What is the connection between the coronavirus and the climate crisis?Andreas Malm’s brilliant polemic Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, written within a matter of weeks as the worldwide lockdown took hold, argues that their common root and cure are in plain view, if we are willing to see, and act.
COVID-19 is not an act of God that came out of a clear blue sky, but, like climate change, the consequence of rapacious extraction of the Earth’s resources. As we pry ever deeper into the primordial wildernesses where viruses lurk for materials and animals to buy and sell, hacking down tropical forests, blowing up limestone caverns, and draining wetlands, we drive out the diseases and their carriers: bats, rats, mice, anthropods, mosquitoes and locusts. For Malm it’s ‘rather as if the human economy had resolved to lift up the container of coronaviruses and other pathogens and pour the load over itself.’
The book is shot through with biblical imagery of plague and pestilence, but Malm finds his lodestar in the urgent rhetoric of a 20th century prophet. The Bolshevik leader Lenin, surveying the desperate situation of Russia in September 1917, riven by war, famine and economic breakdown, urged that the powers of the state must be seized and directed against what he saw as the root causes of the crisis of his day–the chronic conflict generated by warring capitalist empires. Malm sketches an ‘ecological Leninism’ for today, a programme for marshalling the hard power of the state to rewire an economic system that is destroying us.
Use of the imagery of ‘war communism’ is bold even for the Marxist writer of Fossil Capital and The Progress of this Storm. But if Malm offends, that is his intention: ‘When there is a threat to the health or even physical existence of a population one doesn’t leave it to the least conscientious individuals to play with the fire as they want. One snatches the matches out of their hands.’
Disturbing the hornets’ nest
Our crisis, he argues, is systemic. Individual, companies, industries and nations do not intend to destabilise the conditions that support our civilisation by ripping up the planet’s ecosystems. The economic machine in which they are entangled is hardwired to do so. And as it careers onwards it disturbs more and more of the pathogens that have lived for millions of years in the depths of tropical forests, the recesses of cave systems, and the mephitic atmospheres of marshes, lagoons and swamps.
Most of those viruses have been contained within the luxuriant ecosystems that proliferate around the equator, able to move between thousands of hosts before exhausting themselves. There has always been the possibility of ‘Zoonotic spillover’, the process by which a microbe leaps from its habitual animal carrier to a human intruder. These transmissions are only as frequent as we allow them to be: so long as we don’t poke our hand into the hornets’ nest, we don’t get stung.
But as widening circuits of global trade have compelled the clearing of ancient forests, the mining of caverns and the bleeding dry of wetlands, the natural barriers between humans and the carriers of pathogens are breaking down.
Soaring demand for beef, soybean, palm oil and wood accounts for much of the depletion, as loggers and farmers cut into the heart of great forests such as the Amazon, the Ecuadorian Yasuni and the Indonesian Harapan. Some 70 per cent of the total agricultural land of Malaysia and Indonesia is now devoted exclusively to the production of palm oil. The hydrocarbons and mining industries have also established their presence, opening up timeless fastnesses such as the peatlands of the Congo basin, an ancient rainforest harbouring colonies of viruses that have slept undisturbed–until now.
And as the loggers and drillers move in, the pathogens and their carriers flood out: rats, mosquitos, insects, and, above all, bats, the most effective of viral agents, sheltering thousands of coronaviruses in dense roosts where as many as 3,000 individuals can congregate in a square metre.
The hollowing out of the world’s great biospheres has–and continues to be–primarily driven by demand from wealthy northern countries for ever more rarefied commodities:
[T]he American appetite for hamburgers is satisfied from pastures carved out of the Amazon. The import of coffee to the North presupposes deforestation in the tropical belt. Chocolate consumed in the most tremendous quantities in Switzerland, Germany and Austria and supplied by a mirroring top trio of Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia comes from cocoa trees grown where wild forests once stood.
‘A drizzle of viruses’
Increasingly intense extraction has seeded a bloom of viruses. Since the turn of the millennium outbreaks have followed in quick succession: Nipah, West Nile, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika. The coronavirus is merely the first to move beyond their habitual seedbeds in Asia, Africa and South America.
The replication of northern consumption patterns in Southeast Asia provided the ideal conditions for the genesis of COVID-19. The wet markets of Wuhan have become ever more decadent and reckless in response to demand from prosperous consumers. Just as the western world increasingly demands novelties such as zebra steaks, crocodile sausages, whale, camel and python meat, so Wuhan’s wealthy patrons have come to expected ever more carnivalesque displays of pangolins, flying-foxes, racoons, dogs and rats.
