Socialism or extinction
Wildfires in Oregon and California point towards catastrophe in the near future, writes Eddie Ford
Everyone has seen the haunting images of near post-apocalyptic devastation from the wildfires sweeping Oregon and California. Together with those in Washington, they have killed about 30 people, burned millions of acres and enveloped the region in a debilitating smoke that has made west-coast air quality among the very worst in the world.
This year alone, California has seen six of the 30 largest fires on record. In mid-August, a highly unusual barrage of dry lightning sparked infernos that are still burning. They included the monstrous August Lightning Complex - the largest fire in state history, surpassing the Mendocino Complex on 2018. The North Complex explosively grew in size, as the winds fanned it westward, threatening the city of Oroville, and triggering mass evacuations. Then in early September 2020, a combination of a record-breaking heatwave and hot, dry winds sparked even more fires and hellishly fanned those already flaring. In total, 7,718 fires have burned 3.5 million acres of the state’s roughly 100 million acres of land.
In Oregon, some areas have not seen such intense fire in 300 or 400 years - burning over 950,000 acres in 468 fires and destroying several towns, such as Phoenix and Talent. As in California, a combination of unusually high winds and continued dry weather caused the rapid expansion of multiple wildfires - the most destructive being the Almeda Drive Fire (though that might have been human-caused - the authorities have launched a criminal investigation).
Smoke clouds have grown so large that they are cooling temperatures as far east as New York and Washington DC. Residents there are now getting hazy skies and unusual sunrises - a terrible sort of beauty. Indeed, smoke from the fires has spread around the world, with reports of haze as far away as Europe. In terms of air pollution, Oregon has been hardest hit. Tiny bits of smoke and ash known as particulates have reached the highest levels on record in Portland, Eugene, Bend, Medford and Klamath Falls - the air quality in all five cities being rated as “hazardous”. And the effects of wildfire smoke on the human body is profound. For example, within an hour of smoke descending upon the Vancouver area during recent wildfire seasons, the number of ambulance calls for asthma, chronic lung disease and cardiac events increased by 10%.
On the bigger picture, since the 1970s the western US states have experienced three times the amount of “large fires” (fires that burn 1,000 acres or more) that are now burning on average more than 1.7 million acres of land per year - six times the average of 1970. The region has also experienced wildfire seasons that are 78 days longer than they were in 1970. Throughout the whole United States, it has been found that 84% of these wildfires are started by humans. However, from a broader historical perspective, one scientific study has estimated that before reliable records began about 4.5 million acres burned yearly in fires that lasted for months. Wildfires soared roughly every 30 years, as the indigenous peoples of California historically set controlled burns and allowed natural fires to run their course in order to get rid of fire-fuelling dead wood, vegetable matter, debris, etc. You had a similar situation in Australia.
Of course, at the end of last year there were catastrophic fires on that continent - started by strong, highly changeable winds, temperatures above 40 ̊C and widespread drought conditions. The fires were so fierce that they began to form their own weather systems, even creating lightning strikes through pyrocumulonimbus clouds that reduced ground-level sunlight to what we imagine would happen in a nuclear winter. Over 6.3 million hectares went up in flames (one hectare being roughly the size of a sports field). Half a billion animals might have died in New South Wales alone, the wildfires destroying their habitat.
But, back in the US, inevitably, numerous conspiracy theories about the west coast wildfires are circulating - the main one being that ‘Antifa’ activists deliberately started fires in order to loot property. Incredibly, some residents preferred to defend their homes from this ‘threat’ rather than evacuate. One Facebook post shared thousands of times stated: “KXL Radio in Portland reported today that firefighters are now being shot at by suspected Antifa and BLM members.” Another widely shared rumour was that that six Antifa activists had been arrested for starting fires. Conversely, there were also stories about members of far-right groups (especially the ‘Proud Boys’) starting some of them. Former Republican senate candidate Paul Joseph Romero Jr tweeted and retweeted multiple conspiracy theories last week about people being arrested for starting the fires.
