, whole boughs are lopped off.

There have been five mass extinctions in the past caused by climate change, meteors and similar. The cause of the current mass extinction is us, humans, and although this process has accelerated in the last few centuries our tendency for wiping out species is as old as homo sapiens. Kolbert’s interesting conclusion is that the extinctions have been driven by humanity’s innate sociability and curiosity: qualities that we prize most highly. Moreover, this is a cause for hope. It is these very same qualities that have given us the knowledge that we need to halt this process.

Kolbert’s work draws on the astonishing insights of modern geology and two of the foremost geologists, Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, have written an extremely accessible account of the history of planet Earth: The Human Planet: How we created the Anthropocene. Lewis and Maslin are at the forefront of the debate to get our current epoch reclassified as the Anthropocene.

Whilst firmly based in the science, Lewis and Maslin draw heavily on the work of classical political economists, including Marx, adding an ecological element by quantifying how different forms of human society are able to extract different quantities of energy from their environment. The book is full of ideas that challenge naïve mother Earth type environmentalism. For example, they argue that the climatic stability of the Holocene is an unintended consequence of settled agriculture. Their work is extremely helpful to our efforts to describe a class struggle environmentalism.

Beyond these sweeping histories of planet Earth there are a few books that are excellent primers on specific ecological crises that we face in the near future. David Archer’s The Long Thaw is a comprehensive guide to sea level rise and the dramatic impacts of climate change on the polar ice caps. In Ocean of Life, oceanographer Callum Roberts gives a comprehensive guide to the impacts of capitalist society on the world’s oceans. It contains one of the only popular accounts of ocean acidification, the other CO2 problem that is little known about or discussed on the environmental left. Holly Jean Buck’s After Geoengineering helps us to imagine how different geoengineering and carbon drawdown technologies may shape the future.

Workers’ Liberty is organising a monthly reading group to focus on environmental issues. The quality of these discussions, and the quality of our political activism that will flow from these discussions, depends on developing a broad understanding of the latest science. A working-class response to our time of ecological breakdown will come from developing a collective understanding of our current reality, a “sensing layer” for the workers’ movement that is up to task.

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