Nearly 20 per cent of all the world’s species have now been commodified. And, as at Wuhan, viruses lurk among them. Unrestrained consumption ‘violently shakes the tree where bats and other animals live. Out falls a drizzle of viruses.’
Extraction means global heating, which means more viruses. Depletion of forests and wetlands diminishes their capacity to soak up and sequester carbon dioxide. And rising global temperatures open opportunities for the carriers of pathogens to move northwards beyond their ancient tropical habitats. An alarming story somewhat lost amid the noise when the pandemic took hold was the appearance of swarms of locusts more than 20 times larger than normal–embodying an area three times that of New York–across east African and west Asia. As temperatures rise they may even be able to glide over the mountain ranges that until now have confined them to southern regions.
The pandemic has inspired comparison with the great plagues of the past. But Malm suggests our predicament is different and, modern medicine not withstanding, in some ways worse. He acknowledges the parallels with the decline and fall of Rome drawn in Kyle Harper’s intriguing 2017 study The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, detailing how imperial expansion pulled in diseases causing outbreaks that shook the classical world’s foundations with catastrophes such as the Antoninian and Justinian Plagues.
But empires have risen and fallen and risen again. Today’s pandemics are entangled with climate change, a chronic ecological rupture. COVID-19 threatens to be one of ‘an avalanche of missiles’ that will continue to rain down over centuries. The process can only be stopped by inoculating ourselves against the unchecked extraction that Malm, in one of the book’s boldest images, suggests is itself a virus:
Capital doesn’t mean to destroy the intricate cellular structures of wild nature; it doesn’t have an intention formed in the mind and then engage in efforts to realise it–there is just no other way for it to replicate. … Unlike other parasites, this one cannot stay content with vegetating in the furs or veins of other species for millions of years of co-evolutionary equilibrium. It can subsist solely by expanding and, in this sense, it exhibits a sort of permanent pandemicity; it doesn’t return to lurk in the shadows until the next visitation, like Ebola or Nipah. Once it had leapt out its reservoir host on the British Isles, it commenced the long historical work of subsuming wild nature on this planet, be it in the form of a palm oil plantation, a bauxite mine, a wet market or a rat farm. All of these and uncountable other entities represent wild nature dragged into the chain of value, and given the biological fact that pathogenic microbes are constituent elements of such nature, capital must call them up too.
Impending catastrophe, then and now
Looking for a way forward, Malm, whose previous works have elaborated Marx’s concept of metabolic rift–the imbalance in our relationship with nature wrought by unsustainable production–turns to Lenin’s essay The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It, written on the eve of the 1917 October Revolution.
There, Lenin, drawing on Marx’s stark assessment in the The Communist Manifesto that the fight for socialism will end ‘either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes’, argued that the devastation wrought by the war was the inevitable endpoint of competition between empires for resources: humanity had to ‘choose between perishing’ or transitioning to ‘a superior mode of production’.
For Lenin the way out was both impossible and obvious: to dare to use ‘the rich store of control measures’ the Russian government, like the other warring nations, had already designed and exercised during the conflict to plan production and prevent food systems collapsing. But with a critical difference: rather than being employed to defend the status quo they should be used to overturn it. The powers of the capitalist state should be used against capitalism itself.
Like Lenin, Malm rejects the left alternatives of social democracy and anarchism as inadequate to the scale of the crisis. Social democracy is fatally entangled with a capitalist system of overproduction that is the root cause of our predicament. And by forsaking the power of the state anarchism denies itself the agency necessary to act at sufficient scale. Lenin urged something new: a state prepared to use its powers to wrench Russia onto a new path: to withdraw from the war, to commandeer the grain supply, to take control of the banking system, to redirect production for communal need.
Malm imagines what a systematic climate change programme charged with similar urgency might look like. It would audit supply chains and import flows to determine the extent of resource extraction from the south to the north. It would pare those supply chains down to a minimum of essential goods. It would redirect resources to the rewinding and reforesting of regions worn down by northern consumption. It would ban the import of meat, especially beef, investing plant proteins. And so on: in brief, it would do whatever is necessary to establish trade circuits that do not continually extract and exploit. Above all, it would require planning: ‘Comprehensive, airtight planning. Everybody knows this. Few say it.’
Malm points to recent instances of where a strong state has pushed through the noise and forced through effective climate change mitigation measures. During his tenure as Brazilian President, Lula oversaw a significant reduction in the deforestation of the Amazon, expanding protected areas and enforcing forest codes against illegal logging, measures that slashed Brazil’s CO2 emissions by some 40 per cent. And although the Chinese state’s prolific use of coal has been an environmental catastrophe, it has pushed through a massive reforestation programme.