Still, such irrationality is only to be expected in Donald Trump’s America. Then again, in the UK people have been destroying 5G masts in the belief that the new high-speed network is to blame for spreading coronavirus - while others think that the vaccines now in development will contain a nano-chip enabling the government to control your thoughts. No country has a monopoly on madness.
The death toll from the west coast wildfires is hardly staggering. In the same period, many more people have probably died from road accidents. But the significance of them is that it points towards global warming and some sort of catastrophic eventuality not that far in the future.
It is certainly true that you cannot draw an equals sign between a particular period of bad weather and then extrapolate global warming from that - far too simple: there is a difference between climate and weather. Extreme weather lasting beyond a year is the accepted academic definition of climate change: in other words, lightning strikes, high temperatures, highly variable up-and-down weather happening again and again within an extremely concentrated period, reaching extremes often not seen before. In the context of the recent wildfires, Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, has argued that the wildfires should be rebranded as “climate fires” and called climate change “a blowtorch over our states in the west”. As for Oregon’s governor, she has described the fires as “truly the bellwether for climate change on the west coast”. If you do not believe in climate change, just come to California or Oregon.
In mild old Britain - surrounded as it is by water - summers are getting much hotter on average. Therefore rainfall is becoming more intense. Most people look at what is going on and rightly draw the conclusion that something is going seriously wrong with the climate - too many extreme events too many times. However, if you look at what is being proposed as a solution to the problem, you have to conclude in all honesty that it is nowhere near enough. We go from straightforward denialism or the shrug of the shoulders of a Donald Trump to the more relatively enlightened politicians whose answers are bland and pathetic. They want to ban plastic bags or whatever - pure gesture politics. Plenty of international conferences and handwringing, photo shots with Greta Thunberg, etc, but no attempt - quite understandably from their point of view - to get to the root cause, which is capitalism.
It would be impossible to invent a system as ecological destructive as capitalism, under which the logic of capital itself ensures that the system itself shapes everything. Capitalists and establishment politicians might express their concern about ecological destruction - which can be totally sincere - but the reality is that they are trapped inside a system that obliges the pursuit of ever greater profits: production for the sake of production, accumulation for the sake of accumulation.
With big capital, it is not a question of satisfying personal needs or vanities. Rather, the system has its own inner logic that forces itself upon everyone - politicians, industrialists and bankers. Now, it is true that the Soviet Union’s record on the environment was absolutely appalling - nuclear waste discarded all over the place, mad agricultural experiments, plans to divert the course of rivers using nuclear bombs, and all the rest of it. But the key difference is that under capitalism those sorts of decisions are forced upon capital by the system itself - one that is pre-programmed for chaos and destruction.
There is much talk at the moment about a ‘green new deal’. But, when you scratch the surface, it amounts to nothing more than tinkering - free urban transport, tax on major polluters, etc - not to mention large doses of technological quackery. Yet none of them deal with the nature of the capitalist system itself, as that would mean acknowledging that the only viable alternative is socialism: the supersession of production for the sake of production and its replacement by production for need. This is not some dream of Promethean super-abundance, where every whim is indulged. Quite the opposite: it means a very different socio-economic system that elevates inter-personal relationships way above material possessions or climbing the greasy pole.
For communists, catastrophic climate change poses the necessity of combining the minimum programme - based on what is technically achievable under capitalism - with the vision of the maximum programme and the means of achieving it as an urgent necessity. In other words, any attempt to go into this question just equipped with the minimum programme is woefully inadequate - let alone those comrades on the left who like to sprinkle transitional fairy dust on minimalist demands that are not up to the job. It is not enough to merely put forward demands that either capitalism can or cannot meet, and imagine that is going to equip our movement with the vision and understanding it needs in terms of its historic task - and actually saving humanity from ecological disaster.
Given the sheer scale of the problem, there must be a particular emphasis on realising the maximum programme in the shortest feasible time.