Malm echoes Lenin’s call that ‘war must be declared on the oil barons and shareholders’. For Lenin that meant socialising the industry to ramp up production for the construction of a new Soviet state. Today we need public control to manage the sunsetting of the industry. But radically reducing fossil fuel production and phasing out carbon emissions will not be enough. We need to drawdown the excess carbon already in the atmosphere. The exceptional circumstances of the pandemic reduced emissions by some 5 per cent. But a 7.6 per cent reduction is needed every year over the next decade to keep within the Paris Agreement targets.
Only the state has the power to roll out the direct air capture technologies we need at sufficient scale. And only the state can redirect the oil and gas industry away from carbon production towards carbon capture and burial: ‘The demand for nationalising fossil fuel companies and turning them into direct air capture utilities should be the central transitional demand for the coming years.’
An ‘acid taste’
Malm acknowledges that the harsh language of ‘rationing, reallocating, requisitioning, sanctioning, ordering’ leaves an ‘acid taste’. But this is what needs to be done:
Here we truly are in the situation of Lenin’s September text: everybody knows what measures need to be taken; everybody knows, on some level of their consciousness, that flights inside continents should stay grounded, private jets banned, cruise ships safely dismantled, turbines and panels mass produced–there’s a whole auto industry waiting for the order–subways and bus lines expanded, high-speed rail lines built, old houses refurbished and all the magnificent rest.
The ‘classical Marxist dream of a humanity liberated in a land of abundance’–which finds contemporary expression in manifestos for a technologically advanced ‘luxury communism’–must be sidelined for the foreseeable future: ‘those elements of the climate movement and the left that pretend that none of these needs to happen, that there will be no sacrifices or discomforts for ordinary people, are not being honest.’
Lenin of course was that rarest of polemicists: one who got the opportunity to follow through on his words. And follow them through he did, not without brutality. Malm acknowledges the cruelties of ‘actually existing’ war communism: the authoritarianism, the food requisitions at gunpoint, the militarisation of labour, the summary executions to enforce discipline in the ranks. The experience ‘of civil war ‘deposited a poison of brutalised power in the heart of the workers’ state, to which it eventually fell victim’. Freedom of expression and assembly must be sacrosanct, however dire the emergency.
But planning allowed resourcefulness. At the start of the conflict the White and allied forces held 99 per cent of the coal and 97 per cent of the oil resources that had powered the pre-war Russian state. Surrounded on all sides, and forced to live completely by their own means by an import blockade, the Soviets marshalled the resources they did have effectively, constructing a functioning ‘biofueled workers’ state’ using the boreal forests that blanketed the Russia that remained to them for construction, heat and energy. And despite having to fell so much timber, they were conscious of the need to preserve, setting half of the forests aside as inviolable ‘monuments of nature’. That legacy persists: Russia still has more pure wildernesses than other nation.
Like Lenin’s essays, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency is in the best tradition of the polemic: the anger controlled, the urgency palpable, the imagery vivid, the case emphatically made, agree with it or not. And like Lenin, Malm is writing at a time of emergency. The critical difference, of course, is that Lenin wrote in the knowledge that a revolutionary vanguard was close to power.
Today’s left, at least that section offering a transformative agenda, is nowhere near. For all the talk of Green New Deals, by and large progressives retain faith in the sufficiency of a gradualist path to climate mitigation, placing hope in renewables technology and market mechanisms: solar, wind and batteries, carbon pricing and capture. In his anger Malm does not acknowledge that there is a certain tough-mindedness in pragmatism too: we need to do what we can within the context of the current political and economic environment, with the imperfect tools it affords. That means pressing for more investment in clean energy, for carbon taxes, for market regulation, and perhaps even for nuclear power and some forms of geoengineering.
But as the crisis bites harder, governments will have to take some or all of the tougher measures Malm anticipates. And the right, not the left, might be positioned to use it. Nationalist authoritarianism of various degrees has already taken hold in several nations: China, Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Russia, the United States, and to some extent the United Kingdom.
The pandemic has illustrated the public will accept harsh measures if the threat is close by. Malm: ‘No road map, no manifesto, no vision from the climate movement … ever sketched anything like the meteor storm of state interventions that hit the planet in March 2020, and yet we were always told that we were being unrealistic, unpragmatic, dreamers or alarmists. Never again should such lies be given a hearing.’
The challenge for the left would seem to be to ensure that it, not the authoritarian right, has the keys to the state when the eye of the storm arrives. That day seems some way off. Whomever holds power, and whatever one thinks of his analysis, Malm, echoing Lenin, is surely right about this: it is necessary to act now–‘this very evening, this very night’.